Youngstown lays claim to the cookie table

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YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio -- In an odd way, we started out on our one-hour trip to Youngstown wondering if it might turn out to be an unnecessary trip, the proverbial "carrying coals to Newcastle." Photographer Tony Tye and I were leaving Western Pennsylvania on a road trip in search of the origins of what we colloquially call The Pittsburgh Cookie Table.

Tony Tye, Post-Gazette
The Arms Family Museum of Local History in Youngstown, Ohio, site of an exhibition about cookie tables.
Click photo for larger image.
If You Go: "Mahoning Valley Weddings: Romance, Ritual and the Cookie Table"
Where: Mahoning Valley Historical Society's Arms Family Museum of Local History, 648 Wick Ave., Youngstown, Ohio.
When: 1 to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays
Tickets: $4 for adults, $3 for seniors and college students, $2 for visitors under 18, free for children younger than 3.
Information: www.mahoninghistory.org or 1-330-743-2589.
Where to eat: Two suggestions from Liz Nohra are Brier Hill Pizza and Handel's Ice Cream parlors in Youngstown. (The chocolate pecan is legend.)

The coals-to-Newcastle reference relates to the days in merrye olde England, when Newcastle was the center of coal production and so, of course, it would be crazy to carry coal there. Here we think of Pittsburgh as the center of cookiedom, but we weren't crazy, just curious, about what Youngstown had to say about our local tradition. A reader had alerted us about the situation.

Our destination was the Mahoning Valley Historical Society's Arms Family Museum of Local History, where a display of wedding paraphernalia and photos included the classic cookie table. "Mahoning Valley Weddings: Romance, Ritual and the Cookie Table" won't close until the fall of 2005, so you have time to head west to take it in yourself. It's not every day that a person gets to see a piece of cake preserved from a 1919 wedding. Didn't look too bad, either.

If the Steelers, the Pirates and the Penguins are our claim to name recognition for our city, cookies are our claim to the best wedding receptions in the world. Anniversaries and showers, too. If there's an occasion worth celebrating, there's a reason to bake cookies.

Only in Pittsburgh, we say ... and then we discover that a town across the state line has its niche in our tradition.

"You see them pop up at graduation parties here, too," says Liz Nohra, the museum's manager of education and external relations.

Here and there, bakers vie over bragging honors when the cookies are laid out. Nohra researched the geographic spread of the cookie table for the museum, which is displaying wedding dresses from as far back as 1792. In those days, brides such as early Mahoning Valley settler Polly Potter Kirtland wore "good dresses." Mrs. Kirtland, for example, donned a blue-green dress that could be worn for many special occasions, unlike today's lavish white wedding gowns that are seldom worn more than once in a lifetime.

"Not until Queen Victoria did the white wedding dress become really popular," says Nohra, 31, who earned her master's degree in museum studies from Cooperstown Graduate Program and Museum Studies, which is part of the State University of New York at Oneonta.

The exhibit had been in the planning since 2002. "I said no wedding would be complete in the Mahoning Valley without a cookie table," Nohra recalls.

Shhh, she admitted to me, but Youngstown natives were more than a little miffed that the state on the east side of the Ohio line has been claiming that the tradition originated there.

In an effort to figure out where cookie tables do appear, she e-mailed questionnaires to 4,000 museums all over the United States, then drew a map logging her findings. She discovered than the dominant areas were -- yes -- northeastern Ohio and Western Pennsylvania.

Cookie tables were also well-known in West Virginia, Virginia, New York, New Jersey and Delaware. States whose historians said, "We've never heard of such a thing," included Washington, California, Texas and Nevada (where weddings happen so quickly that there's probably no time to bake).

Kansas City, Mo., had a single red dot. That represented a University Archives spokesperson at the University of Oklahoma-Kansas City. Who knew how the tradition ended up in Missouri? Covered wagon? A job transfer?

Tony Tye, Post-Gazette
Liz Nohra did her summer history internship at the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center in the Strip. "It's a wonderful museum," she says.
Click photo for larger image.

But Missouri's tradition is "like a cookie swap, definitely different from what we do here," Nohra says.

The historian got quite a kick out of a story in the Montgomery County (Texas) News that told of an awed visitor to Ohio, who reported on the cookie table she had seen at a relative's wedding.

