In college, Christina McNeil says she was known for being good at two things: “complex variable equations and cookies.”
Now a web producer and social media specialist in Northeastern’s College of Engineering, McNeil is still prolific in the latter. In March, she baked her 20,000th cookie for deployed military members, through an organization called Soldiers’ Angels.
“When I was young, I lived with my grandparents and it was my grandmother who taught me the basics of baking,” McNeil says. “Over the years, I found myself bookmarking all these recipes that I wanted to try, but after you’ve bookmarked 100 recipes it’s kind of like, ‘When am I ever going to make all these?’”
She found the inspiration by chance, in a Facebook group for bakers. One of the users posted about Soldiers’ Angels, an organization that “provides aid, comfort, and resources to the military, veterans, and their families,” according to Michelle Julazadeh Chavarin, director of marketing and communications for the group.
To participate as an “angel baker,” volunteers are asked to ship one box of home-baked goods to a service member once per month. Organizers with Soldiers’ Angels connect bakers with service members.
“Baked goods might seem like an odd choice to send to someone in a war zone, but I think it offers people a taste of home. It’s a break in their days,” McNeil says.
She sent her first box, filled with cookies and brownies, on July 3, 2017.
“The weekend after that, I was looking for something to do, and thought, ‘Well, one box wasn’t that hard, I’ll send another,’” she recalls.
For the next two and a half years, McNeil steadily baked, packaged, and mailed out boxes of homemade cookies and other confections. By her count, she made 10,000 cookies in that time. Then the COVID-19 pandemic swept through the world, and life as we knew it came to a standstill.
“At that point, there wasn’t much to do besides work and bake,” McNeil says.
It took her just over a year in quarantine to surpass the 20,000-cookie mark. In all, she’s tried more than 550 recipes and sent away more than 3,300 brownies or bars since 2017.
“Oh we all know Christina,” Chavarin says. “She’s one of our rock-star bakers. It’s amazing to see the support she’s given to so many service members.”
McNeil sends her goods in priority mail regional rate A1 boxes from the U.S. Postal Service, which are roughly 10 inches long, 7 inches wide, and 5 inches high—and she takes advantage of every cubic inch.
She packs a layer of brownies or other bar-type baked goods (usually about 15 individual squares) on the bottom. Then, a dozen sleeves of various cookies, with eight cookies in each sleeve. Then, she’ll usually include a personal note on top.
This means that service members receive about eight dozen cookies and more than a dozen bars per box. McNeil packages everything in vacuum-sealed plastic pouches to keep the goods fresh while they travel to the military bases they’re destined for.
Her method is so efficient that McNeil says she’s gotten questions from people “all over the world” inquiring about it.
“You sort of have to become a cookie Tetris master to figure out how to pack everything in the box,” she says. McNeil ultimately set up social media accounts under the alias “The Bakineer” (a portmanteau for her two roles as baker and engineer) to share tips, recipes, and photos of the finished products.
McNeil sends her baked treats to a different service member each month, based on who she is assigned by organizers at Soldiers’ Angels. In each box, she includes an offer to customize her goods based on the individual’s tastes. She says she doesn’t always hear back from the people she’s baking for, but she’s forged lasting friendships with the ones who do respond.
White chocolate macadamia nut cookies are popular, she says, as are sugar cookies. Chocolate chippers are always a hit. Peanut butter is tricky (allergies) but occasionally people ask for them.
As for McNeil?
“Oh, I’m a very picky eater. I’ll try one or two cookies, but otherwise I don’t really eat them.”