HOLLADAY, Utah — Ten years ago, Georganne Bell was a lonely Army wife stationed in South Korea with two small children and an oven so small she couldn’t fit a 9-by-11-inch cake pan into it.
Baking cakes had always been her creative outlet, but without a decent oven all she could make were cookies. They quickly became her obsession. She found solace in cutting patterns from stiff dough, stirring color and water into powdered sugar, and rhythmically applying royal icing to the blank face of a sugar cookie.
“There’s something about the way the royal icing settles that is intensely calming,” she said, in her home kitchen in this Salt Lake City suburb. “You can forget everything else for just a minute.”
Katy Metoyer practices the art of cookie decorating at Sugar Dayne, her store in Hermosa Beach, Cali. She named it after her eldest son.CreditElizabeth Lippman for The New York Times
Cookies saved Katy Metoyer, too. The mother of two who started making them when her younger son went off to school six years ago. Then her father, her biggest champion and inspiration, died unexpectedly.
For the next 10 months, Ms. Metoyer, 47, barely left her house in Hermosa Beach, Calif. Instead, she decorated what she guesses might have been 10,000 cookies. “I would make 50 of them at a time and look at them, and then throw them away,” she said. “It was my addiction, my therapy.”
What began as a way to feel better ended up making both women stars — at least among the tight, congenial subset of home bakers who refer to themselves as cookiers.
There are tens of thousands of people across the United States who may identify themselves as cookiers, and even more if you include ambitious parents who attempt to customize sugar cookies as an inexpensive way to mark a child’s birthday, and those who ponder cookie decorating only now, as Christmas nears.
Some sell cookies to neighbors and friends. Others have turned their garages into commercial enterprises. Many just give them away as gifts. And at the top of the heap are the bakers who might best be described as cookie famous: women like Ms. Bell and Ms. Metoyer, who can command $7 per cookie and $450 for a daylong decorating lesson.
The cookie elite have websites with tutorials and advice that draw enough traffic to bring in thousands of dollars a month. Their signature cookie-cutters are coveted and their Instagram accounts flourish. Videos, in which cookies are piped and flooded with icing with mesmerizing precision, pull down millions of views.
Ben Clark runs Ann Clark Cookie Cutters, a company in Rutland, Vt., that his parents started by selling pig-themed cutting boards and ornaments at craft fairs. He came on board and helped grow the business into the largest manufacturer of cookie cutters in America.
Even though the company sells more than four million cookie cutters a year — including designs by star cookiers like Ms. Bell — Mr. Clark had no idea how big the cookier community was or how elevated the art form had become until he attended its convention, CookieCon, a few of years ago.
“The cookiers there are the very top of the game,” he said. “If you are making football cleats, they are the N.F.L.”
The cookier’s art begins with a simple canvas: The base is always a rolled sugar cookie, usually vanilla, although Ms. Bell has made her mark with a soft cocoa powder dough that tastes like a brownie’s trim cousin and doesn’t need refrigeration before it’s rolled.
Most of the cookies have a crisp, slightly powdery texture, underscored by the crunch of dried royal icing. Certain cookiers — maybe 20 percent, by some estimates — advocate glaze or buttercream. But you can never get the surface as smooth with buttercream as you can by flooding a cookie with royal icing, and artistic expression is limited with glaze.
For the real pros, it’s all about pushing the limits of design with an arsenal of tools that can include food-coloring pens, edible silver, airbrush guns, fondant or wafer paper.
There are cookiers who specialize in 3-D images or sculpture. There are realists and traditionalists. Some designs are distinctly modern, others more whimsical. Students of cookie culture can look at one and know who made it.
“People who tend to do cookies are always finding new techniques to communicate through cookies and sugar,” said Elizabeth Adams, 40, an instructor and blogger in Paso Robles, Calif., who goes by the name Arty McGoo. She has been selected to deliver the keynote speech at next year’s CookieCon.
Unlike those who design cookies to be preserved like art, Ms. Adams wants people to eat hers. She tinkers with citrus zest and flavor combinations in the dough and the icing. This time of year, she likes to mix orange and clove.
“If it didn’t taste good, I might as well be painting on a canvas,” she said.
American cookie decorating stretches back to colonial days, but there has never been a golden age like this one. Corporations looking to promote their brands are turning to logo-bearing cookies instead of pens and stress balls. One family ordered cookies bearing an image of their father’s vintage Mustang for his funeral.
