Weddings are all about the bride. It’s bad form for other female attendees to wear white, or for bridesmaids to upstage the bride in beauty. But, at a Youngstown or Pittsburgh wedding, there is definitely something that always upstages the bride. The bride and groom could catch on fire from altar candles, or the groom could pass out, but if one thing is intact, then that’s all anyone will remember. And that one thing is the Cookie Table. In both cities, weddings are an “I Do,” and “Pass the Cookies.”
The Cookie Table is a tradition that goes back at least to the 1930s Depression era when many of the blue collar Catholics in Youngstown and Pittsburgh couldn’t afford a big wedding cake. So, their relatives, usually the female relatives of the bride, got together and baked elegant cookies for the wedding reception. And these were not just your run-of-the-mill chocolate chip or plain sugar cookie or snickerdoodle. They brought said cookies together and displayed them artfully on the Cookie Table. That way guests at the reception can graze on them before, during, or after dinner, and even walk out with a filled napkin or a take-out box for the next morning.
Although originally the cookie table was in lieu of a cake, today families have them in addition to the cake. Families who accept that people will load up for a take-home load of confections, offer elegant take home boxes to their guest. Locals judge the family by the size and quality of their cookie table. It’s a sign of how well loved the bride and couple are.
And while the original cookie tables reflected the ethnic makeup of the family, today all the ethnicities have merged into a virtual Hapsburg Empire of cookies.
One thing that Pittsburg and Youngstown have in common are their Italian, Greek, and Slavic Catholic immigrant communities, where it’s believed the tradition started. These groups came to work in the steel mills and coal mines of both regions. They wanted a little reminder of their Old Country on the big day in the New World. Now the tradition is more regional than religious, with other denominations not wanting to be left out of the sweetness.
Many think that the tradition started in the Italian Catholic communities with cookies like pizzelles – the thin crispy, anise flavored waffles. Maybe that’s where the name for the Italian Wedding cookie came about – the crispy, confectioner’s sugar powdered cookie. Now the Cookie Table includes kolachi from Poland and other Slavic countries, bobalki from Slovakia, kataifa from Greece, torte from Germany, and of course, the obligatory clothespin cookies. They’re called Lady Locks in Pittsburgh. The clothespin is what we in Cincinnati would call a mini crème horn, which is based upon the German baumstreitzel or Schillerlocken – ribbons of dough wrapped around a conical form, baked, and then filled with sweet cream. In Ohio there’s also one addition you probably won’t find on a Pittsburgh cookie table – the chocolate and peanut butter Buckeye.
Whatever you call them Clothespins (Youngstown); Ladylocks (Pittsburgh); or Crème Horns (Cincinnati) these elegant confections are bound to show up on a Cookie Table.
Both Pittsburg and Youngstown’s historical societies have documented and studied the hyper-regional phenom, and a Youngstown woman is currently producing a Cookie Table documentary.