Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — The Cookie Table

(c) Mahoning Valley Historical Society http://www.mahoninghistory.org

(c) Mahoning Valley Historical Society http://www.mahoninghistory.org Used with permission

It is wedding season again. And if you are from Youngstown, this also means that it is cookie table season again! The cookie table is one of the distinctive wedding traditions of Youngstown. There is an ongoing dispute with Pittsburgh as to which was the city of origin of this dispute. A friend of mine from Pittsburgh and I settled this at a wedding (in Youngstown, with a fantastic cookie table) by arm-wrestling for the cookie table title. Youngstown was victorious–which for us Youngstowners was simply confirming the truth of what we already knew!

Everything I’ve read about cookie tables proposes that the idea of cookie tables was born in depression-era working class families where it was just plain too expensive to buy a wedding cake. The tradition involves families and friends of the bride and groom going into a baking frenzy in the weeks prior to the wedding making every imaginable cookie from clothes pins, to kolachi, to pizzelles, to peanut butter blossoms with Hershey kisses to Ohio’s favorite, the buckeye (peanut butter balls with butter, vanilla, and confectioners sugar mixed together and coated with chocolate on the sides preserving a peanut butter top–hence buckeye).

The result are tables and tables of cookies available throughout the wedding reception. A considerate couple will provide snack bags so you can take home a stash (and with a good cookie table there is always plenty left over) that guests can nibble on over the next several days while having fond thoughts of the bride and groom.

There is something I’ve been a bit curious about. My wife and I both grew up in Youngstown until moving away in the mid 1970s. And as we’ve talked and compared notes, we don’t remember cookie tables at weddings growing up, or at least cookie tables being the big deal they are at Youngstown wedding receptions now. I do remember lots of great food including the great ethnic dishes we are famous for. There was a cake, and maybe there were some cookies. But we both went to a number of weddings and we can’t honestly say that we remember this tradition from our growing up years.

Perhaps we led sheltered lives and just missed the weddings where this was a big deal. I’d love for my friends from Youngstown who follow this blog to set me straight on this one, particularly if you have pictures from the 70s or earlier of cookie tables, or even some family memories. And I’d also be curious if there are others who are like us and can’t remember cookie tables until more recently.

My hunch is that there were parts of the community that were doing this probably from at least the Depression. But I also wonder if there has been an embrace of this tradition over the last twenty to thirty years where it has truly become an all-Youngstown tradition and a point of pride for us. That this is true is clearly the case. I discovered that in the part of town where I grew up the Rocky Ridge Neighbors have a monthly cookie table. The Mahoning Valley Historical Society has an annual Cookie Table and Cocktails night with a cookie contest. There is even a new book of essays on Youngstown history coming out titled Car Bombs to Cookie Tables.  All the Recipes of Youngstown Cookbooks have a number of cookie recipes good for cookie tables and other occasions. No Youngstown wedding these days is complete without a cookie table, and no wedding anywhere else quite measures up without one!

Good community traditions are important in defining a community as a good place to live. This is one of our good ones. Even if it is one that I just didn’t know about, notice or remember growing up, the plain fact of the matter is that this is one of the things that makes Youngstown special and it is so good to see all the ways Youngstown is sustaining that tradition.

Growing Up In Working Class Youngstown — Food

As it happens, there are a number of Youngstowners living in Columbus. And when we run into each other, almost invariably the conversation turns to food. Usually it is something like this –” have you found a place with good Italian” or “do you know any place that makes pizza like we had in Youngstown” or else, “nobody around here understands that you have to have a cookie table at a wedding” (more about that later).

recipes of Youngstown

All this and more came rushing back with the arrival of Recipes of Youngstown, a cookbook that came together out a Facebook group of Youngstown natives who pooled their recipes into a cookbook to raise funds for a Youngstown landmark, Lanterman’s Mill.

All the Youngtown favorites were there. Our friend, Lynne, who put us onto the book, had contributed a recipe for chicken paprikash. I haven’t eaten this in ages but was reminded that this was common in Youngstown. Of course, there is a recipe for “Brier Hill Pizza” which had a thick sauce and was topped with bell pepper slices and romano as opposed mozzarella cheese. Along with this, you can find recipes for haluski, goulash, wedding soup (no one knows how to make wedding soup like Youngstowners), stuffed cabbages and peppers and more. Of course, there are recipes for pierogies–seemed like every Catholic church in the area sold these on Friday nights, except during Lent when it was fried fish. And there are recipes for rum balls, and kolachi and other holiday pastries, including pizzelles (although we decided that the recipe we use from “Aunt Mary” is better than them all!).

Isaly's

The cookbook reminded me of Isaly’s (and other deli counters as well) where you could order “chip-chopped” ham. Isaly’s was also known for the “skyscraper” ice cream cones–which was truly this elongated cone of ice cream scooped with a special scoop (see picture). We always thought that the ones served at the main Isaly dairy plant on Mahoning Avenue were the best. Of course there was also Handel’s ice cream, just down the street from where my wife grew up. People drove from all over town to this walk up ice cream stand that served the absolutely best home made ice cream. No wonder Handel’s now has franchises in Columbus (as well as Belleria Pizza)!

Probably the reason for all this good home cooking is that in working class Youngstown, you generally didn’t eat out often, and if you did, it was often at a bar or mom and pop restaurant that had a great chef. If the food wasn’t good, and plenty, the laborers wouldn’t patronize the place for long. Women were expected to have a good dinner on the table when their husbands arrived home from a day at the mill or shop. (That wasn’t always a happy thing–by today’s standard very sexist and a source of resentment for many women).

cookies-2

(c) Mahoning Valley Historical Society http://www.mahoninghistory.org

Then there were wedding receptions! There were tons of all this good food. It seems that the blue collar motto was, “if you can see the table, there is not enough food on it.” Along with that, the booze flowed freely and you worked it all off with lots of dancing. And then there was the cookie table. Families of the bride and groom would go into flurries of baking for the week before the wedding, baking dozens of cookies of all shapes, colors, and sizes–more than you could possibly eat at the wedding and so you found ways to take a stash home. There are only two places that seem to know about the cookie table, apart from those of us who have moved elsewhere, and that is Youngstown and Pittsburgh and there is a running feud between the two towns about where it started. Of course, I side with Youngstown!

What’s the significance of all this good food? I think it was that for many working class folks, particularly those who were immigrants or children of immigrants, they knew how hard life could be. They often had huge gardens because things were so tight that they couldn’t buy the food. That probably helped explain the rich sauces, often canned from last summer’s tomato crop. The diet was pretty high cholesterol and carb laden with meats and pastas. Perhaps it was that for the first time, some of these people were making enough to buy roasts and other meats. And the work was physical and you burned a lot of calories. As in many cultures, food was a way to celebrate the good and wonderful moments of life, like holidays and weddings, or even to find a form of consolation and shared fellowship at the wake for a lost loved one.

Recipes of Youngstown not only reminded us of all these good foods–it reminded us of the shared communal experiences of those growing up years in family, church, and celebratory gatherings. Now to try some of those recipes….

Read all the posts in the “Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown” series by clicking the “On Youngstown” link at the top of this page or the “On Youngstown” category on my home page!