May 2010 issue
Something Borrowed, Something Baked
The cookie table trumps as a wedding tradition in eastern Ohio.
Recipes: Delicious Cookies; Cherry Almond Cookies
Of all the conversation topics my 63-year-old father and I cover, weddings are rarely among them. So when he wanted to talk details about a friend’s daughter’s wedding he attended near Cleveland last December, I knew something was up.
“Really good cookie table,” he reported. “One of the better ones I’ve seen.”
Considering the source, this constituted a rave review. And given that articles about wedding cookie tables and their Ohio roots have appeared in The New York Times and the recently shuttered Gourmet magazine, it seemed worth a phone call to the bride and groom to find out what made theirs so spectacular that a man who dismisses chain store baked goods as “yuppie doughnuts” would bring it up.
A cookie table is just as it sounds: a buffet of cookies showcasing the results of weeks or even months of baking by mothers, aunts, grandmas, cousins and family friends. This particular cookie table had more than 2,400 pizzelles, clothespin cookies, buckeyes and Italian wedding cookies, not to mention 10 dozen titled “Delicious Cookies,” baked by a friend of the groom’s family.
Bride Brittany Ceci, a native of Solon, says she had never heard of the tradition before she and her husband Dan began their wedding planning. “Dan is number nine of a family of 10 kids,” she says. “So he’s been to eight weddings of his brothers and sisters, and they all had cookie tables.” The cookie table, she went on to explain, is such a deeply rooted tradition in her husband’s Italian family that it wasn’t a question of if they would have one, just a matter of how big it would be.
Considering that Dan Ceci grew up near Youngstown — where Mahoning Valley Historical Society archivist Pamela Speis says the practice is so entrenched that a wedding without one is almost unthinkable — this isn’t surprising. Although Youngstown vies with Pittsburgh for ownership of the tradition, Speis — who curated an exhibit that included wedding cookie tables — says the custom actually immigrated with large groups of Italians, Greeks, Slovaks and other Eastern Europeans who settled around urban industrial areas near the East Coast.
“Our research seemed to indicate that where certain groups migrated to, so too did the cookie table,” she says, noting that the cookie table appears to be best known near populations that are largely Italian. For the museum’s 2005 exhibit, Speis surveyed archives in search of information that might link cookie tables to a specific group, as well as determine how commonly known they are in other parts of the country. “In population settlements that didn’t include a sizable number of Italian or Eastern European groups, the number of those who were familiar with them decreased,” she says. Her research also indicated that cookie tables are better known in the East than in the Midwest, South, Southwest or West.
Mavis Ceci, Dan’s mom and the family’s cookie table expert, says for her, the cookies are as much an expression of love as they are a symbol of pride in the family’s tradition.
“Cookies come from across the country — some mailed with special packing, some hand carried to assure their arrival in time, in good shape and fresh,” she says. According to Mavis, most of the contributors have a signature cookie. While she makes the clothespin cookies, her sister Karen makes buckeyes, and a roster of relatives sends a variety of sweets from around the country. Mavis’ niece Jerian, for example, packs up her chocolate-chip snowballs and sends them from Florida.
Mavis, who has personally packed clothespin cookies with cold packs and hand delivered them to Key West, Florida, says cookies for her family’s events have come from Indiana, Key West, Virginia, North Carolina and from across Ohio. “Cookies have made their way from Ohio to all of those states, too,” she says. For her daughter Molly’s wedding last June, she baked in batches of 400 every day for a week. For her son Mike’s 2000 wedding, Mavis says there were so many cookies the caterer gave up on using trays, and just designed them in rows along a long table.
“When Mike requested a cookie table, he said, ‘I don’t want cookies if there won’t be enough; I wouldn’t want anyone to go up for cookies and be out of them.’ Hah!” she laughs.
But their presence at family milestones isn’t the only sweet memory the cookies bring. “I lost a very dear cousin [the year of Mike’s wedding],” says Mavis. “But I’ll always remember that with great love and effort she came to my home to help fill the clothespin cookies and brought me a copy of my own recipe, in her handwriting, which I use to this day.”
Recipe courtesy of Mary Walter
Makes 5 dozen cookies
1 cup white sugar
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup (2 sticks) margarine, softened
1 cup vegetable oil
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup Rice Krispies (or other toasted
1 cup coconut
1 cup oatmeal
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Cream together the white and brown sugars and the margarine. Add the oil, egg and vanilla and mix until combined.
In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, salt, cream of tartar and baking soda and blend into the wet ingredients. Stir in the Rice Krispies, coconut and oatmeal. Add up to a tablespoon of water if the dough seems dry. Drop by teaspoonfuls onto a parchment-lined cookie sheet. Press with a fork and bake 10–12 minutes, until lightly browned.
Cherry Almond Cookies
Recipe courtesy of Sue Moss
Makes 4 dozen cookies
2 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened
1 1/2 cups brown sugar
3 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 cup dried cherries, chopped
1 cup raw almonds, chopped
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Combine flour, baking soda and salt in a small bowl and set aside. In a large bowl, beat butter and sugar together until creamy. Add the eggs and vanilla. Gradually beat in the flour mixture. Stir in the cherries and the almonds. Drop by rounded teaspoonfuls, about two inches apart, onto parchment-lined cookie sheets. Bake at 375 degrees for 10 minutes.
*Sue’s note: The cookies tend to look undercooked and are easy to overbake, so take them out when the edges are slightly browned.