Last year, Food Network introduced Christmas Cookie Challenge with Ree Drummond, the Pioneer Woman, as lead judge. Cookies shaped like hands bearing engagement rings are serving as a way to announce pending nuptials. (One London jeweler recently offered each bride a cookie replica of her hand, and ring, ready-made for posting on social media.)
Behind all those little iced art pieces is a distinct community of like-minded people which rose up on the shoulders of cookiers who were feeling isolated, and who valued supporting each other over competition.
“It formed because — and I don’t know a better way to say it — we needed to find people who were as crazy as us,” said Callye Alvarado, 37, a cookier from Lubbock, Tex., who goes by the online name Sweet Sugarbelle. Ms. Alvarado, whose husband works in the oil fields and who has four children at home, is by most accounts the founder of the modern cookier community.
“We call her the queen,” Ms. Metoyer said. “Seriously, I worshiped her when I started all of this.”
The two have since become close friends and teaching companions. Ms. Metoyer runs a cookie shop in a former Chinese restaurant in Hermosa Beach she named Sugar Dayne after her oldest son.
Ms. Alvarado graduated from making cookies as gifts for friends to selling cookies from her home kitchen. Now she has given up large-scale baking altogether, and instead spends her time designing a line of food-coloring pens, cookie cutters and other tools that she sells at craft-store chains and on the Home Shopping Network. She is known for her cute, simple designs and for reinterpreting the cookie cutter so each can be used for more than one design.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the latest wave of cookie decorating began, but it was likely about 10 years ago, when crafters and other hobbyists began to find each other in large numbers on platforms like Flickr and Facebook.
Now, Instagram is the cookier’s playing field (Ms. Alvarado has 173,000 followers), although there are more than 100 Facebook groups organized by cookiers.
The people who kicked off the trend were, for the most part, D.I.Y. mothers who didn’t work outside the home but had little interest in scrapbooking or other crafts.
“We are weirdly extroverted introverts,” Ms. Metoyer said. “We spend 95 percent of the time at home alone but chattering on social media. I am always alone, but never feel alone. We are there for each other. If someone’s husband loses a job, there’s a Target gift card on their doorstep the next day.”
There are straightedge moms in Michigan and gay doctors in Georgia, Mormons in Utah and surfers in California, all bonded in the creative pursuit of cookie. Pam Sneed, whose Instagram handle is Cookie Crazie, is a self-proclaimed Jesus-following vegan grandmother.
“Either they have a job where they don’t have close friends, or they are looking for an outlet because their kids are stressing them out, or their job is stressing them out and they need something that makes them feel better and happier,” said Ms. Bell, who often makes so many cookies she sometimes can’t get her children or her neighbors in Salt Lake City to take them anymore.
The only time many meet face to face is at CookieCon, which began in 2012 when 200 cookiers gathered in Salt Lake City. The next one will be in March in Reno, Nev. The 800 slots were filled in less than a day, and the waiting list continues to grow.
“It’s a bright spot in a world that sometimes is a little negative,” said Karen Summers, who sold cookie-making equipment online until she started running CookieCon full time with her husband, Mike.
CookieCon became one of Arlene Chua’s most life-changing experiences, which is saying a lot for a senior treasury analyst on Wall Street who immigrated to the United States from the Philippines as a child.
Ms. Chua, 40, is one of what might be called the next wave of cookiers. Her designs are less whimsical and more technically driven. They are intended as art, not snacks. On Sunday, she’ll be a contestant on Christmas Cookie Challenge. It’s her second go-round on the show. She took second place last year, losing, she thinks, because she used a chocolate cookie as her base.
“It was too nontraditional for the judges,” she said.
Like many of the cookiers before her, she came to the craft during a crisis. Her mother died of cancer at her home on Staten Island. On one of the many sleepless nights that followed, she found a cookie-decorating video on Facebook.
“I went downstairs and used a Ziploc and decorated my first cookie that night,” she said. She spent the next year decorating cookies whenever she could. She won a ticket to CookieCon in a contest Ms. Metoyer organized.
Ms. Chua spent almost 10 hours decorating a cookie that won third place at the convention. “It put me on the cookie map,” she said.
Ms. Chua remains amazed that something that began as a salve for her grief has become the thing she thinks about the most. It’s the cookies, yes. But also the cookiers, which she describes as a unique tribe that manages to put cultural and political differences aside.
Cookies, she said, have brought her close to people she would otherwise never give the time of day, like her roommate at CookieCon, who was an ardent Trump supporter. Ms. Chua can’t stand the president.
“We just pushed it aside,” she said. “I can’t explain it. We are all connected by cookies, and that’s all that matters.”