A cookie table is, in fact, a table full of cookies. But not all cookies on tables are cookie tables. Follow?
Let Bonnie Tawse, the Chicago-based author of The Belt Cookie Table Cookbook, explain: “The cookie table is a tradition beloved by residents of Youngstown, [Ohio], Pittsburgh, and parts in between. It has its roots in a time when wedding cakes were far too dear for newly arrived immigrants to purchase. Instead, family and friends showed their love for a bride and groom by baking from scratch hundreds (sometimes thousands) of cookies and other small sweet treats to be shared at the reception.”
Her new book, publishing June 30, includes 41 recipes from around the Mahoning Valley, many of which have been passed down for generations. (The book overall calls for a startling amount of Crisco, oleomargarine, and other saturated fat dinosaurs.) Some recipes are complex—maybe don’t start with Grandma Ange’s pizzelles—and some, like Gram Swaney’s Potato Chip Cookies, are simple. But all reflect the cultural traditions, love, and expertise of their makers. And all can be scaled way, way up.
Cookie tables may seem like retro relics these days, but Tawse’s book makes a compelling case for their continued relevance. Churches and other groups in the Youngstown and Pittsburgh area still hold events where, for a ticket price or donation, attendees can circle a huge buffet of home-baked cookies, choosing a set number to fill their plate. During the pandemic especially, Americans may not be baking cookies for weddings, but they are rediscovering the joys of preparing food for their families and connecting to comforting traditions.
“During the pandemic, what was the thing everybody started doing? Baking bread,” Tawse says. “All of a sudden these skills, like sewing and baking and cutting our own hair or fixing things, become more important.”
I spoke with Tawse by phone about the challenges of preserving these recipes, what they tell us about the Midwest immigrant experience, and how abiding a love of trans fats can be. This interview has been edited for length.
The Takeout: Talk to me about your first cookie table experience [at the Cookie Tables and Cocktails event held in Youngstown, Ohio in February 2020]. How did you choose your cookies? Appearance? Variety? Novelty?
Bonnie Tawse: I didn’t have a strategy. But I probably should have had a strategy. I’d made a laundry list of classics—kolaches, nut rolls, clothespin cookies, pizzelles—that I should definitely choose. But when I approached the table, I turned into a child because there were just so many cookies. I was really feeling the pressure. But a woman named Sue and a couple other women at my table were like, “They do this thing where for $5 you can fill a box and take it home.”
TO: What historical time period do cookie tables harken back to?
BT: In my research—and we don’t even want to go into the “Did it start in Youngstown? Did it start in Pittsburgh?” debate—the most specific language I was coming across said late 1800s. Part of that is because you’ve got waves of different immigrants coming from different countries, and that’s very reflected in the cookie table tradition. Youngstown and that area was forming at that time as steel mills open and waves of people come to work in them. But it’s hard to pin it down exactly because people aren’t self-consciously documenting their culinary traditions as they’re happening.
TO: How do you define a cookie table?
BT: A cookie table is defined by family members baking together for the event, so there is the behind-the-scenes baking for hours, and the being together, and the plotting and planning and laughing. Then there is the actual choreography of the cookie table, which Anna Hood mentions in the book: “You gotta figure out how to get them all there. There’s the great schlep.” These are 8-10 dozen of each cookie going out. It’s not that we each bring a dozen.
TO: How do you see immigrant traditions reflected in these recipes?
BT: It’s a way for families to say, “This is who we are. These are the flavors we value,” down to the specific regions they’re from, like Puglia in Italy. What I think is fascinating and beautiful about the cookie table tradition is that all the different cultures started swapping and sharing. Now it’s completely okay to be making kolachi even if you’re not Hungarian, or Mexican wedding cookies if you’re not Mexican. At a certain point, everyone was like, you’ve got to have kolachi on the table even if there’s no Hungarian or Eastern European lineage in your family.
That is so reflective of cities like Youngstown and Pittsburgh where you’ve got cultures coming together. Think of what’s happening in a steel mill and your places of work, who’s sitting and having lunch. You’re all on the line together. The reason the cookie table tradition has lasted is because of the way people have historically worked and lived together in Youngstown, in that you have neighborhoods—it sounds to me—with more diversity than in Chicago, which is a very segregated city.
TO: In her foreword, Beth Kracklauer writes that this is the type of cookbook that people should read, not just flip open and pluck a recipe from. Why is that?
BT: I’m thrilled Beth said that, because I did not want all the recipes to sound the same, to be standardized. I tried to keep the voice of each recipe writer in the recipe. Take Rosa DaSilva, from Brazil. I got her recipe from Anna Hood, her daughter-in-law; there’s this tiny little note already translated from the Portuguese in her recipe that says, “This is good to do as an assembly line activity.” That might not seem super compelling, but if you try to do those cookies by yourself and you haven’t read it all the way through, you’ll realize they’ll take so much longer and you’re going to screw it up. Rosa put that in there for a reason. It’s delightful because it’s the voice of the person sneaking into the recipe.
TO: What surprised you most in researching and writing this book?
BT: How much Crisco people still use. There are entire conversations on the Youngstown Cookie Table Facebook page about where to get the Crisco-type product that still has trans fats in it. People are posting “Don’t use the new Crisco because it doesn’t have the trans fats in it and it doesn’t taste the same.” Flavor memory or texture memory is huge.