The Cookie Table – A Pittsburgh Tradition

If you are from Pittsburgh, I am sure you have been to a wedding where the bride and groom have provided dozens and dozens of cookies for their guests. What you may not realize is that this tradition does not occur in most other areas of the country. IT’S A BURGH THING!

Below is an article from the New York Times, written by Ron Lieber, about the Pittsburgh cookie table tradition.

The Wedding? I’m Here for the Cookies!

Like brides and bridegrooms the world over, the ones in this city and nearby towns bask in the glory of the white dress, the big kiss and the first dance.

But then, a large number of them happily cede the spotlight to a cookie. Or a few thousand of them.

The Wedding Cookie Table - A Pittsburgh Tradition

The Wedding Cookie Table – A Pittsburgh Tradition

For as long as anyone here can remember, wedding receptions in Pittsburgh have featured cookie tables, laden with dozens of homemade old-fashioned offerings like lady locks, pizzelles and buckeyes. For weeks ahead — sometimes months — mothers and aunts and grandmas and in-laws hunker down in the kitchen baking and freezing. Then, on the big day, hungry guests ravage the buffet, piling plates high and packing more in takeout containers so they can have them for breakfast the next day.

No one knows for sure who started the tradition, or why it hasn’t exactly taken hold outside this region. Many people credit Italian and Eastern European immigrants who wanted to bring a bit of the Old Country to the big day in the New World. Given that many of them were already well practiced at laying out a Christmas spread, baking 8 to 10 times as many treats for a few hundred special friends and relatives may not have seemed like such a stretch.

But even amid the increasing professionalization of the wedding, with florists mimicking slick arrangements ripped from Martha Stewart’s magazines and wedding planners scheduling each event down to the minute, the descendants of those Pittsburgh settlers continue to haul their homemade cookies into the fanciest hotels and wedding venues around the city. For many families today, it would be bordering on sacrilege to do without the table.

So on a rainy Saturday in early autumn, Laura Gerrero, her mother, her mother-in-law and two aunts gathered to bake in preparation for Ms. Gerrero’s wedding to Luke Wiehagen. Her mother, Pat, used to make apple and cherry pies for local stores, and her aunt Elaine Ford had recently overseen the creation of over 6,000 cookies for the 180 guests at her own daughter’s wedding.

And presiding over the initial steering-committee meeting was Laura herself, a 26-year-old retail manager. The bride (and the bridegroom, if he’s interested) can veto recipe selections. Ms. Gerrero is not a huge fan of liquor or certain fruits in her sweets, so the peach cookies and rum balls fell off the list.

Some family recipes were a must, however, like peanut butter blossoms, Italian wedding cookies and biscotti. They use a biscotti recipe that Laura’s great aunt, Genevieve Raczkowski, had painstakingly recorded decades ago in her own mother’s kitchen. “She got her board that she used to make spaghetti and noodles, and she would say ‘This much flour,’ ” said Ms. Raczkowski, 74, recalling the unmeasured mountains of ingredients that would grow on the work surface. “I had to pour the flour back into cups. Twenty-four cups of flour. Eighteen eggs. So then I had to cut the recipes.”

Pizzelles, a waffle-like Italian cookie, are also essentially mandatory. The Gerrero wedding was to feature both chocolate and anise pizzelles, made two at a time on an electric press manufactured specifically for this confection.

The work spread over every inch of Pat Gerrero’s kitchen and dining room, as the women filled the lady locks — log-shaped shells — with cream, pressed out spritz butter cookies, and kept an eye on the pizzelle iron. They pored over the working list of cookies. The range of flavors was important, they explained, but so was appearance. They soon realized there were no squares, so lemon bars were added.

Even as the number of cookies grew, there was never any question about whether to skimp on more traditional wedding sweets. “We’re having wedding cake, served with ice cream,” said Pat Gerrero. “My family believes in a little bit of dinner and a lot of dessert. Which is actually an Irish thing. They love sweets.”

They’re clearly not alone in that, for the debate over which immigrant group deserves credit for coming up with the cookie table continues unabated. “I hear the Italians, the Eastern Europeans, but I wouldn’t say that to a Greek person, because I don’t think they would buy it,” said Laura Magone, a filmmaker from Pittsburgh who is working on a documentary about the tradition. “Part of the reason I wanted to do it was because it captures the rich ethnic heritage this area has.”

Pittsburgh doesn’t have an ironclad claim to the cookie table; there are some people in Youngstown, Ohio, who believe it started there. So the tale of the table may be more legend than documented history.

