- Written by Andrea Gross Andrea Gross
So tangy with spices and sweet with molasses that they’ve become a traditional holiday treat, so fragile that they’re often called “glass cookies” because they’ll shatter if dropped, Moravian cookies hold a special place in the hearts and stomachs of millions of folks.
But who are these Moravians, and how did their cookies become such an integral part of so many people’s holiday celebrations?
To find out, my husband and I go to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, one of the two largest Moravian communities in the United States, the other being Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
The town, located about 100 miles west of Raleigh, is both a thoroughly modern city of approximately a quarter million people and the home of Old Salem, a living history site that is so well preserved it has been declared a National Historic Landmark.
The modern city is known for its vibrant arts scene, culinary delights (many of which are Moravian-inspired), and nearness to the more than 40 vineyards of Yadkin Valley.
But for us, the draw is historic Old Salem. It’s not as well known as Williamsburg or Sturbridge, and while today’s Moravians blend into the dominant population in a way that the Amish with their distinctive dress do not, Old Salem provides visitors with a close-up view of life in the mid-18th century.
The Moravians are a religious group whose core beliefs are similar to those of other Protestant denominations, differing mainly in the details of specific rituals and practices. They left the old Central
European countries of Bohemia and Moravia in the early 1700s and came to America seeking religious freedom and economic opportunity.
After stints in Georgia and Pennsylvania, they arrived in North Carolina, where in 1766 they founded the town of Salem. They soon became known for their hard work, fine craftsmanship, business ingenuity, and their absolutely delicious, supremely delicate, paper-thin cookies.
Meanwhile, as the Moravian community flourished, the nearby secular city of Winston also became a thriving industrial center. In 1913 the two towns merged into a hyphenated whole, now known as Winston-Salem.
As we walk through the business district of Old Salem, an interpreter, clad in a traditional outfit that shows how people dressed during the heyday of the community, explains that the main ingredients for the traditional cookies — molasses, ginger, and cinnamon — were hard to come by in the Old Country, but an experienced baker could stretch the dough into incredibly thin sheets.
This literally made it go further and feed more. Why, some folks could roll the dough so thin that an inch-high stack would contain upwards of 16 cookies — a Christmas gift indeed!
Many of the stores on the main street have two doors, one that traditionally led into a sales area and the other that opened into the owner’s home. Highly trained volunteers are hard at work inside some of the buildings, where they demonstrate historic trades, such as woodworking and gunsmithing.
Nearby is the Moravian Log Church, which was built in 1823 to serve Salem’s African and African-American residents, most of whom were enslaved.
In 1861 it was replaced by St. Philips Church, now one of oldest existing African-American churches in the United States. It was from this new pulpit that a Union Army Cavalry chaplain read the Emancipation Proclamation to the congregants.
Equally interesting is the Salem Tavern, a place to house “outsiders” as they passed through town on business. When it was built in 1784 to replace an older one that had been destroyed by fire, it was deliberately constructed without windows on the first floor.
“After all,” says our guide, “the townspeople didn’t need to know what all those outside folks might be up to!”
Today the tavern is a museum, best known as a sleeping spot for George Washington, who stayed there for two nights while making good on his campaign promise to visit every state if elected.
Finally, we go to Mrs. Hanes’ Hand-Made Moravian Cookie Shop. It isn’t physically part of Old Salem — it’s 10 miles away — but culturally it’s as authentic as it can be. Owner Evva Foltz Hanes learned to make Moravian cookies from her mother, who in turn traces cookie-making in her family back six generations.
Today Mrs. Hanes’ shop, employing the famed Moravian penchant for resourcefulness, makes cookies in a variety of flavors, from traditional ginger to crispy chocolate, and ships them all over the world. This is why people can happily enjoy Moravian Christmas cookies even in mid-July!
Photos by Irv Green