What's a Wedding Without Cookies? The cookie table is as likely to be at the top of some brides' wedding checklist as dresses, centerpieces and color schemes. For Mollie Cox Bryan, the must-have wedding tradition is something more: a touchstone of her past, lovingly made by women whom she had known her whole life.

What's a Wedding Without Cookies?

The wedding-cookie table tradition in many steel-mill communities has its roots in Italy and Eastern Europe. Gayle Krughoff hide caption

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Gayle Krughoff

The wedding-cookie table tradition in many steel-mill communities has its roots in Italy and Eastern Europe.

Gayle Krughoff

About the Author

Mollie Cox Bryan is a freelance writer and the author of Mrs. Rowe's Restaurant Cookbook: A Lifetime of Recipes from the Shenandoah Valley (Ten Speed Press, 2006), a narrative cookbook about the life of the amazing Mrs. Rowe and the history of her 60-year-old restaurant in Staunton, Va., including 175 family and restaurant recipes. Bryan grew up in Pennsylvania, but currently lives in Waynesboro, Va. with her husband and two daughters. She has penned a family column for the Daily News Leader in Staunton for seven years.

Cream-filled lady locks, snowflake-shaped pizzelles and chewy nut cups are as likely to be at the top of some brides' wedding checklist as dresses, centerpieces and color schemes.

The must-have cookie table is a tradition reflecting the diverse ethnic communities of steel-mill towns, especially in western Pennsylvania.

It certainly left an indelible mark on my wedding. My husband and I have been married for 15 years, and the mere mention of the "cookie-table misunderstanding" during our wedding preparations can still lead to a marital impasse. My husband and his western Maryland family had no idea what they were getting into.

The cookie-table tradition and its recipes come down through the maternal line, and the bride's aunts, cousins and grandmothers do the baking. My mother invited my future in-laws to participate in the ritual, but they must have thought they heard wrong since no cookies were forthcoming.

So the night before the wedding, my Aunt Jo baked the 24 dozen cookies we were expecting from my in-laws. By then, my mother, sister and other aunts had already made their 20 dozen cookies (not deemed enough) and were too busy with last-minute preparations to bake more.

No one would have known of the potential shortfall. At the reception, silver-plated trays and fancy plates overflowed with a vast array of cookies.

The lady locks, with fluffy cream oozing out the sides, reminded me of the many times my mom and aunts sat at the kitchen table wrapping the dough around aluminum-covered clothespins. Once baked, the women deftly pulled the clothespins out of the cookie, leaving an opening for the cream. Of course, they also caught up on the latest family gossip as they worked the dough and squeezed cream into the tiny cylindrical holes.

There were plates of cherry squares, the thin, white, cakey cookies with their dark contrasting cherries.

As on most traditional cookie tables, my reception offered an assortment of nut cookies – date-nut pinwheels with swirls of cinnamon and dates, and nut cups, mini-muffin-sized dough cups filled with heaps of sweetened nuts.

Fruit cookies filled with apricot, pineapple and prune were on display. And there were Italian pizzelle, anise-flavored round and flat cookies, pressed into snowflake shapes by a pizzelle iron.

Since there were no cookies left over, my Aunt Jo clearly saved the day.

My family of WASPs assumed that it was our Italian and Eastern European neighbors and friends in the Pittsburgh-area steel-mill town where we lived who gave us the wedding cookie tradition.

Our instincts were correct, according to Pamela Speis, an archivist at Mahoning Valley Historical Society in Youngstown, Ohio, curated a museum exhibit about wedding cookie tables. We were not, however, alone.

Pennsylvania is not the only state with this tradition, her research showed. New York, Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia and New Jersey all share some version of the wedding cookie table.

"In general, the cookie table was known to Catholic Italians, Catholic Greeks, some Eastern Europeans — again generally Catholic — and a few Jewish individuals. Distribution definitely followed industrial areas that were settled by those ethnic groups," she said.

My hometown of Aliquippa, just outside of Pittsburgh, fits in this group. Descendants of immigrants attracted to work in the once-booming mills and coal mines still make up most of the population. The community is a melting pot of culinary, cultural and religious traditions.

Though I admit to a pang of disappointment that the custom isn't unique to Pennsylvania, I've no authentic claim to it. My family adopted many of the rich customs of our ethnic neighbors and friends. We shared weddings, births and funerals — the stuff of community life, always defined by food. Turns out, the good stuff gets passed around from group to group and state to state.

Still, I often tease my husband about his deprived childhood in western Maryland. He grew up only a few hours from my hometown and yet didn't know the sheer delight of eating the homemade pierogies, gnocchi or baklava of my youth. Nor did he or his family know about the importance of the wedding cookie table.

"You can't have a wedding without cookies," Dee McGee, a 73-year-old family neighbor, said to me recently. "Why, I've never been to a wedding without them."

My homespun wedding — complete with handcrafted centerpieces — was my second marriage, and I harbored no unrealistic expectations. But the hopeful Pennsylvania girl in me could not begin the future without those cookies: a touchstone of my past, lovingly made by women whom I had known my whole life. I expected the cookie table to awe and inspire. And it did.

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