The Wedding Cookie Table - A Pittsburgh Tradition

The Wedding Cookie Table – A Pittsburgh Tradition

“One theory goes that it got a jump start during the Depression, when elaborate wedding cakes were not as common,” said Andrew Masich, the president and chief executive officer of the Senator John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh. “Cookies filled in the need because so many people could contribute, so the expense didn’t fall on one family. But even that is not certain.”

Not every community adopted the tradition, either. Rabbis around town, for instance, note that they rarely see cookie tables. Assimilation, too, has taken its toll, with some families writing off the table as too ethnic or somehow common.

But that’s not how the Gerreros saw it. Pat, the mother of the bride, comes from one of the city’s well-known families, the Rooneys, who own a controlling stake in the Pittsburgh Steelers of the National Football League. “Without a cookie table, there might have been a revolt,” she said.

So the family was left instead to debate the finer points of cookie table etiquette. For instance, just how encouraging should the hosts be of those who want to pack a few dozen for later?

A generation ago, grown-ups would discreetly slip a few cookies from a plate into a purse. The younger set didn’t bother to hide what they were doing. “When I was a kid, you’d get whatever paper napkins you could,” said Ms. Magone, the filmmaker. “Or if you could find a paper plate, that was gold.”

As guests became more shameless, bringing in their own Baggies, host families adapted. The Gerreros decided to supply Chinese-food takeout boxes.

Another key question involves whether the cookies should be on display when the party starts or saved for a big reveal. The problem with the former approach: it may encourage people to move shamelessly from the canapés straight to dessert. Children, in particular, have made a ritual of this.

The bride’s sister, Nina Gerrero, thinks hosts ought to be tolerant of the behavior. “Eating cookies before you’re really supposed to is one of the most fun parts of a wedding,” she said. “I don’t consider it a dessert, though. The cake is the dessert, and the cookies are out there all day. That’s how it is on the holidays, too.” At her sister’s wedding, alas, the cookies were not to appear until the dinner hour.

Finally, there is the bake-or-buy question. Some families cater the whole thing (and lie about it to the guests), while others will turn to professionals only for more labor-intensive cookies like pizzelles or lady locks.

“They give us the recipe, and we make it just like grandma did,” said Sandi Heil, owner of the Pittsburgh Cookie Company in Midway, Pa., who’s catered about 400 weddings while also helping customers with Christmas and other more-everyday needs. “So they can still have grandma’s cookies, and grandma doesn’t have to kill herself making a hundred dozen.”

Wedding regulars in Pittsburgh have an eye for such things and whisper to other guests about it. But there was no such talk when Laura Gerrero’s wedding weekend arrived. On Friday, the various friends and relatives who had been baking pulled their cookies from tins and freezers around town and brought them to LeMont, her wedding site. There, a staff member spends much of Friday coordinating cookie arrivals, set-up and storage.

On Saturday, Ms. Gerreros’s wedding planner, Simone Hudson, and her assistant spent about 90 minutes arranging the 2,000 or so cookies in various tiers. The florist came over to dress things up a bit. Then, they draped tablecloths over the 12-foot display to make sure no one nibbled or knocked anything over.

After dinner was served, the covers came off and word spread among the 166 guests that the moment had arrived. Everyone lined up, and many grazed with the approach of an epicurean anthropologist. “People always talk about the new kind of cookie that they’ve never seen before,” said Nina, the bride’s sister. “My aunts and that generation of women, they say `Did you see that peach cookie?’ And everyone is freaking out.”

“I look for color,” said Scott Gibbons, a Pittsburgh area native who now lives in Cincinnati but was back in the city for the Gerrero wedding. He piled his plate with at least half of the 26 offerings. “I look for unique colors that should not belong in a cookie. And if they’re soft. And chocolate and peanut butter. This is what makes or breaks the wedding. If it wasn’t here, I’d leave.”

Given that the die-hards come to eat and pack more for later, the host family always frets. “The biggest fear is that you’ll run out of cookies,” said Ms. Ford, Laura’s aunt.

Instead, at the Gerrero wedding there was a different problem. So many people wanted to take the leftovers home that the family ran out of boxes.

The Wedding Cookie Table - A Pittsburgh Tradition

The Wedding Cookie Table – A Pittsburgh Tradition



Comments

6 Responses to “The Cookie Table – A Pittsburgh Tradition”
  1. Mary says:

    I absolutely loathe this “tradition”. People come to showers with giant plastic bags and it seems the only reason they’re there at all is to take — and by that I mean steal — as many cookies as they can fit in their greedy little purses. It’s disgusting and low class.They don’t really care about the party, the bride, or anyone else.

