Do you fancy a cream-filled lady lock, a rich chocolatey buckeye, a peanut butter blossom?
No need to toil in your kitchen beating butter, sugar, eggs, and flour into submission or raid your neighborhood bakery. Just invite yourself to a Pittsburgh wedding!
Those in-the-know will tell you that a well laden Cookie Table is absolutely de rigueur in the Steel City, where skyscrapers tickle the clouds and arched yellow bridges invite exciting adventures on both sides of the Allegheny, Ohio and Monongahela Rivers.
I’m happy to report that since I attended my first Pittsburgh wedding about two weeks ago, I am now officially in-the-know. Just call me “Crumbs.”
But seriously. Who knew?
It’s a time-honored tradition for women on the bride’s side of the family — venerable aunts, huggable grandmas, plucky cousins, maybe a few friends thrown in — to bake dozens and dozens of cookies for the wedding reception (some big weddings boast 15-21,000 cookies!). Sometimes these cookie monsters will meet in somebody’s kitchen for a marathon baking session, or they’ll bake their special recipes in their own kitchens and freeze the goodies ahead of the big day.
For my nephew’s wedding, the bride’s mother emailed prospective bakers and within 6 hours all had responded with the type of cookie(s) they would be making. These were then collected and transported to the hotel, where catering staff arranged them on platters to be displayed on a long banquet table.
It’s up to the couple to decide whether to unveil the cookies after dinner or make them available right after cocktail hour. Sarah and Lee allowed us to dig in right away. Cookies before dinner? What fun!
And oh, what luscious variety! Apparently certain kinds of cookies are traditional, even expected, at Pittsburgh weddings: the aforementioned lady locks, peanut butter blossoms, and buckeyes, along with pizzelles (Italian waffle cookies) which are commonly served flat, but I saw what looked like rolled-up pizzelles, a nice variation of the lady lock.
I also saw snickerdoodles, standard chocolate chip cookies, white chocolate chip cookies, a couple of different iced sugar cookies with sprinkles, a dipped spice cookie, a soft cakey pinwheel cookie and little brownie candy cups.
Oh, and these Italian sandwich cookies were lovely! All the icings for the cookies were dyed to match the peachy-salmon color of the bridesmaids’ dresses.
Guests are invited to graze at leisure, even take a box of their favorites home to eat for breakfast the next morning. I read some funny stories of how in the old days, guests would slip cookies into their purses or coat pockets, kids would wrap them up in napkins or better yet, find a paper plate to haul away their stashes. No nonsense types even brought their own zip-lock bags to the reception. Now, styrofoam containers or even Chinese take-out boxes are provided for all the guests.
Of course I wanted to know who started this wonderful tradition and why it seems to be a strictly Pittsburgh thing. Both Sarah and her mother said it began with the Italian immigrants. Apparently during the Depression era, few could afford fancy wedding cakes, so various relatives made cookies to ease the financial burden. Italians as well as other Eastern European immigrants brought their Old World recipes with them when they settled in the area and it’s been part of the local wedding scene ever since, cutting across all ethnic, social and religious lines.
But Cookie Table origins remain a subject of debate. Though Pittsburgh natives lay strong claim to starting the practice, people in Youngstown, Ohio, also claim Cookie Tables started there. Variations of Cookie Tables, not only for weddings, but for graduations, showers, anniversary and birthday parties, have supposedly appeared in places like New York, Virginia, West Virginia and New Jersey. I’ve lived in Virginia for over 25 years, and have yet to see any Cookie Tables here. Clearly I’m not traveling in the right social circles :).
Cookie Table etiquette is also quite fascinating. What if you can’t or don’t have time to bake? Is it acceptable to order cookies from a bakery? Some would consider that sacrilege, but some invariably do, perhaps taking advantage of a nice compromise — the Pittsburgh Cookie Company will take your family recipe and bake it for you. Still, it is said that it’s not the bride’s dress, the delicious dinner, the wedding cake, or the dance music that makes or breaks a wedding. It’s always about the cookies.
Those I brought home from Lee and Sarah’s wedding were carefully scrutinized by the Alphabet Soup kitchen helpers. Serious scientific testing, tasting, and heated debate took hours.
The samples were judged for their colors, textures, flavors and power to elicit cravings for more. Martin, Honeybun and Ted Head were able to decide on a favorite, but for Mr. Cornelius it was a three-way tie among the chocolate choices (he is, if nothing else, acutely diplomatic when it comes to these things, or maybe he thinks if he chooses three, he can eat three).
All I can say is that now I’m spoiled for Cookie Tables, and will be disappointed if the next wedding I attend doesn’t have one. Weddings not only join two people, but two families. Cookies are great equalizers, delicious symbols of love in a compact bite. Even in your cocktail dress and heels or penguin tux, you become a kid again in the presence of cookies, and pretense flies out the window.
The presence of family recipes, handed down through the generations, speaks of cultural history and heritage, local custom, the warm oven in your aunt’s or grandma’s kitchen. What better way to show your love for the couple, to celebrate the beginning of a new life together?
Congratulations again, Sarah and Lee!
Oh, I love you, Cookie Table. I do!
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This post is being linked to Beth Fish Read’s Weekend Cooking, where all good-looking, hungry people are invited to share recipes, cookbook/fiction/nonfiction/movie reviews, photos and musings. Put on a bib and join the deliciousness!
Copyright © 2012 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.