PITTSBURGH — Barb Yavorcik’s husband jokes that when he called his mother to tell her they were engaged she hung up the phone and turned the oven on to preheat.
Why? “To bake the cookies for the wedding, of course,” she said.
In certain parts of the country, particularly in Pittsburgh and Youngstown, Ohio, where the Yavorcik family came from, if you do not have a cookie table — actually several cookie tables ready to greet your guests as they enter the wedding reception — you may as well expect nothing short of a revolt by the guests.
Or at least life-long judgment and gossip about "that wedding" that had no cookies.
“If you don't do it, people talk about the wedding that ‘didn't have the cookie table' — nobody wants that shame brought to their name,” said Christina Blasi, who had a bountiful cookie table at her Pittsburgh wedding.
“Everyone makes different types of cookies, and once complete, they come together to be a massive assortment of deliciousness. The key to the success of a cookie table is to-go containers. Most people can't eat a dozen cookies after dinner and cake, but they sure will pack to-go containers full of them to eat for breakfast the next day,” said Blasi.
In short the cookie table is everything; no matter if the wedding is held at a fire hall, social club banquet hall, high-end hotel, or on a beach, and no matter how inconvenient it is — if you are from the Rust Belt you will find a way to bring homemade cookies and display them artfully at your wedding.
For the generations who made up America’s Melting Pot and their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren the cookie table is more important than the cake, what is served for dinner, or what kind of dress the bride wore.
It is a tradition whose origin is not entirely clear but involves months of preparation, several hundred pounds of sugar, butter, and flour, a variety of nuts as well as a sense of pride and connection to the past.
Every cookie you make you know you are continuing a custom started by your mother's, mother's, mother as a way to showcase your family’s culinary prowess.
Often times you are using their same recipes; some with notes in the cookbook written in their native language, most of them with smudges of butter or molasses in at least one of the corners of the page.
The story goes during the great migration of the 20th century — a massive influx of laborers and their families migrated to Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, and Michigan for work from Poland, Croatia, Czechoslovakia, Italy, Greece, and Serbia. When their children got married they were too poor to host elaborate weddings — so they found the only way they knew how to "show off" their family heritage for the wedding: making elaborate cookies.
Hundreds, even thousands of them.
They would enlist their mothers, aunts, sisters, and neighbors; the baking would go on for weeks, with sheets laid out on card tables as dozens of women rolled, kneaded, and decorated; forming an assembly line of dusty flour, gossip, espresso, and eventually wine by the end of each day.
There would be laughter, gossip, some squabbles, and children sneaking in for a taste of sugary dough or icing. Many of them placed their finished confectionaries in their fruit cellars. Not just so they would not spoil, but so that no one was tempted to eat them before the big day.
Today they go into freezers.
The day before the wedding they would enlist every family member and neighbor to help them bring boxes and boxes of cookies, then spend hours artfully displaying them on a series of tables at the reception hall.
The end result was a point of pride on the wedding day; guests were greeted as they walked into the reception with several long tables filled with colorful cookies stacked on trays all waited to be judged first, if only mentally, then eaten.
It is a tradition that is very much alive today with one slight variation; every family provides a to-go box — back then the cookies went home in your gramma's or mother's pocketbook wrapped up in a napkin.
The only hard and fast rule: no store-bought or bakery cookies.
When 25-year-old Chelsea Marrie of Lowellville, Ohio, interned in Washington, D.C., none of her friends had ever heard of a cookie table, “They really didn’t understand why or the concept,” she explained.
“It made me really miss home, but at the same time appreciate that I come from a place where family and friends aren't just people you see every once in a while, but people you share your life with,” she said.
Lowellville is a small working-class village along the Mahoning River just north of Youngstown, where almost everyone who lives here had family who worked at Sharon Steel and is of Italian descent. Like Marrie, whose brother’s wedding was laden with homemade cookies made by her immediate family, relatives, and friends, “It is a really amazing tradition and it's always wonderful to participate,” she said.
Jason Jack Miller of suburban Pittsburgh said he has never attended a wedding that did not have an extravagant cookie table at the reception, in fact, there are typically three to six tables, not just one.
Dave DiCello, a famed photographer in Pittsburgh, has shot 60 weddings in the area; he is always greeted with cookie tables piled high with thousands of homemade pizzelles, pignoli, peanut butter blossoms, lady locks, buckeyes, oatmeal, macaroons, chocolate chip, biscotti, and dozens of other varieties.
“Of those 60 weddings, only one did not have a cookie table,” said DiCello.
Former President George W. Bush deputy press secretary and current CNBC contributor Tony Fratto did not have a cookie table at his wedding, the Pittsburgh native instead went big: “We actually had a cookie room.”
When Wellsville, Ohio, native Dane Dysert started planning his wedding to Steve Wood earlier this year he said wasn’t very adamant about any of the particulars of the big day, “I didn't care too much about a lot of details but was adamant that we have a cookie table,” he said.
Dysert’s fiancé is from New England and had never heard of the tradition until they both went to a big Italian wedding in Ohio in 2012. “That allowed him to experience his first cookie table,” he said.
“Steve worried about the logistics of getting hundreds of cookies from many different places and figured we would just do a cake,” said Dysert explaining the challenges of the logistics for their wedding, which will be held in Charlotte, N.C., where both men now live.
“I don't have a lot of, or any, family traditions surrounding weddings but this is a way to connect to where I came from,” he said adding it allows him to bring some of that tradition to his college friends, the new friends they’ve made in Charlotte, and his future in-laws.
“Cookie tables are something unique to the Ohio and Mahoning Valleys so it will allow us to have something exceptional at our own wedding that not too many of our guests will know too much about,” he explained.
In his challenge to get homemade cookies from Ohio to travel to the reception, Dysert has found a way to bring the custom of the Rust Belt to the South. “To keep with the tradition of homemade cookies I've enlisted the help of our friends and neighbors, who took some convincing at first, (Why do I have to make cookies? How many do I need to make? Do I bring them with me when I show up?), but now seem excited to bake,” he said.
Culture and traditions from other countries have always been part of the American experience; it’s why we go to ethnic festivals in the summer and fall to take a peek at the foods and celebrations and foods that people from other countries have incorporated into the American fabric.
The cookie table is one that was started here by immigrants as a way to connect not just with their past but also to the new country they started to call home. As their children married outside of their ethnic backgrounds or religions and assimilated to their new country a new tradition was born to connect all.
Yes, it was a way to show-off — but it was also a way to welcome. Deep friendships and community ties began at those kitchen tables and card tables that the women labored over 100 years ago — they still do. I know. I made 3,000 cookies for my daughter Shannon Venditti three years ago when she got married, my sister Heather made hundreds of the Neapolitan cookies, a family recipe passed down for generations in my family.
And no one can ever compare to my sister Annette’s always perfect, always chewy, never flat chocolate chip cookies — who just made hundreds for her son Nicholas’ wedding this fall.
Salena Zito is a columnist for the Washington Examiner.