The Big Cookie turns 21: the authorized** and re-updated history of Young Life Castaway Club’s signature dessert

**update and addenda at end

(Originally written in 2015, and updated shortly thereafter.)

(Reposted in 2022 for the BC’s 20th birthday.)

(Updated in 2023 for the BC’s 21st birthday.)

The Big Cookie - exhibit A Castaway Club’s The Big Cookie

Once there were four friends from the suburbs of Chicago who were fans of Lou Malnati’s pizza. For obvious reasons. Reasons like, oh, I don’t know, World’s Greatest Pizza of All Time. (They ship nationwide. Game changer.)

On Friday nights, instead of going to the lights, they went to get Lou’s pizza. For obvious reasons. See above. They ate pizza for dinner. If their guts and souls weren’t full, they ate pizza for dessert. Chocolate Chip Pizza, that is, “a freshly baked chocolate chip cookie prepared in a deep dish pizza pan, topped with vanilla bean ice cream and whipped cream. Serves 2-3.” 1610 calories per serving. In case you’re wondering.

Some years later, one of those four friends from the suburbs of Chicago – let’s call him Russell – found himself working in the kitchen at a lovely little place in northern Minnesota called Castaway Club (a Young Life camp) alongside the main chef – let’s call him Dave. During the summer months, Castaway Club serves 3 meals a day to 400 people, give or take.

One day in early 2002, Russell and some Castaway Club co-workers drove to The Medium-Sized City just down the road a ways to eat at a new “chicago” pizzeria – which every Chicagoan knows is a slippery claim to make and a nearly impossible standard to uphold unless the pizzeria is, you know, actually in Chicago. They went hoping for the best, but prepared for much less.

That “chicago” pizzeria in A Medium-Sized City on the outskirts of northern Minnesota had a chocolate-chip-cookie-ice-cream-ish dessert on the menu. Like Lou’s. Sort of. The friends ordered it. The friends ate it. The friends thought about it. Then Russell – the only Chicagoan in the bunch – said to his friends, “Hmmm. Well. Er. We could do better than this. Way better. We could make The Real Thing.”

He wasn’t talking about making The Real Thing for that small group of friends. He was talking about making The Real Thing at camp. For 400 people, give or take.

Thus began a long process of experimenting with ingredients, temperatures, timing, pans, ice-cream, serving, and all sorts of baking-in-a-big-kitchen-for-several-hundred-people issues. With summer fast approaching, there wasn’t much time to crack the code of The Perfect Dessert.

After several months of trying all manner of bakeware, schedules, recipes, and systems (see ** at end of post), Russell, Dave, and some others – let’s call them Kristina, Mandi, Lindsay, and Brad – finally perfected what has come to be lovingly known as The Big Cookie.

The secret to its success is simple:
1. keep it simple (just cookie and ice-cream)
2. keep it hot (on the bottom)
3. keep it cold (on the top)

That’s it. Really. Truly.

Keeping it simple, though, isn’t easy. It rarely is.

After serving dinner to 400 folks, the Big Cookies – pressed perfectly into their deep-dish pizza pans – go into the oven. Not a moment sooner. While they bake, thick round slabs of ice cream – cut and kept frozen until just the right moment – are rolled out of the freezer. Just as 400 folks finish eating their dinner, the Big Cookies come out of the oven, cooked so that the outside is perfectly browned and the inside is perfectly gooey. Each one is quickly topped with its own wheel of ice cream that cools the cookie innards just enough to maintain the just-on-the-edge-of-gooey stage while the hot cookie warms the ice cream just enough to make it just-on-the-edge-of-melting creamy. And then they’re served. Immediately. Without a moment to lose. While still hot/frozen. While still perfect. While still sublime.

There is no eating etiquette. Fact. Anything goes. [Actually, post-CoVid, anything doesn’t go – but it’s still nice to remember those days of yore.] Some people like to savor the wonder. Others like to inhale it. The only rule about eating The Big Cookie – and it’s more of a law, really, like gravity, because it’s not legislated on the front end but it proves to be true on the back-end 100% of the time – is that it must be fully consumed. Every last chip. Every last crumb. Every last drip.

Over the years, The Big Cookie has made its way to almost all of the other Young Life camps (a textbook example of market demand precipitated by word-of-mouth chatter), and each one has its own distinct personality. But the first Big Cookie – The Original, if you will – was first served in a lovely little place in northern Minnesota in the summer of 2002 to 400 people, give or take.

