I was raised in a neighborhood called Parkwood, nestled between the Briar Hill neighborhood of Youngstown and Girard. It was a great place to be a kid in that I was surrounded by immigrant cooks.
At 5 o'clock I would stop for supper wherever I was playing. One night I might eat with a Slovak friend, an Irish friend or a Polish friend. Another night I might sit down to supper at an Italian family's table. For dessert I might stop in at a family friend's house who was an excellent Viennese baker.
All of these wonderful meals paled by comparison to the fabulous ethnic weddings that were held back then. Once a young couple became engaged, the mother of the bride, her aunts, her cousins and bridesmaids, began to bake. These various kinswomen produced the oven wizardry that has come to be known as the Youngstown Cookie Table.
No one is exactly sure where the tradition of having a cookie table at a wedding came from. Some say it was established by Italian immigrants who brought the tradition from their home country. I also know that many Eastern European women had cookie tables at their weddings, I suspect, originally because they were too poor to have a wedding cake.
Wherever it was first presented, the cookie table has become a staple of weddings in towns that follow the eastern and southern European immigration pattern from Pittsburgh, through Youngstown, and north to Cleveland.
As a child, I remember sliding in my socks across highly polished hardwood dance floors while adults mingled and visited all around me. I think young children have the best times at weddings.
I can recall a cousin's wedding where the reception was held at the old Croatian Home on U.S. Route 422 in Youngstown. Their cookie table featured pizzelles (the bride was Italian), thick slices of kolache (the groom was a Slav), Hungarian apricot squares made with a lovely cream cheese dough, peanut butter kisses and about 30 other kinds of cookies.
These days, cookie tables at weddings often rival the actual wedding cake. In fact, at some weddings, I have noticed that the wedding cake is small in comparison to the cookie tables. Some families calculate that each guest will eat six cookies at the wedding reception and take another six cookies home. Therefore, takeout containers ranging from those used for Chinese food to elaborate boxes, embossed with the bridal couple's initials, are being provided.
This Saturday night, Feb. 16, from 7 to 11 p.m., you can take part in a celebration of the Youngstown Cookie Table. The Tyler History Center at the Mahoning Valley Historical Society, 325 W. Federal St., Youngstown, will hold an event titled Cookie Table & Cocktails. Tickets are $40 per person and can be purchased at the door.
In addition to the 6,000-plus cookies that are available to sample they will have live dance music, refreshments, appetizers, a viewing of a collection of historic wedding attire and a silent auction. The event is sponsored, in part, by the exciting new restaurant D'VINO, which opened recently on the lower level of Alberini's in Niles.
There is even a competition for best cookie. Needless to say, I am competing. The contest was open to professional as well as amateur bakers and 18 professionals and 42 amateurs have signed up.
In thinking back of the numbers of weddings and the number of cookie tables I've experienced, it's hard to decide what cookies to place in the competition. Do I want to make Viennese Almond Crescents? Perhaps I'd like to make the Chocolate Peppermint Sandwich cookie I made at Christmas and that my friends have been raving about ever since.
Maybe it should be an old-fashioned cookie like my mother's Hungarian apricot squares.
All I know is that this is likely to be the biggest cookie table that Youngstown, Pittsburgh, Cleveland or Parkwood has ever seen, and just think, no one has to get married!
So, wish me luck and I hope to see you Saturday night. I wonder, will they give us little Chinese food containers to take some cookies home?
O'Connor is a Brookfield resident.