As many of you know, earlier this month we had a lovely live chat with the über-talented Tammy Trahan of New Orleans Cookie Company, where we learned about her graphic design and art background, the sources of inspiration for her very inspired cookie work, and how her cookies landed in a new Hallmark Christmas movie. More on that exciting news in bit! But first, a quick biographical blurb about Tammy for those of you not able to attend her chat . . .
Tammy began her career as an artist in New England. In 1981, she acquired a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) degree from Swain School of Design and then worked as a designer in New York City for another three years. Eventually, she headed south to find New Orleans. Once there, she continued working in graphics and jewelry design, and also received a Master of Arts (MA) degree in counseling. Tammy has called New Orleans home now for 34 years. Tammy's first cookie inspiration came from seeing beautifully decorated cookies by Julia M. Usher [EDITOR'S NOTE: Hey, that’s me! ], Amber Spiegel (aka SweetAmbs), and Liz Adams (aka Arty McGoo). It was in 2015 that Tammy finally picked up the icing bag, watched SweetAmbs' videos, and then joined McGoo U, Arty McGoo's online cookie decorating school. New Orleans Cookie Company was founded shortly thereafter in 2017. Tammy’s cookies often depict the warmth, celebration, and nostalgia of her amazing city. Says Tammy, “Every cookie artistically celebrates my love for art, design, color, and life itself.” (In addition to this bio, don’t forget to check out the transcript from Tammy’s live chat!)
Since our chats typically go at lightning-speed, and there are limitations to how fast I and my guests can type, I invariably leave them, no matter how great they are, yearning for more time to ask more questions! I can’t wait until Hoop.la, Cookie Connection’s tech team, comes up with a video chat option . . . But until they do (and maybe even after they do!), I’m sticking with these Cookier Close-ups as a way to satisfy my question-cravings! So, let’s jump right into the long list of follow-ups that I have for Tammy, shall we?!
JMU: Hi, Tammy! Thanks again for the terrific live chat and for agreeing to humor me by answering more questions!
Your design background has clearly served you well in cookie decorating! But, can you tell us a little more about your past graphic and jewelry design work? What types of clients did you serve? Did you specialize in any particular types of graphic or jewelry design? And why did you leave those types of design to start designing cookies? What is it about cookies that attracts you to them as an art form?
TT: Hi, Julia! Thanks again for featuring me and my work via the live chat and this Cookier Close-up.
My graphic design work started in New York City. I worked for a distinguished design firm, on projects such as movie posters for major movie companies, annual reports, corporate identity packages, and advertisements for prominent, world renowned companies, to name a few. It thrilled me to also have side jobs, such as designing the monthly newsletter for the Merv Griffin Theater and designing Bob Hope’s 80th birthday party invitation. That was big stuff for a former New England beach girl! I then headed south and settled in New Orleans. After about two years of working for a couple of different advertising agencies, I opened my own design agency with two partners. I worked there for a while, and then eventually got married and became a stay-at-home mom. I still worked on freelance graphic design jobs, and jewelry designs as well.
As for jewelry design, I began making scrimshaw jewelry at the age of sixteen. For those who aren’t familiar with scrimshaw, it is the engraving and carving on whalebone or ivory. I also worked for my high school art teacher who had a scrimshaw company, and paid me for as many pieces as I could produce. In later years, I saw my work in jewelry stores as far away as Hawaii. I have always made some kind of jewelry, and have made it for many years. In 2003, I started TAMI NEW ORLEANS, a jewelry company. At that time, I was stringing so many necklaces, bracelets, etc. I then started to carve my own pendants out of silver clay. I made many individual pieces and sold them in boutiques and online.
I eventually began to follow another path of helping hurting people. That is when I got involved full time in crisis counseling, and also worked to attain a Minister’s License. Shortly after, I went back to school to get a counseling degree. Due to time, I had to put the jewelry business on hold. Several years later, which was a couple of years ago, I started playing with cookies, and haven’t gone back to jewelry. Cookies as an art form are so much fun to make. I love learning about using this new medium as an artist/designer. I’m a baker as well, so I love the satisfaction that comes when making and decorating cookies.
JMU: Wow, what a varied and wonderful history! What skills from your past graphic and jewelry design experience best serve you in cookie decorating and why?
