No Matter Who You Love, for Pittsburghers, Marriage is Spelled C.O.O.K.I.E.

My cousin Graham and his partner, Francis, were deep in the planning stages for their wedding when the United States Supreme Court issued its June ruling legalizing federal benefits for couples in same-sex marriages. For them, the court’s decision was simply the icing on the soon-to-be five tiered cake.

I had a different view.

“I don’t care what the Supreme Court says,” I told Graham. “You’re from Pittsburgh. Your marriage is not official without a Cookie Table.”

Graham’s response was simple and classic, just like Graham. “Yes. Yes. Yes.”

When it comes to marriage, there are now federal rules, state rules, and church rules. Then there is the Pittsburgh rule, namely the one that says if you are of Italian or Eastern European descent, Catholic and getting married, you better have a Cookie Table at your reception with the fanciest and most delicate cookies your mothers, grandmother, aunts, cousins and friends can bestow upon you. Pity the couple who has a skimpy Cookie Table, a Cookie Table with store-bought cookies, or worse yet, no Cookie Table.

I called Cousin Mary Jo, my cookie coconspirator, to discuss logistics. We’ve never baked for an out-of-state Cookie Table. Graham and Fran, who eloped to Boston in July, planned a second formal ceremony at their Chicago home in August. It was to be followed three weeks later by a country themed reception on Labor Day weekend at a barn near Graham’s parents’ summer home on Lake Michigan.

I mulled over the obstacles of putting together the Cookie Table from afar: travel time, distance, and getting the cookies to Michigan unscathed regardless of how well they were packed. We took into account the weather. We mulled over icing and filling colors and did the math to calculate how many dozens we needed. We pulled out our family recipes, the Crisco stained and barely legible scribblings of the cookie bakers who came before us.


As June gave way to July heat and storms, the cookie baking began in earnest. Biscotti, gaulettes, apricot kolache and nut horns filled my freezer. In Peters Township, Mary Jo was turning out cherry bliss cookies, orange blossoms, Russian Tea Cakes and Mexican Wedding Cakes.

Graham’s mother, our Cousin Mary, took out the old pizzelle iron and vowed to find time to make pizzelles, the Italian lace cookies. She lined up two friends to make cut-outs shaped like farm animals and chocolate chips for the kids.

Graham’s father, Dennis, asked for “the cookies you put your finger in when you make them,” just like his mother used to make. Those would be called thumbprints. I added them to the list along with anginetti, also known as Italian love knots. A week before the event, I added batches of butterscotch bonbons, cranberry bonbons, white chocolate bonbons and my mother’s traditional cookie table offering: lady locks.

Cousin Kimmie called from Greensburg, and said she was willing to bake. But Kimmie freely admits she’s not the family’s best baker. Instead we volunteered her mother, Elma Jean, who is the family’s best baker.

Aunt Elma Jean is also the matriarch of our family having been married to my mother’s brother Connie for 58 years. She never misses Mass, says the Rosary daily, and before I was born, claimed Godmother status. If Saint Peter had a choice between letting the Pope or Aunt Elma Jean into heaven, rest assured Aunt Elma Jean would glide through the pearly gates.

Had Aunt Elma Jean been able to go to the reception, she would have been the first one up dancing at the celebration of Graham and Fran. Instead she sent her confections: peanut butter tassies, raspberry bundles, pineapple/date cookies and coconut drops, all baked with love by a woman who lives by a simple creed regardless of church teaching or the national political debate over same-sex marriage.

“Families stick together,” Aunt Elma Jean says.

On Labor Day weekend, the Western Pennsylvania contingent headed to Michigan: eight cousins representing three generations of our family in two cars containing one coffin-sized cooler packed with 19 storage containers filled with nearly 100 dozen cookies in 20 varieties made in a rainbow of colors and flavors from various ethnic traditions.

Mary Jo also has an antique silver tray given to her by our late Aunt Nell, a character in her own right with a flair for the dramatic. Graham loves to hear Aunt Nell stories so it seemed only right that her presence was felt at his wedding. We packed the tray, too, along with a framed description of the Pittsburgh Cookie Table tradition.

I said a silent prayer as we handed off the cookies on Saturday afternoon to the caterer who was preparing Sunday’s feast. Would they be displayed beautifully as they would be at a Pittsburgh wedding? Would the guests understand the meaning? Did we bake enough?

On Sunday we gathered for the reception at Hidden Vineyard Wedding Barn in Berrien Springs, Michigan, two families and dozens of friends brought together in a celebration of the marriage of Graham and Fran.

The Cookie Table had become the talk of the wedding, but as the toasting and dinner progressed, nary a cookie was in sight. I was starting to panic; Mary Jo was trying to keep me calm. As it turns out, the catering team had not trayed the cookies in advance. Why would they? Only in Pittsburgh do we eat our cookies BEFORE the wedding dinner. It wasn’t a fatal mistake, but in retrospect, it was funny.

As the time for dessert and dancing drew upon us, I spotted a lone server putting cookies out on antique silver platters on a too-small round table. She was taking great pains to display them beautifully. But it was too late. One doesn’t place one’s self between 100 people and a table full of home baked cookies; that’s a truism no matter where you live. Before long, she was losing the battle with guests who gobbled up the cookies or rushed to fill lovely monogrammed paper sacks with our offerings.

“I was trying to get a picture,” Mary Jo said as we relived the hilarity of it all the next day. “I just couldn’t get a good shot. People were eating them as fast as they were put out.”

Ultimately, the cookies ended up coming out in stages, which actually worked out well because new offerings filled the trays throughout the evening. At one point, a tall, thin, model-like young woman looking over the selections pointed to Mary Jo’s delicate orange cookies.

“Oh my goodness, I just ate six of these,” she said. I handed her one of the paper sacks and reminded her to take a bag home. “It’s how we share the love, “I told her.

By night’s end, all of the guests, the band, the bartenders, the shuttle drivers and the servers had filled their paper sacks with cookies to take home.

My toast to Graham and Fran before dinner began was “to a sweet life; to a long marriage and to an eternal love.” We added the Pittsburgh Cookie Table for good measure. If you’re from Pittsburgh, no matter who you love, marriage is spelled C-O-O-K-I-E.


From Graham Kostic’s cousin Mary Jo Stonfer Fedutes, Peters Township. Makes 3 dozen cookies.

2/3 cup butter (softened)
3/4 cup sugar
1 egg
1/2 cup orange juice
2 cups flour plus 2 heaping teaspoons (sifted)
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt

Mix together butter, sugar and egg. Stir in orange juice. Add dry ingredients blending thoroughly. The dough will be soft and slightly sticky. Drop by rounded spoonfuls on an ungreased cookie sheet, about 2 inches apart. Bake at 350 degrees for about 10 minutes or until edges are delicately browned. Do not over bake. Remove from cookie sheet and let cool. Drizzle with confectioner’s sugar icing. Sprinkle with nuts or dust with confectioners’ sugar.

1 1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar
2 1/2 to 3 tablespoons water
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
For orange frosting: 3 drops yellow and 1 drop red food coloring
Mix together until drizzling consistency

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