Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — The Cookie Table

(c) Mahoning Valley Historical Society

(c) Mahoning Valley Historical Society 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.