Halstead Senior Center hoping to bake record number of peppernuts

Amy Johnson and Charlotte Milne arrange bits of peppernut dough into straight rows before baking last Friday afternoon. They were both part of the well-oiled assembly line that produces hundreds of pounds of peppernuts every fall at the Halstead Senior Center.

By Jared Janzen

HALSTEAD—By the time December rolls around, the ladies at the Halstead Senior Center expect to have baked nearly a third of a ton of peppernuts. Their goal this year is 600 pounds—more than they’ve ever baked before.

“We’re already at 419,” Mary Jo Hall said last Friday afternoon, as she and other helpers continued to pull pan after pan of piping-hot peppernuts out of the oven every seven minutes.

In years past, the senior center has stopped baking around 400 or 500 pounds of peppernuts.

“We always could have sold more,” Hall said. “So this will be a good test this year, doing 600, to see how we fare.”

Mary Jo Hall shows off a pan of freshly baked peppernuts. Her job in the assembly line is to bake the peppernuts.

The group of women started baking Sept. 13—a week earlier than usual—and work two days a week. They can bake 22-24 pounds of peppernuts in a single afternoon.

The ladies have a well-oiled assembly line figured out, with everybody doing their own job. It starts with Jo Roberts mixing ingredients together, five batches a day.

The dough then goes to Karol Smith, who quickly punches it into bite-sized nuggets, 10 at a time, using a peppernut-making contraption. The pans then goes to senior center director Amy Johnson and Charlotte Milne to arrange them for baking, which Hall oversees.

Kay Graber mans the final station, weighing the peppernuts into half-pound and one-pound packages. She’s also in charge of quality control.

“I’m looking for ones stuck together,” Graber said.

Other women on the peppernut team who weren’t helping that afternoon are Diane Griffin, Angie Krehbiel, Faye Storrer and Norma King.

With all that time working with peppernuts, the ladies admitted they do take samples occasionally.

“Any QC rejects get eaten,” Smith said. “We destroy the evidence.”

“We have a five-second rule if they drop on the floor,” Hall said. “They don’t go back for sale, but we eat them.”

They’ve brought in more than $400 in sales, so far. Johnson noted she had sold 16 pounds just that day, so far. Sales have really been starting to pick up the past couple weeks and they expect that to continue now that November has arrived.

“Starting next week, she’ll be busy every morning, I think,” Hall said of Johnson.

The peppernut baking crew at the Halstead Senior Center takes a quick break for a photo. From left, Karol Smith, Mary Jo Hall, Jo Roberts, Norma King, Kay Graber, Amy Johnson and Charlotte Milne. Not pictured: Diane Griffin, Faye Storrer and Angie Krehbiel.

Proceeds from peppernut sales will help pay the bills at the senior center.

“That usually carries us through the year,” Hall said.

The senior center received CARES Act money from the government last year, which it invested in facility upgrades, including a new hot water tank, new shades for all the windows, taller toilets and two new ovens.

The senior center has three ovens it uses to bake peppernuts. A third new one came through a grant from the Halstead Community Foundation.

“We tried to use our money wisely,” Hall said.

Hall noted that the new ovens need to be hooked up to Wi-Fi—something she’d never heard of.

The women usually stop baking sometime in December. Last year, they stopped in the second week, but in some years, they’ve gone to the third. They hope this year that they might be able to stop in the first week.

The pandemic didn’t slow down the peppernut baking last fall.

“We went ahead and did it, even though the Department of Aging wished we didn’t,” Hall said. “We decided we could stand far enough apart and that we owed it to our customers in Halstead and surrounding areas, so we did it.”

Peppernuts are available for purchase from 9 a.m.-noon on weekdays. Half-pound bags are $5 each and full pound bags are $9. People can call the senior center at 316-835-2283 to reserve some. Johnson added that if people need to pick up peppernuts outside the normal morning hours, they can call the senior center to make arrangements.

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