One interesting part of Nohra's findings was that cookie tables crossed ethnic lines and religious lines, and many diverse groups have adopted the tradition, perhaps by intermarriage or just the love of cookies.

African-Americans are big proponents of the tradition there, too, she says. "They have other unique traditions, such as jumping the broom," she says, "but they also share the tradition of the cookie table."

"Jumping the broom" is a historic nod to slavery days when black people were denied the rights to formal marriage, but pledged their troth and love for one another by jumping a broom in front of family and friends. Today it is a "symbol of new beginnings -- sweeping away the old and welcoming the new," Nohra says. The Youngstown exhibit has a decorated broom that was used in a traditional African ceremony.

In most areas of the country, the mention of a cookie table will draw blank stares. Yet at the Cookie Cutter Collector Clubs Convention -- I practiced that tongue twister before welcoming the group to Pittsburgh -- several people from all over the nation raised their hands when asked if they'd ever heard of such a thing.

In the Moon ballroom, where the June convention was held, a heart-stopping cookie table -- all edible -- was created by the sponsoring Gingerburgh collectors. The cutter collectors probably won't soon forget such a sterling practice from Pittsburgh, or Mahoning Valley, or wherever it was born.

Cookies are not the only sustenance at weddings, though. A typical wedding menu in northeastern Ohio might include "rigs and meatballs" (rigatoni and meatballs), "drenched" salad (greens covered in dressing, usually Italian), green bean amandine, some kind of chicken, roast beef or pork tenderloin and white potatoes with parsley. And, of course, there's wedding cake, though it must compete with the cookie table for attention.

"I think the wedding cake is eaten less and less, and people choose cookies over the cake," Nohra says.

In the so-called "Buckeye State," Buckeye cookies are the centerpiece of the table and always disappear first. Other must-haves are "clothespin" cookies (we call them ladylocks), iced Italian "wedding cookies," Peanut Butter Blossoms (the ones with Hershey's kisses) kolache (rolled nut loaf) and pizzelles (the crispy flat cookie made in a special iron).

"You see a lot of the same cookies at Christmas as you see at weddings -- cooking on a mass scale," Nohra says. "Mahoning Valley likes to eat."

Several photos of amazing cookie tables hang in the exhibit, though no samples were available. (Darn.)

The exhibit isn't all about food, naturally. Its inspiration was the historic wedding dresses owned by the museum, one of seven in Ohio accredited by the American Association of Museums. We also enjoyed a children's exhibit that included a "store" and a "kitchen," though that hands-on display will close in September.

The historic home of Wilford and Olive F. Arms, which houses the exhibits, is worth a trip on its own. The 1905 mansion, beautifully preserved, was given to the society by Mrs. Arms, who died in 1960 at the age of 95. She was trained as an artist and as the youngest of seven sisters and the last survivor, she inherited most of their keepsakes, including china. "Much of it is here," Nohra says.

Excuse me, I have to bake a few dozen cookies for a wedding. First on my list are the wonderful Black Bottoms, a recipe shared by Nohra's mother, Betty Nohra. It's a keeper, and we know for sure where it came from, though perhaps not who invented it.

So where was the cookie table born? That's one more thing lost in history, but we'll love it anyway.

Black Bottoms

Batter 1:

  • 1 1/2 cups flour
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa (we used Ghirardelli)
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup water
  • 1/3 cup oil
  • 1 tablespoon white vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla

Batter 2:

  • 8 ounces cream cheese
  • 1 egg
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup semisweet chocolate chips

Prepare the two batters separately.

Batter 1: Mix all ingredients together and set aside.

Batter 2: Beat cream cheese, egg, salt and sugar until thick and creamy. Fold in chocolate chips.

Line bite-size mini-cupcake tins with liners. (We purchased liners at Make-a-Cake in Ross.)

Fill each cup with Batter 1 until approximately half full. (Betty Nohra uses a small gravy ladle; we used a small cookie dough scoop.)

Drop Batter 2 into each (a teaspoon or so).

Bake in 375-degree oven for 15 to 20 minutes, or until it tests done with toothpick or cake tester.

Makes 46 to 60 (ours made 48).

Betty Nohra of Youngstown, Ohio


Suzanne Martinson can be reached at 412-263-1760 or smartinson@post-gazette.com .


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