That was 13  20 21 years ago. The Big Cookie is officially a teenager an icon a full-fledged iconic adult now, but just as wondrous and delicious as ever.

On June 14, 2015  June 24, 2023 (give or take a day), the first Big Cookie of the summer season will be served at Castaway Club, now made by a new generation of kitchen folk – let’s call them Deb and Brandon Abby and company. It’s going to be a stupendous event. Only a very few people will know the story of how it came to be. Most will have no idea how much thinking and hoping and strategizing and trial-and-error went into making it just the perfect combination of hot and cold, cooked and gooey, sweet and sweeter. They for sure won’t realize how much work and planning is required to make such a simple looking dessert so perfectly perfect, week after week after week.

That’s okay. Local history and camp food systems don’t top most people’s list of favorite things. The Big Cookie, though…

The Big Cookie(s) ready for baking The Big Cookie(s) ready for baking
The Big Cookie(s) - into the oven after dinner is served The Big Cookie(s) – into the oven after dinner is served
Frozen slabs of ice cream, ready for The Big Cookie(s) Frozen slabs of ice cream, ready for The Big Cookie(s)
Building The Big Cookie Building The Big Cookie


Building the Big Cookie Building the Big Cookie


Serving The Big Cookie Serving The Big Cookie
Serving The Big Cookie option A Serving The Big Cookie option A
Serving The Big Cookie, option B Serving The Big Cookie, option B
The Big Cookie The Big Cookie

**Wowsa. The Big Cookie is near and dear to many people. No surprise there. A few people have asked about the veracity of this story, so I thought I’d give a short background – for those who are interested. From 1992-2004, we lived in Detroit Lakes, MN – just a hop, skip and a jump down the road from Castaway Club. For much of that time, my husband was on property staff while also serving as the Area Director in Detroit Lakes. We hosted many weekend camps, did many summer assignments, and knew the kitchen staff (and others) like family. Russell (his real name) just happened to grow up down the street from me in the NW ‘burbs of Chicago. When he moved to MN to work at Castaway Club, he lived with us for a while, and is as close to being family as non-family can be – which is to say he’s family. This past March In March of 2015, I was at Castaway Club for a LYO (Lutheran Youth Organization) retreat. They served the Big Cookie. That’s when all of these pictures were taken. All those Big Cookies I’d eaten over the years, and I didn’t have a single photo memory. Weird. Anyway, Dave (his real name) and his daughter Kristina (also real name) were there that weekend in 2015: she was the camp director and he was serving on kitchen work crew back in his old stomping grounds. One of them mentioned that the very first Big Cookie “experiment” had been at an LYO event a number of years ago. I was curious about just how long ago, so called Russell and had a long talk with him. All of that to say, the veracity of this story is primo veracious.

Of course, many more people have been part of The Big Cookie story than those mentioned above. For example, there was a summer kitchen intern that year – let’s call him Jon – who probably constructed more Big Cookies than he can count. And probably every other property staff person has at one time or another been part of the extravaganza known as Big Cookie Night (which is, er, well, the night they serve The Big Cookie). Add in countless kitchen Summer Staff, hundreds of dining hall Work Crew … and everyone who’s ever partaken of The Big Cookie (because let’s be honest, after you’ve eaten it the first time, you are part of The Big Cookie Family forever). I knew Big Cookie Loyalty and Love ran deep – but even I’ve been surprised by exactly how deep it runs. Really, it’s just one dessert of one night of camp that many people experience only once in their lifetime – but often it’s the small things that become The Big Things, isn’t it?

Writing a Better Life Story Is Not the Best Answer

Last summer I mused here about our innate human desire to live an adventurous life-story. Sadly, this is often equated with a high measure of circumstantial thrills, personal charisma, and self-fashioning that serve primarily to elevate and soothe the self. If along the way others are deflated and God is reduced, so be it.

Alongside the desire for an adventurous life story is the drive for what has been called a wholly authentic and fully genuine life story – which is perhaps more like a self-directed and self-starring biopic (the ultimate human endeavor) than anything like a Real Story.

