On their birthdays, each of the 300 or so residents of the Village at Summerville (formerly Presbyterian Home) can expect a gift from Fran Barnard: a dozen homemade cookies sealed in an airtight baggie, along with a card of good wishes from "The Cookie Lady."
That amounts to baking four or five days a week and some 3,600 cookies a year. She's been doing it since 2004, so that's roughly 36,000 cookies over the past decade.
And that doesn't count the cookies for those who are sick or the muffins made for those who've lost a loved one.
Here's the kicker: Fran is 98 years old.
Oh, and she also makes time for card games - Hand-and-foot (a canasta relative) and bridge - five afternoons a week.
But the baking is her priority. "It has brought me great joy," she says. "It's truly amazing to me that one dozen cookies means so much to somebody."
This one-woman cookie factory keeps a thick "birthday book" in which she logs names and dates of upcoming birthdays to make her plans for baking. A ceramic cannister on her kitchen counter contains a trove of 100 recipes, though she relies mostly on 15 or so tried-and-true cookie favorites. And she makes it all happen in a tiny square of a kitchen, perhaps 8 by 10 feet, with an apartment-size stove.
Over it hangs a framed needlepoint that reads something to the effect that "a balanced diet is a cookie in each hand."
And around the corner in the guest bedroom is a small freezer packed with cookies at the ready.
Tie that binds
Fran's family has deep roots in the Lowcountry. Her mother was a Rabb from Yemassee and her father a Sellers from Charleston. Her grandfather Sellers was a overseer for three Middleton family plantations (in the now ACE Basin area) at the time of the Civil War.
Fran herself was born in Savannah. But by the tender age of 10, she had already lost both her parents. "I was a sad, sad little girl," she says.
That's when older sister, Tedie, took Fran under her wing and started teaching her to cook. Fran says the experience "rescued me" from deep despair.
They started with baking cookies that they took to the "poor folks home," as people called it back then, and hospitals. "From that moment on, I just loved to cook. Wherever I have lived, I have been deeply involved in cooking.
Nearly a century later, it's clear that cooking is the thread that has stitched together Fran's long and interesting life.
Fran also had two other sisters, Dot and Kitty, as well as a brother, Bach. Through the years, the four Sellers sisters exchanged weekly letters, and seldom did a letter arrive without a recipe inside.
Fran and her late husband, Robert Barnard, also shared a love of cooking - there's a photo of a roasted suckling pig for a New Year's Day dinner in 1962, for instance.
The two met in a Rome, Ga., hospital during World War II. She was a Red Cross worker and he was a wounded soldier from Hackensack, N.J., who served in the country's first Special Forces commando unit, nicknamed "the Devil's Brigade."
Anyway, they married and raised three sons as his corporate career took the family to cities across the Northeast: Hackensack; Rochester, N.Y.; and Southport, Conn., where she operated a catering company for a time.
Upon his retirement, he fulfilled a promise: they returned to the South to live, settling in Beaufort. Years later, in 2001, they moved to the Village at Summerville. Her beloved Bob passed away in 2010.
The other hobby
Fran has another hobby that engages her mind on a daily basis. She loves to pen letters and notes the old-fashioned way, in cursive handwriting (and books, but more on that later).
"I do not even have a cell phone," she says proudly. "I don't have one single thing of modern technology. Exactly zero. And I get along just fine." And, "I'm the Post Office's best customer, they tell me." She records in a notebook the people she has written to that day, and the entries are at least two or three deep.
This summer, one of those letters went out to the Andes Candies company in Delevan, Wis.
Fran had a dilemma: Her most popular cookie is made with Andes Peppermint Crunch Baking Chips, and she had run out, as they are typically available only during the holiday baking season.
She asked, did they have any in the freezer that she could buy?
Next thing you know, a big box came in the mail. Inside was a cooler with 12 packages of the chips along with a letter from Tootsie Roll Industries in Chicago, the parent company of Andes.