TT: My design knowledge, gift for color, attention to detail, love for conceptualizing, and perfectionistic ways all serve me well in my cookie decorating. My new relationship with fondant reminds me of my jewelry carving days! How fun is that?! I would not only carve pieces, but then I would make molds of what I carved. I love my fondant mold collection, and I just bought molding compound too! Let the fun begin!
JMU: Yes, woo hoo! Are there any skills or habits that you acquired in your past design work that have impeded your progress in cookie decorating? If so, what are these things, and why have they presented obstacles to you?
TT: Hmmm, I can’t think of anything that has impeded my progress. There are things, such as waiting for icing or fondant to dry, that I had to learn to work around. And, because I am somewhat of a perfectionist, I do prefer to design my own cutters. I made some flamingo cookies, and it drove me bananas that the cutter didn’t have a neck and a beak like a real flamingo. LOL.
JMU: I'm wondering, do you still also have a non-cookie job in counseling? What’s your typical “work week” look like (i.e., how much time do you spend on cookie versus non-cookie activities), and when do you do most of your cookie decorating?
TT: I did twelve years of crisis counseling, and then had a private counseling practice for several years. I moved about two years ago, and with the intention of taking a couple of years off. I call it a sabbatical, though I really don’t rest so to speak. I work on projects, take care of my yard and gardens, visit my grandbaby, travel, and DECORATE COOKIES! It’s really hard to say how much time I spend on cookies, because I work on them on and off and in between other projects, such as putting in a courtyard, taking online classes, and sewing slipcovers for my chairs. And I’m still unpacking after two years. Please don’t ask about that! LOL. I just have way too much stuff! When I work on cookies, I usually make my dough in the mornings. I usually bake in the mornings too. When I decorate cookies, I do so on and off, usually any time after noon and up to about midnight. If I’m working on something really exciting, I can keep going and going. At those times, I try to go to bed before the sun comes up.
JMU: You seem to regularly experiment with a broad array of cookie decorating techniques, from rubber-stamping to painting, and to do all quite well, as your recent heart collection (above) is testament. Do you have a favorite decorating technique, and, if so, why is it your fave?
TT: Thank you so much, Julia. I think that my favorite decorating techniques are handpainting, embellishing with fondant, and stamping. These three techniques are my favorite ones to do, because I am all about detail and intricacy. I love carving and molding fondant embellishments to add whimsy to cookies. I take cookies from plain or traditional to exciting and enjoyable to both the eye and the heart. I do the same with rubber-stamping, making cookies fun and jovial. Handpainting conveys the love I have for expressing my God-given talent. I love to push myself as an artist/designer. Art is to be shared and enjoyed, and the cookie community is one that I admire so much. I can be as whimsical, as playful, and as creative as I want!
JMU: Your exuberance for these techniques is palpable! Now, please tell me three tips you would give to beginning cookie decorators who are trying to master them.
TT: When handpainting, I draw the desired image on my iced cookie in as thin a line as possible, using a Rainbow Dust Food Art Pen. Mostly I use brown. I use Wilton gel colors, all set up in a palette (one that actually closes to keep the dust out and the colors clean). Having a variety of brushes, including a set of detail brushes, is a must. I use a little water when handpainting with the colors in my palette. I also love using Wilton gel colors pre-mixed with Everclear, for backgrounds and such. The process to make these amazing colors comes from Angela at The Painted Box. The thing about handpainting is: you’ve just got to put on the color and not overwork it, as the water in it can dissolve your icing.
As for fondant embellishments, I use Renshaw fondant. I use food-safe molds, and a little cornstarch brushed into the molds before pressing in the fondant. Since I’m fairly new to fondant, I have only used white. Sometimes I paint fondant pieces with Wilton gel colors for a translucent colored look. If I’m looking for a more opaque look, I love using Sugarprism Edible Food Paint, which is a new product to me. I love everything about this paint! Don’t forget to let your painting dry before handling the cookie. You don’t want to smudge its details or shapes.
When using the rubber-stamping technique, I find that AmeriColor soft gel paste and Chefmaster liqua-gels work the best. I use those little stamp pads that are made to fit onto a finger. They are round and tubular with a pad on the end. I always test the inked stamp on paper first. I prefer the red rubber stamps that are without a wood block, but I have many that are mounted on wood also. I press gently, but make sure that the whole stamp is making contact with the cookie. If you only want to use part of a stamp, then only ink what you want to use. The icing has to be thoroughly dry, like overnight-dry, by the way.