Stories continue to be The Thing. In today’s zealously narrative culture, the tepid “Tell me about yourself,” has become wholly passé. Anyone who knows anything and who is even the least bit Christo-hipster knows that “Tell me your story” is the singular way to start a legitimately intentional conversation, after which a person can then tell her own story in return while drinking deeply from the well of transformative vulnerability, all of which will lead to deeper relationships and a more meaningful life.


To be sure, telling one’s story is a meaning-filled act. Our stories do matter – just maybe not in the way we think or have been told.

We are daily bombarded with stories, each one more exciting and colorful and dramatic than the one before. And while it can be exhilarating to be bombarded with exciting and colorful and dramatic stories, it can also be depressing and dangerous. What if my story pales in comparison? What if my story doesn’t measure up? What if my story is entirely unexciting, uncolorful, and undramatic?

Even worse: what if my story isn’t as self-satisfying, self-revealing, self-directed, self-actualizing,  and self-controlled (as in controlled by self rather than in control of self) as those other stories?

The world (and sometimes those in the Church) would say: well then, go out and write a better story for yourself, a story that excites you, a story that suits you, a story that serves you – as if an ear for narrative, an eye for revision, and a taste for self-fulfillment (as in filling myself rather than fullness of self) are the answers to what ails us.

Having a better story sounds lofty. Noble. Spiritual, even.

But I think that having – or rather living, which is not quite the same thing as having – a real and true story (as in true to God rather than true to self) is the thing that actually matters, and real and true stories – however unexciting, uncolorful, and undramatic they may seem on the surface – and however difficult, challenging and sacrificial they may be in the soul – are the only stories worth living.

The problem with ‘writing a better story for ourselves’ is that we are all of us pitiful life-story authors. We fumble around with plots and conflicts and settings and characters, hoping to somehow weave them into a tale for the ages. But we are not life-story authors, not a single one of us. Rather, we are one character (a character who does not get to determine the actions and attitudes of other characters, which is a bitter disappointment, indeed) in a much larger Real Story (a story into which we are graciously invited as a full-fledged and beloved player but not the major protagonist, which is a beyond-bitter disappointment, decidedly).

Though personal stories matter, and though desiring to live a better story is perhaps a fine goal, it is exceedingly trite for people of faith to reduce God to being merely the Author of My Story, or more grandly The Author of Life. Rather, God is the only Authority of life. All of life. Every single life. Life now and forever. (Lest we think God does not notice or care about our skewed understanding of ourselves in relationship to him, read Job 38-41. And lest we think God is a patronizing and distant deity whose sole discursive and creative practices are theocentric, read Job 42. Then contemplate the cross.)

Further, inviting God (however humbly) to be the author of my life leaves open the door (indeed widely) for me to then be the eager and knowing editor of my life who will zealously reorganize, revise, and rewrite the story more to my own liking. If we are pitiful life-story authors, then we are even more surely blundering life-story editors.

I will live a better story – a better life – only if I recognize God’s authority, fully embracing it with both heart and mind (Christ abiding in me), and fully embedding both heart and mind in it (I abiding in Christ).

On paper, it may not sound like much. But we are not paper stories. We are living stories. And a living story composed and centered around the Authority of Christ is surely and absolutely a story for the ages – and the only kind worth living.

Keeping God in a box: or, maybe paradigms aren’t the problem

In the 60s and 70s, Thomas Kuhn challenged the scientific world to make some paradigm shifts. This was simplified to phrases like “shaking things up” and “challenging the status quo.” Soon thereafter, the church grabbed the bait and decided she needed to shift some paradigms of her own – which she determined (with the help of the world’s opinion) had atrophied over time.

In the 70s and 80s, management gurus challenged the business world to think outside the box. This was simplified to soundbites like “taking a new angle” and “looking through a new lens.” Soon thereafter, the church caught the bug and decided it was time to stop putting God in a box – which she determined (with the help of media outlets) she’d been doing for a long while.

I’m not entirely convinced that the original diagnoses of stuck-in-the-mud paradigms and God-boxing were fully correct, at least not to any greater degree than normal. Stuck paradigms and God-boxing are part and parcel of living in the Kingdom while inhabiting a finite earth. They are tendencies we must continually recognize and counter.

