by Kate Oczypok
Kate’s essay appears in episode 30 of The Dirty Spoon Radio Hour.
“Maybe we should get another folding table?”
“How high should we stack these cookies?”
“What time do they need to be delivered to the hotel again?”
“Can you bring the baby outside so he doesn’t knock over the cookies? And the dog, too?”
Those were just some of the things said in the chaos of cookie assembly before my sister’s wedding in June.
My family put together 205 boxes of cookies for her guests. We had traditional chocolate chip cookies, sugar cookies iced in my sister’s pale blue wedding color, raspberry shortbread cookies and dozens of other favorites before my sister’s big day. Typically, with weddings we just put cookies on display trays once we get to the venue. But due to COVID, this wedding was different—we were tasked with boxing everything beforehand.
I had the duty of watching my one-year-old nephew, making sure he wasn’t in the way. I spent about an hour and a half making sure he didn’t trip anyone or knock over the stacks of cookie boxes we piled six high.
It was exhausting: a lot of “Don’t touch that!” and “Come check this out!” We also stole a few cookies to snack on ourselves.
How does this cookie business manage to all come together? The way we organize it in our family is that one person becomes a point of contact and arranges all the cookie baking and transportation to the venue. For the last wedding, my sister Annie did it for the sister getting married (Meg). Annie loves to bake and ended up making around 50 dozen cookies herself! I honestly don’t know how she did it with a one-year-old. Let’s just say my nephew learned the word “done” from the oven beeping so many times.
Let’s just say my nephew learned the word “done” from the oven beeping so many times.
My aunt Loraine contributed her famous, melt-in-your-mouth gingerbread cookies in the shape of brides and grooms, my sister Beth made buckeyes (another unique-to-the-area tradition that look like actual buckeye nuts) and my mom made her signature raspberry shortbread sandwich cookies.
Mom always says she’ll never make them again, but she inevitably pulls out the ingredients and spends hours putting the jam on the cookies and making sure the sandwiches are perfectly aligned. They’re too good not to make, especially for a wedding.
Those were just some of the recipes made on my family’s side.
Have you ever been to a wedding in Pittsburgh? You see, every wedding venue in the city includes room for a “cookie table.” The Pittsburgh Cookie Table is a tradition dating back decades. My family gladly continues the tradition at our weddings, making dozens of recipes passed down from generation to generation.
My other sister who married in July 2019 had so many cookies she needed an entire room. The cookie areas are always very personal to my family. In that cookie room back in 2019, we made sure to have a framed photo of my grandma. She was the one who taught my siblings and me how to bake her almond extract sugar cookies. She made cookies for my parents’ wedding, my uncles’ and aunts’ and cousins’ weddings too. I still remember her standing behind me, hands on mine, encouraging me to roll out the dough with “lots of muscle!”
Some say the cookie table tradition was the product of immigrants—those with Italian and Polish backgrounds often claim it as theirs. Many cookies that are baked at weddings do have immigrant origins. My own family makes a pizzelle recipe from my Italian great grandmother (who I am named after). My dad typically takes care of those, using a pizzelle maker that was my grandmother’s. If you’re wondering what a pizzelle is, they’re a type of Italian waffle cookie. Last year I finally learned how to use that pizzelle maker, under the watchful eye of my father. Let’s just say it takes some time to get the exact amount of dough right. It was fun learning the machine as my dad and I drank Manhattan cocktails together.
My own family makes a pizzelle recipe from my Italian great grandmother (who I am named after). My dad typically takes care of those, using a pizzelle maker that was my grandmother’s.
There wasn’t much knowledge widely published on Pittsburgh cookie tables until recently. At weddings, we all just took it as a given until we would move away for college. We’d attend out-of-town friends’ weddings, and we couldn’t fathom why they, too, didn’t have mountains of cookies at their wedding.
The cookie table was a Pittsburgh staple at many local church events, PTA meetings and neighborhood card games dating back at least 100 years ago. Many have said the wedding cookie table may have stemmed from these neighborhood cookie displays as Depression-era cost-saving on pricey wedding cakes.
Oh, and if you’re wondering what happens to cookies that are burned or perhaps missing a key ingredient, we end up eating them! Even my dyed pink Rice Krispie treats that ended up smushed into a giant ball as I traveled by plane to my brother’s wedding were eaten privately by my family. I endured many jokes from my siblings about how they ended up looking like ground meat.
I am getting married myself this October and am excited to see how my cookie table turns out. I know my family is relieved that we don’t have to box up cookies like we just did in June. Putting them on trays is like seeing your painting displayed—baking is an art, after all. I know it’s fun for my relatives to boast that they made a certain cookie that ends up being popular at a wedding.
I know my family is relieved that we don’t have to box up cookies like we just did in June. Putting them on trays is like seeing your painting displayed—baking is an art, after all.
I’ll leave you with this blurb from an Etsy framed photo called “The Pittsburgh Cookie Table” that I think sums up the tradition perfectly:
The cookie table is as much of the Pittsburgh culture as Heinz Ketchup and Primanti Brothers. Many outsiders don’t see the need for cake and cookies, but we know you need both.
The cookies are homemade by mothers, sisters, aunts, cousins and friends, because the cookie table is a true gift of love.
No one knows the exact origin of the tradition, which has been exported to other parts of Pennsylvania and surrounding states.
In Pittsburgh, people don’t ask, “How was the wedding?”
They ask, “How were the cookies?”
Original artwork by Alex Knighten.
About the Author
Kate Oczypok is a freelance writer based in the Washington, DC area. She has written for The Georgetowner, The New York Times, Brides.com, Pittsburgh Beautiful and other publications. She enjoys reading books and magazines (she subscribes to around eight!), movies, watching the Pittsburgh Steelers and hanging out with friends. Her ideal evening is a cozy night in with her fiancé and her French Bulldog. Her favorite meal to cook is Julia Child’s boeuf bourguignon.