JMU: Thanks for those terrific details! I especially love your handpainted floral heart (pictured above) that you recently posted to Cookie Connection. Can you tell us step by step how you created it?
TT: The handpainted floral heart was really such an easy cookie for me to decorate. I flooded the cookie with white royal icing, and let it dry overnight. Then I took a picture with my phone of a watercolor painting I had done a few years ago. I used my pico projector connected to my phone to project the image onto the cookie. I only used half of the basket of flowers for this cookie. Rather than drawing the outline of the image as I usually do, I actually painted it onto the cookie using a light gray color. I used a palette of Wilton gel colors, mentioned above. First, I painted the lightest colors on each flower, leaf, fruit, etc., leaving some areas white. Then I went back to paint a slightly darker shade, and kept working this way until I painted the darkest colors last. Finally, the heart needed some dots, which I made with a cut-off toothpick dipped in AmeriColor brown gel food coloring.
JMU: What is your “cookie kryptonite” – meaning do you have a cookie Achilles’ heel? If so, what is it, and how do you plan, if at all, to overcome the challenges that it presents to you?
TT: I am trying to figure out why the icing sometimes makes craters when drying. I tried using a fan to get the surface icing to set up more quickly, but it still happens sometimes, and I really don’t like using a fan. I was also trying to think of something that I avoid or dislike, so I asked myself, “What do I not like to do?” Ahh, I don’t like shipping cookies! I really don’t like wrapping presents either - kind of similar. I can do a really nice job of it, but I’d prefer not to. Also, I don’t like writing on cookies. I don’t mind a single-letter monogram, but that’s about it for me. I love typography and typesetting for design projects, but not for cookies.
JMU: You mentioned in your live chat that people often ask you to sell your cookies, but that you’re not really interested in getting into production – that you’d rather stay focused on cookies as a form of artistic expression. Did I capture your sentiments accurately? If so, how do you plan to stretch yourself artistically with cookies in the coming year? Are there techniques you’re dying to try? Ones you want to invent? Or something else that is immediately sparking your passion?
TT: Yes, you captured my sentiments accurately. I do love making dozens for friends, but I am not a “production” type of artist. Once in a while is okay, but I’m more about the artistic emphasis. As I mentioned before in the chat, I would love to make custom cookies for print, multimedia, or film jobs. That would be awesome. I do have a big project that I have been working on, which will hopefully come out this coming year. I am still in the confidential stages of the project, but I have already done so much work on it. I am the client, and, yes, it includes my cookies.
I think a way of stretching oneself is to take classes. The variety of cookie classes offered is amazing. They offer so much whether one is a beginner, an intermediate, or even a professional. I have learned so much in every class that I have taken. The technique that I so desperately want to learn now is airbrushing. I have only done it once, on one cookie, at CookieCon. I have all the equipment, but it’s all still in the boxes that it came in. I’ll be taking a class real soon. I especially want to learn how to do the antiquing effect that cookiers use around the edges of their cookies. And, yes, there are ideas that I want to come up with also.
JMU: Ooh, I can't wait to see your big project revealed! And I agree completely about the benefit of classes, but perhaps I'm biased - my primary occupation is teaching them! As I first learned from one of your posts into my Facebook group, you recently had the experience of making cookies (pictured above) for a cameo appearance in a Hallmark Christmas movie! Congrats! We talked about this experience in the chat, but seeing as it’s a pretty remarkable one, I thought we should touch on the topic again here. Can you remind readers of how this opportunity came about, and how you went about designing cookies for this occasion? Were you given any guidance, or did you just fly by the seat of your pants?
TT: The cookie order for the Hallmark Christmas movie came from a woman who works for a movie company as a set designer. She has had my cookies at different parties in the New Orleans area, and thought of me when planning one of her movie sets. She wanted traditional iconic Christmas cookies. I knew to make bold, colorful, clean cookies for the shoot, so that they would give a good show. Since I’m a bit familiar with filming, I knew that it was not the time to get too artsy, especially if the shots taken are for only seconds. Everyone loved them, and I was elated to have gotten the job!
JMU: Congrats again! You also mentioned in your chat that you are never at a loss for new cookie ideas, which I find pretty astounding (mostly because I often find myself in situations where the creative juices are just not flowing, no matter how hard I try)! What three tips would you give to those who might be suffering from decorator’s block? What tricks do you have up your sleeve to help the rest of us keep our creativity going?
