To this french-fries-on-a-salad Pennsylvania native, the very notion of royalty is a wedding cookie table.
A cookie table, for the uninitiated, is a wedding tradition that replaces the familiar wedding cake with a giant display of cookies. Cookie table duties are outsourced to some combination of local bake shops, family members of bride and groom, and wedding attendees. It’s a potluck on a grand scale, and little bags placed at the end of the table invite guests to take home a selection of their favorite cookies from the spread. It is an imposing and fanciful edible exhibition.
Food writers will often describe the cookie table as a regional phenomenon—a humble, thrifty, European immigrant tradition—but I don’t care much for those words, which are just alternative ways of saying low-rent, foreign, and odd. And a wedding cookie table is anything but. It’s a rambling spectacle for the masses: a feast, a display of celebration dining fit for European nobility. Done right, a cookie table not only inspires awe, but has the unique ability to transform space. Set up a cookie table in any room and that room is now The Cookie Table Room.
And it’s not just about the unthinkable quantity of cookies; a proper table requires artistic vision. Considerations of style, height, and variation are all part of creating something magnificent out of so little. Cheap wooden tables with scratches, dents, and chips are carried up from the banquet hall basement like coffins, draped with linen, and disguised as fine furnishings to be stacked with hundreds, sometimes thousands of curated cookies. Pizzelles, peanut butter blossoms, and lady locks on tiered tin platters. Nut rolls on a cascading rectangular stand. Biscotti and drop cookies on patterned doilies placed on mirrors. Fruit horns, nut cups, Polish buzz dingers and Italian fluff cracks (I made up those last two) stacked high and wide in configurations that could rival a Rube Goldberg machine.
There’s something fantastical about a wedding cookie table, something otherworldly about its vastness and variety. Listen closely: The score playing in your head is baroque; you can hear the plinking of a harpsichord as your fingers become dusted with powdered sugar. No, this isn’t a quirky immigrant tradition. This is fit for the royal court.
I never fully grasped wedding cakes. I always encountered them more in movies than in real life, a thought bubble that appears above a cartoon dog’s head or something that Bugs Bunny pops out of to sing “Happy Birthday, Mr. President.” Their towering cylinders and miniature wax people seemed, to my pre-teen Pittsburgh brain, farcical—to be seen rather than tasted. But a cookie table? It takes a village to create something so boundless. And that’s the point: it’s a feat that can only be achieved through the hard work of family and community. Not a lone cake whose fondant must be peeled off to reveal a uniform sponge underneath, but a prodigious feast with dozens upon dozens of unique flavors, textures, and presentations. It’s the preferred wedding dessert course of Western Pennsylvania. It’s almost a dream.
I’m reminded of the cookie table’s wonderment each Christmas, because even though they’re usually found at weddings, we’re treated to a smaller version of their grandness at the holidays. There’s always a cookie tray or two, maybe three, set on a festive table by their lonesome. Gingerbread men, pizzelles, fudge bars, pinwheels, brittle, and peanut butter blossoms all hanging out away from the hot food, maybe near the liquor, as if to say, “pick your poison, darling.”
As the night goes on, the party livens and the trays begin to display artistic flourishes of white space. The snickerdoodles aren’t so neatly stacked anymore, instead scattered around the room on some fanciful Christmas napkins. Your uncle waves a macaroon in the air as he tells you a story from his time in the Navy. Somewhere a child tastes their first pecan blondie.
As the party guests split off into pockets, various groups settle into different rooms or head out to the porch to smoke a cigarette in the freezing cold. But the cookie table eventually reunites everybody like a hearth. They huddle around it seeking warmth late into the night. That’s the function of a cookie table: to draw in the crowd, delighting its audience. The cookie table spirit is alive and well during Christmas, a time when we’re even more primed to experience its wonder.
An understated aspect of any cookie table (and most potlucks) is the fierce competition baked into the tradition. You might not think of your grandmother or Great Aunt Val as your rival at any other time but trust me, the cookie table is Super Bowl Sunday for your nonna and aunties. They’re trying to win, to capture the title of Best Cookie, a somewhat quantifiable accolade which can only be measured by the amount of “mmms” and “wows” received, and by taking inventory of exactly how many cookies are left on each platter. The lady locks got wiped out? That’s a fourth-quarter touchdown for your Aunt Gloria. Too many lemon bars left on the table? Cousin Mike is going to have a long offseason contemplating his sugar-to-acid ratio. No, there’s not a prize or a trophy for the best entries, but trust that the cookies, in all their glory, are taken deadly seriously by the people who baked them.
And all that competition is part of the fun, part of the love. It’s part of what makes a good cookie table so extraordinary. A cookie table is all about blowing guests away with collective effort. We’re able to accomplish so much more when we band together in our kitchens. Nobody should be working their fingers to the bone alone.
Gazing upon some old wooden tables filled with cookies and gasping at the sheer amount of variety that our efforts brought us—it’s a gift. I hope you have the chance to contribute to a sensational cookie table this Christmas, and I hope you and your loved ones put a little extra effort into making it a spectacle. Because when you do, the result is a singular sort of comfort that drapes around you like a king’s robe.