    I refused to allow anyone to bake or set up a cookie table for my shower. It annoyed a lot of people, but it kept the party from becoming just a giant fiasco with people savaging like animals.

    • Cece says:

      The cookie table is a wonderful tradition that my sister is incorporating into her reception. I have been to very few weddings that have not had one…and I have never seen anyone bring a ziplock bag and get greedy. Perhaps the reviewer who loathes the tradition simply associates herself with the wrong kind of trashy people. Personally, my family and friends are a wonderful bunch who are not the type to load their purses up with cookies, but rather who have volunteered to take time out of their busy schedules to bakes dozens and dozens of cookies for my sister’s reception. It makes everyone happy- the people baking feel included in the preparation of the wedding and the guests get to enjoy the wonderful creations that people have made for the bride and groom’s special day. My sister is not only have an enormous cookie table, but she is actually encouraging people to take cookies home by providing small bakery boxes that will be put out towards the end of the reception. There should be more than enough to go around…I know that I, personally, am making pecan tassies, butter cookies, peanut butter fudge, macaroons, red velvet cookies, and lemon cranberry bars. Others have volunteered to make peanut blossoms, M&M cookies, pumpkin cookies, buckeyes, chocolate covered pretzels, lady locks, pizelles, italian knot cookies, mexican wedding cookies, oatmeal sugar cookies, seven layer bars, and sugar cookies. With all these we are actually thinking we might have leftovers, even after encouraging people to take some home…

    • Tania says:

      I have been born and raised in Pittsburgh, PA and currently and living in the San Francisco Bay area. I have to disagree with the idea of “loathing” this tradition. 1) If you’re having a wedding it’s about sharing your day with family, friends and loved ones and 2) You’re including people like the Heinzes and Rooneys in the category of “low class” This is a tradition about families coming together and sharing in the wedded couples lives. This tradition was originally started during the Depression era because the families couldn’t afford a wedding cake. This is the only tradition I did keep from my Pittsburgh roots in my wedding. Considering my wedding was in Hawaii and my Mainland Reception in the States is at a Vineyard, I really don’t consider myself to be “low class”. I may be from Pittsburgh and I am the first to admit we do things a little quirky by some people’s viewpoints, but the cookie table has never been one…because a wedding is about everyone else in your life, not you. If you want it all about you…Elope! Long live the COOKIE TABLE, because they’re fun and everyone actually enjoys them!

  2. Kathy says:

    I certainly agree with your feelings, however, at my son’s wedding as well as other family members’ weddings, we kept the cookie table covered until all the dinner’s were served. At the buffet events, we waited until the last table got up to get in line. It worked very well. People do get extremely greedy and all the hard work of the generous bakers goes by the wayside. Also, we’re from Ohio with some Pittsburgh roots!!

  3. Sandy says:

    I have to laugh at this entire article! My daughter is getting married in a year and she and her fellow colleagues were talking about the “cookie table” at work. (She’s in Philadelphia!) Everyone from outside the area is dumbfounded as to why we have this tradition in the Pittsburgh area. Why not!!!
    Oh my goodness, if we were to attend a wedding and there was no cookie table present – riots would break out! I did attend one wedding in my lifetime that there were NO cookies and it was instantly dubbed the worst wedding ever! When we were children and our parents attended a wedding without us – the next morning we eagerly searched for the little paper plate loaded with cookies. Ladylocks (cream horns for non-Pittsburghers) were my personal favorites. Poor Mary!
    I’ve never heard of anyone bringing plastic bags to take home extras – that IS extremely rude and tacky. I hope I never meet those people at a gathering! But I can tell you, the cookie table is and always will be one of the most looked forward to parts of any wedding reception in the greater Pittsburgh area!

  4. Shari says:

    No family from PA, but the wedding cookies are a must. A must with Italian weddings in Iowa. The pizzelles, wandas, love knots, and the tri-level cakes. We always have a tray on each table. Those not familiar with this tradition just have this funny look as they see these, but soon are enjoying. They are out as the people arrive and are meant to be eaten as you wait for the festivities and dinner. There’s always big baking days of bushel baskets of wandas and tying the love knots that take multiple people to make and the parents are expected to participate. This can start over a month before the wedding. We find it a compliment when a few people have to reach to another table to grab a few more of their favorites. Haven’t seen the baggies, but at the end of the evening you’ll see any left out being tucked into napkins. Also a compliment to the bakers. Of course, the Jordan almonds are always in tulle and a big part of tradition.