By C. Aileen Blaine
If you’ve ever gone to a local function — be it a banquet, reception or gathering — chances are you’ve encountered a table with a spread of pizzelles, snickerdoodles, thumbprints, kolachi, clothespins and more. Whether you’re debating on which delectable pastry to select or just how many you think you can consume, it’s hard to not be impressed to at least some degree by the dedication and cultural expression present on the sprawling tables and teetering towers of trays.
The cookie table’s origins stem back to the early 20th century, as immigrants from countries such as Poland, Italy, Ireland, Ukraine and many more settled in the Mahoning Valley to work in the steel mills. From this conglomeration of backgrounds, cultures and ingredients, a new tradition was born.
As a cost-effective alternative to expensive wedding cakes, the cookie table became a staple wedding feature. The towering tiers of tasty treats served as the focal point of the “cookie dance.” The bride and groom would lead wedding guests in a dance around the reception area, stopping at the table so guests could take their cookie of choice.
Now, it’s a way to share generations-old recipes and to showcase heritage favorites, and it’s no longer limited to just weddings — baby showers, banquets and graduation parties have started showcasing these tasty works of art, too. And if you’ve come away from a function without at least one flimsy paper plate piled high with iced, sprinkled and powdered-sugar delicacies, you may be lovingly labeled by a local as a “heathen.”
The Mahoning Valley Historical Society has been doing its part to keep the tradition alive and well in Youngstown. The annual Cookie Table and Cocktails fundraiser pays homage to the bite-sized pieces of history. Amateur and professional bakers alike contribute a cumulative 8,000-10,000 cookies, which are judged in categories by community leaders and volunteers.
Linda Kostka, development director at the MHVS, says even a century or so later, the cookie table hasn’t really caught on to most parts of the country.
“Finding a cookie table outside our area is a challenge,” she says.
Kelly Ullman, a Columbus-area transplant from the Valley, says the cookie table has always been such a staple of weddings that she hadn’t even realized it was a mostly regional concept until she moved away. She felt it was important to offer her guests a taste of home on her wedding day.
“I wanted to keep the tradition alive and have a little piece of home and Youngstown with me on my special day,” Ullman says. “It was so cool to be able to have the cookies all from family and friends instead of bakeries.”
In the early 2000s, the MVHS sent a survey to 4,000 museums across the United State to pinpoint the “exact” locations the tradition calls home. The results turned up that states such as Washington, Texas, Nevada and California had never even heard of such a thing. Residents of New York, New Jersey, Virginia and West Virginia were at least familiar with the concept. Predictably, northeastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania residents not only know what a cookie table is, but they’ve likely hosted one themselves.
NOW THAT’S A LOT OF DOUGH
In August 2019, Monongahela, Pennsylvania, set the world record for the largest cookie table with a whopping 88,435 cookies.
However, you can’t bring up the topic of the cookie table without acknowledging the benign yet ongoing feud between Youngstown and Pittsburgh claims to the story. A 2004 article by Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writer Suzanne Martinson chronicles an adventure to Y-town and her discovery of the Valley’s claim to “cookiedom.”
“Here, we think of Pittsburgh as the center of cookiedom, but we weren’t crazy — just curious — about what Youngstown had to say about our local tradition,” Martinson writes.
No matter which side of the state line you’re on, one thing’s for certain: There’s hope that the tradition will catch on in other places across the country.
“We hear more and more as people from this area move away, they take the cookie table tradition with them,” Kostka says. “It may become more widespread at some point!”
Next time you’re invited to a Mahoning Valley cookie table, dazzle them with these recipes!
1 cup butter
1 ½ cups sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 ⅔ cups flour
2 teaspoons cream of tartar
1 teaspoon baking soda
Cinnamon and sugar for rolling
Cream together wet ingredients, stir in dry. Roll small dough balls in cinnamon and sugar. Bake at 375°F for 8–10 minutes
Flourless Peanut Butter Cookies:
1 cup peanut butter
1 cup sugar
½ teaspoon baking powder
(optional) 1 cup chocolate chips or nuts
Cream together peanut butter and sugar, add egg and baking powder. Bake at 375°F for 7–10 minutes.
Cranberry Cheesecake Cookies:
8 oz cream cheese, softened
17.5 oz sugar cookie mix
1 cup dried cranberries
Mix together cream cheese and egg. Fold in cookie mix and cranberries until combined. Bake at 350°F for 9–12 minutes.