But I wonder if – in our efforts to absorb the scientific and business models, and in our desire to prove the world and media outlets wrong – some of us have gone far past merely countering the paradigms and boxes. I wonder if – in our desire to be both edgy and smart, both sophisticated and trendy – some of us have ditched the paradigm and the box entirely, leaving the church bereft of any structure, form, and definition, not perhaps in its daily practices but in its underlying foundation. In other words, I am not primarily talking about worship style and programmatic practices. I am talking about the stuff that really  matters: dogma; doctrine; theology; catechetical truths. Stuff that at least some people hate to consider and loath discussing.

I am the last person who wants to be associated with something trite, obtuse, provincial, or stale. Certainly I do not want my church – The Church – to be any of those things.

But what if trite, obtuse, provincial and stale are merely lexical stabs at what is in fact unchanging, simple, solid, and true? What if the reaction to trite, obtuse, provincial and stale leads not to deeper discipleship but to a dismantling of the framework of our faith?

[On a side note: trite, obtuse, provincial and stale are flung just as readily by The Important Voices on contemporary non-denominational congregations as on traditionally liturgical congregations. Equal opportunity disdain is prolific.]

As foolish and backwards as it may sound, I believe that ditching the box and shifting the paradigm – which has occurred in all manner of congregations – has done serious damage to Christianity. It has opened the door for each one of us to define God, Christ, salvation, redemption, reconciliation, transformation, sacrifice, and obedience as we choose – per our own box, via our own paradigms.

It has not been a healthy experiment.

“Putting God in a box” started as a cliche in Christendom, often directed at people whose faith was too little and too small to believe that the Almighty Creator could do whatever He wanted, wherever He chose, at whatever time He determined – though I’m a bit fuzzy on how one person actually determined that another person’s faith was too little and too small.

Today, “putting God in a box” has become a straw man. It is a way of telling people that if they are not open to an ever-evolving theology, they are frigidians of the faith. It is a strategy for pronouncing people’s beliefs to be narrowly anti-intellectual. It is a tool for defining certain congregations as unwilling to embrace God in all his mysterious and adventurous majesty.

That little church on the corner that is dying a slow death because they do not understand how to attract youth? – they are putting God in a box by not embracing his love for all ages.

That megachurch down the street that livestreams its sermons and runs programs every night of the week? – they are putting God in a box by limiting his transformative work to something that can be planned and implemented.

That mid-size mainline church across town that eschews newer worship music in favor of traditional hymns? – they are putting God in a box by refusing to celebrate his full artistic expression.

That average-size evangelical church across the street that eschews hymns in favor of new worship music? – they are putting God in a box by refusing to embrace the strong traditions of history.

That’s what they – someone, somewhere – says.

Guess what? We all put God in a box. We all understand less of Him than we can because – surprise – our brains are small and our souls are even smaller. We all limit what God can do, if not in holiness then in scope: on one hand we say God is infinitely powerful, beyond all human comprehension while on the other we say He cannot possibly be working in those people over in that church. Apparently that is too much for Him.

I think God might prefer if we stop worrying so much about the proverbial boxes and paradigms and instead focus on Him.

But as we focus on Him, it is eminently important to have a paradigm of truth upon which to stand and a box of doctrine within which to practice our faith.

Doctrine does not box God in. Rather it helps us understand him clearly and rightly. Without it, we are doomed. Doctrine does not limit God. Rather it gives us a framework within which to experience and understand God’s immensity. Without it, we are unanchored. Doctrine does not reduce God. Rather it provides an elegant space of sacred intellect that allows us to stand in awe of Him. Without it we ourselves become smaller than we already are.

We desperately need a paradigm of strong theology and a box of solid doctrine. We need them to guard and expand our faith. We need them to shelter and shape our souls. We need them to protect and engage our minds.

Without them, God will shrink to little more than a man-made power whose sole purpose is to serve our whims and desires.

With them, God will become more and more known to us even as he becomes more and more mysterious; God will become more and more near to us even as he becomes more and more immense; God will become more and more holy even as he becomes more and more personal.

Only within an unshifting paradigm of strong theology and a strong box of unshifting doctrine can we hope to glimpse God as He really is rather than as we make Him. And I’m quite sure that what we will find with each passing day is that within the paradigm and the box, God will grow ever and ever larger in our understanding until finally we see that what is on the inside is in fact much, much larger than what we originally thought was on the outside.

**Dorothy Sayers – though primarily a scholar of Dante and creator of Lord Peter Wimsey – has some beautifully elegant thoughts about this. See her essays “The Dogma is the Drama,” “Strong Meat,” “Creed or Chaos,” et al.