"We're pleased to learn that you enjoy baking for your fellow residents with our (chips). While the cookies and cakes you share with everyone are certainly appreciated, we feel your kind, generous spirit is what makes your birthday gifts such a big hit. ... We are sending you a complimentary supply of chips to tide you over until they are available again."
Fran was amazed, but it also affirmed for her "the power of personal, handwritten letter and the heart of a large corporation like Tootsie Roll Industries."
"What affected me most with that letter, it didn't say 'Dear Mrs. Barnard,' it said 'Dear Fran.' That really, really touched my heart," she says.
Yes, Fran obviously knows something about "heart" - it's been a sustaining force for her long life, along with the writing.
In addition to all those letters, she compiled and wrote a self-published "The Sellers Sisters Cookbook" in 2006 at age 90. So far, 1,500 have sold, with profits going to the Employee Christmas Fund at the Village.
And that's not all: She wrote a 160-page personal memoir for her family in 2010 at 94 and put together an inch-plus-thick "pictorial" book the next year filled with photos, newspaper clippings, letters and other cherished materials chronicling her and her family's lives.
People at The Village say Fran is amazing.
"She is truly an inspiration, that aging doesn't mean you have to slow down at all," says administrator Robin Miller.
Friend Marjorie Pritchard says residents marvel at her energy. "She's always thinking of others. That's what keeps her young."
I couldn't help but ask, what's her take on the secret to longevity?
Fran believes that it's important to have a positive impact on things you can control in life, and to accept the things you can't change.
"I'm very big on attitude. I was taught early on that my attitude was really going to put the focus in my life. ... Always keep on trying to do whatever you can do to please people."
Andes Peppermint Crunch Cookies
Makes 100 cookies
2 sticks softened butter
1 cup dark brown sugar
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
13/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup 1-minute oatmeal
1 cup sweetened grated coconut
1 cup chopped pecans
1 (10-ounce) package Andes Peppermint Crunch Baking Chips (see cook's note)
Cook's note: Fran says, since the chips are hard to find, she takes 2 bags and divides them into 3 recipes, which equals 11/3 cups of chips per recipe.
Preheat oven to 300 degrees.
Cream softened butter and sugars 3 minutes. Beat in egg and vanilla.
Combine the flour with the baking soda and salt. Slowly beat into mixture. Stir in oatmeal, coconut, pecans and chips. Roll into small balls and place 2 inches apart on a lightly greased cookie sheet. Press lightly with a fork.
Bake 12 to 15 minutes. Do not overbake - watch. Remove from cookie sheet to cool.
Here's an unusual recipe suggested by Fran from the "Sellers Sisters Cookbook." Fran says her husband, Bob, developed it after reading about cooking meat directly on charcoals in The New York Times, and it became a family favorite.
1 top round streak, 2 inches thick
Instant meat tenderizer
1 cup flour
For the sauce:
1/2 cup peanut butter
3/4 to 1 cup hot water
3/4 teaspoons crushed red chile powder
1 tablespoon molasses
1 tablespoons soy sauce
2 minced garlic cloves
1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
Thoroughly moisten meat with water. Sprinkle on tenderizer like salt, using about 1/2 teaspoon per pound. Do not use salt.
Pierce meat deeply with kitchen knife every 1/2 inch. Dust with flour until meat is well coated.
Place meat immediately directly on coals that are gray with a ruddy glow.
Turn meat several times. Cook for 35 minutes for rare, 40 minutes for medium.
To serve, slice diagonally across grain. Flour will fall off meat. Serve with sauce.
For the sauce, combine peanut butter with hot water. Stir in chile powder, molasses, soy sauce, garlic cloves and lemon juice. Simmer for 5 minutes.
She always attaches one of her personal cards to gifts of food.×
Fran Barnard mixes up a batch of cookies she will give out to people for their birthday in the Village at Summerville retirement community.×
Barnard loves to bake and can be found in her kitchen at least four times a week preparing cookies for people.×