TT: I am blessed for sure that I am never at a loss for creative ideas. And, I’m so grateful too. Now, for those tips:
1. You can really start from any point, meaning, instead of thinking of the end product, think of textures, colors, patterns, images, moods, styles, objects, or even an event. Here’s an example: I saw a picture in a magazine of a wreath hanging on a door. The picture wasn’t even about the wreath. It had a gingerbread man on it. The wreath was really just an average Christmas wreath, but the gingerbread man was different from your average gingerbread man. So I thought I would make my own non-traditional gingerbread man, like the one that I used for the Hallmark movie. He's wide and stocky; he doesn’t have a mouth, because he has a scarf that’s a bow; and he’s the cutest ever.
2. Pick a technique first - one that you’ve seen on another cookie - and think about how you would use it, or what you think it would look good on. A great example is the crackle technique. It can be used for so many things. I did a church window with it. I would love to make a baby’s cradle using it.
3. Think categories, such as animals, a circus, a zoo, toys, games, foods, plants, flowers, holidays, transportation, music, seasons, clothing, literature, vacations, countries, shoes, makeup, etc. You get the point. I picked "circus" for a recent set (pictured below), and I had a ton of options. There would be so many options for any of these categories. Sit down one day and just make a list of categories and their sub-categories, i.e., for circus, sub-categories might include ringmaster, elephant, cannon, etc. When you need an idea, go to that list. Also, when I get an idea, I do a thumbnail sketch or make a note of it so that I’ll remember it. I have a notebook for ideas. It stays home most of the time, but when I go out of town, I take it with me in case I see, or think of, something that I want to remember.
JMU: Awesome tips! Thanks! Let’s turn to bigger cookie community questions for a bit. Now that you’ve been immersed in cookies for about two years, can you tell us what you like most about the cookie decorating community, and why?
TT: Sometimes I’m blown away by the generosity of all of these wonderful people. Everyone I have met, or have been in communication with, is so willing to share directions, product advice, cookie knowledge, compliments, encouragement, etc. I have met some of the most amazing people in this community. Something else that I really love is that we all have this crazy passion for what we do. I just love you people!
JMU: And for the flip-side of the last question: what do you like least – or what would you most like to change – about the cookie decorating community, and why? (And no pleading the Fifth, please! )
TT: Okay, here goes:
1. What I like least - which has a very low probability of changing - is that we all live miles apart. Maybe this is not the case for all, but here in the south, we are spread out.
2. The other thing that I have disliked in the last two years is that the CookieCon pre-event classes sell out waaaaaay too fast. I had to set my alarm to make sure that I at least got one class. And I’m talking right when it opens! When I went to sign up for one of them, three minutes before the opening of registration, it was already sold out. I set probably four alarms, two months in advance. It’s crazy, and my heart was racing! Reminded me of trying to win a bid on eBay.
JMU: LOL! In your chat, you also alluded to some exciting things possibly coming your way in the cookie world. There were mentions of books, teaching, maybe another movie contribution . . . which leads me to my last question: What are your specific dreams for yourself in the cookie world? What would you like to have done or be doing three years from now?
TT: This is a huge question! LOL. As mentioned above, I have been working on a project involving my cookies that’s still in the confidential stage. Hopefully, it will make its debut this coming year. I would absolutely love doing print, media, and or film projects as well. So many have asked me about offering classes, so if the right opportunity comes up, I’d be very interested in doing that. I have so much to learn about the industry itself. Believe me, I’m praying for future direction.
JMU: Well, may your angels (both human and cookie ones!) give you the guidance you're seeking. I'm sure that, no matter what you choose to do, the results will be wonderful. Thanks again for chatting with us, and I look forward to your continued contributions to Cookie Connection!
Cookier Close-ups is the place on Cookie Connection where we celebrate the change-makers of the cookie decorating world. Whether forging new enterprises, inventing novel decorating techniques, or consistently charming us with their cookie decorating prowess, each of our featured thought leaders has redefined in his/her distinctive way how we interact, create, or otherwise do business here in cookie space!
If there are other cookiers you'd really like to get to know, please post requests in this forum. We'll do our best to round them up for an upcoming Cookier Close-up! Thanks!