In Pittsburgh, the wedding cookie table is a wonderful local tradition
Amy Rosen is the food editor at Chatelaine Reprint
“So they don’t do this where you’re from?” asks the grandmother of the bride, quite incredulously. “You’re from Canada, right?” Trying to explain to a group of cookie-mad Pittsburghers that elaborate wedding cookie tables are indigenous and pretty much isolated to their city is like trying to explain poutine to a Parisian. It just doesn’t compute — mostly because the local cookie culture here is such an intrinsic part of their celebratory fabric.
The cookie table at a Pittsburgh wedding is twice as important as a $500 four-tiered buttercream cake, and five times more delicious. It’s a tradition that’s said to originate in Southwestern Pennsylvania by Eastern European, Italian and Greek immigrants, who wanted to bring a taste of the homeland to the New World. Today tradition still trumps convenience, as wedding cookies are mostly homemade by family and friends.
At this Pittsburgh wedding, one of the bride’s grandmothers, Judy Watts, and her sister, Bobbie DeLuca, are sitting at a large, linen-swathed table at the reception hall of the Holiday Inn, gabbing and beaming just before the bride and groom, Samantha Watts and David Carey, enter the room for their first dance as a married couple. “I think it’s expected that we make the cookies, but I also love doing it,” admits Watts.
“You’ve always made the lady locks,” adds DeLuca.
“I’ve always made the lady locks,” confirms Watts. “I wrap them around clothespins before baking them. It takes a couple of days. I made 30 dozen for the wedding.” They kind of look like mini filled cannoli. “I made 20-dozen thumbprints too. I rolled them in blue jimmies to match the bridesmaids’ dresses and then I put light blue icing on the top.”
“I made a chocolate-covered cherry cookie,” says DeLuca. “It’s a chocolate cookie with white icing and you stand a maraschino cherry in it and drizzle chocolate overtop. I made 15 dozen of those and I made 17-dozen plain and maple cookies.”
Sounds almost competitive. “No, no,” they both say. “When somebody gets married it’s just a thing that you do,” explains DeLuca. “It’s her granddaughter and we did it for her.”
Clear across the dance floor, on the other side of the reception hall, Gloria Samuel, another beaming grandmother of the bride, stands watch over the corner table as the caterers start bringing out the cookies, gently prodding them to put out more than the handful of trays present. (One of the value-adds many local caterers offer is complimentary setup and design of the cookie table.) After all, there are 500-dozen (in other words, 6,000 cookies for 200 guests) to get though. Samuel made apricot horns, buckeyes, Italian wedding cookies, nut horns and lemon squares. “I was baking for two months,” she says. “I think we sort of shocked them when we brought in all the cookies, but with this table you’re saying thank you to all the people who came. You’re saying, ‘Take a little piece of us home with you.’ ” The people who bake for the people who are getting married are clearly doing it with love. “It gets harder as you get older, but you do it because you love. While you’re rolling out the dough, you’re thinking, ‘I remember when she was just a baby …’ ”
On the other side of town, at the nuptials of Chelsea Hamilton and Ryan Kennedy at the Clemente Museum, the bride tells me, “By the time I was 10 years old, my aunt declared that she was going to make the cookies for my wedding. So when we got engaged I broke the news to her by saying, ‘Start baking!’ ”
“When Ryan came into the picture his comment at family events was that the centrepiece of our functions was always a cookie tray,” says the bride’s aunt, Cindy Mazuran.“It’s definitely a Pittsburgh thing. The more cookies you have, the better.” She says that way back when people couldn’t afford cake, everyone made their signature (more cost-effective) cookies. “I remember my mother slaving in the kitchen for days, making nut horns for Easter, for Christmas, and these recipes are handed down from many years, wedding to wedding. And of course we added a few new ones, and added buckhorns for Ryan, because he’s from Ohio.”
The cookie table is a sea of orange drops, butterballs, lady locks, sandwich cookies, pizzelles (a waffle-like Italian cookie) — and apparently everybody loves a good snickerdoodle. “I made all of them except the ones I didn’t want to bake, and my sister [the mother of the bride] made those; her specialties,” says Cindy.
Some gorgeous little gold-flecked cookies catch my eye. I pop one into my mouth. Buttery and delicious. And then another. I’m here ahead of the guests, so I’m limiting my intake, but if I was actually invited to this wedding and not just crashing it, I’d snatch up so many buckeyes and butterballs that I’d need a shovel, a bigger purse, and more pockets. (It’s not uncommon for people to enjoy a couple of plates at a wedding, followed by a box to go, a.k.a. tomorrow’s breakfast.)
“I made 121 dozen cookies,” Cindy says. “It wasn’t planned — the number 121 — but of course the Pirates just broke their losing streak after 21 years [following 20 consecutive losing seasons, the longest such streak in North American professional sports history], Roberto Clemente’s number was 21 [the hometown hero played 18 seasons for the Pittsburgh Pirates and this wedding is in a museum named after him]. So it must be good luck for the marriage too!”
I nod in agreement while nibbling away at one of the greatest wedding traditions I’ve ever come upon.
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