Here are the happy newlyweds, Julie and Kelly Zamboni. (No, Kelly is not heir to the Zamboni ice rink machine fortune. Yes, Julie is adjusting nicely to her new name, thank you. I would too - would you look at this tall, handsome man she just snagged? Seriously, call me anything you like, if that is mine to have and to hold.)
I met Julie through a friend of a friend, and I used to work with Kelly's brother Rob when he lived and worked as a graphic designer in St. Louis. It is a small world, indeed . . . I thought to myself when my friend, Starr, called and asked me to accompany her to Julie's wedding as her date. I happily agreed. Weddings usually mean good food and good drink and I was looking forward to seeing my friends tie the knot.
When Starr said the wedding was going to be at the Holy Rosary Catholic Church down in Columbus Park, a traditionally Italian neighborhood in Kansas City, I didn't think much about it. I am not Catholic or Italian, but I assumed Julie might be as her maiden name was Lucito. It looked like I was in for an Italian Wedding, although I was not sure what exactly that looked like as I had never been to a traditional Italian wedding before. We parked the car in front of this very old and very beautiful church and went inside.
The second we walked through the front doors of the church, I knew I was in for a lovely surprise. The colorful stained glass windows, the 26 ornate statues of Mary and saints around the room, the lushness of marble altars placed me in an absolute Italian spiritual nirvana. When the church was founded, Columbus Park was a solidly Italian neighborhood. This church was built by hard-working Italian immigrants as their sanctuary from a cold, cruel world far away from everything they knew and loved. Here they felt welcomed and understood. In this church, they could find peace and inspiration while restoring their faith and refilling spiritual reserves. I was fascinated throughout the ceremony by the icons, the history and the rituals that were so different from my own church experiences. Growing up in Oklahoma, I received very little experience with or opportunity to learn about other religions and their ceremonies. Almost 90% of everyone I knew growing up was Baptist, and the remaining 10% made up the rest of the Protestant melting pot. None of my friends were Catholic or Jewish. Zero. Na-da.
My husband grew up in St. Louis with most of his friends being Jewish or Catholic. He had just the opposite experience from me. I'll never forget the first wedding I brought my husband to in Oklahoma. After the wedding ceremony, they kept us in our seats and would not release us to go to the reception until they had asked for those moved by the spirit to come to the front of the church to be saved. Oh, yes they did. Many did get saved that day, as I remember. After we sat through that, we went down into the church basement for cake and punch. No reception per se, no dancing and certainly no alcohol. My husband was utterly speechless . . .and a bit offended. For the price of the wedding present we gave, he at least expected a free cocktail in return. I laughed and told him to watch out for the end of that big old bible belt, because it can whip you when you least expect it.
After Julie and Kelly's wedding, Starr and I found ourselves back on the street and headed to Figlio's Tower Room on the Country Club Plaza for the reception. We were looking forward to a pasta feast and a glass or two of vino before steeling ourselves for the inevitable wedding line dancing that lay in front of us - The Chicken Dance, The Electric Slide, The Macarena, The Hokey Pokey and the end of the night Conga Line. It was going to take a lot of food and a lot of wine to get me out on the floor.
But before the my inner dancing queen would be released, I stumbled upon a most interesting Italian wedding tradition that sparked all my Foodie senses, and it was one that I had never seen before. The Wedding Cookie Table.
The origin of the cookie table is a somewhat contentious topic; some believe it began in Youngstown, Ohio, while many from Pittsburgh, Pa., claim the table as their own. However, the tradition also has strong ties to Italian communities, as well as Catholic marriages.
Regardless of where or with whom the tradition started, traditional wedding cookies are always made in abundance and used as party favors for guests at the wedding. The Mother of the Bride is often found walking around, at the end of the night, handing out empty bags or boxes for guests to fill with cookies from the table to take home with them.
The experts also think another reason this tradition was started was because the materials to make a wedding cake could be very expensive and depending on the budget of the bride and groom it might not be possible to afford a wedding cake big enough to feed everyone attending the wedding. In those cases, the women of the community would be called upon to bake cookies to fill the void that was left by a lack of wedding cake. This ensured that all guests walked away from the wedding with a little taste of sweetness thus wishing the happy couple good luck with their marriage.
The wedding cookie table at Julie and Kelly's reception made me speechless. It was big and simply overflowing with traditional Italian cookies in flavors that I had never seen before in my life. I immediately dumped my purse in a corner and whipped out my camera and begin snapping photos of these cookies. (If you ever see me or anyone else snap photos of food in public, try not to be alarmed. It is simply our way.)
Tray after doily-covered tray were filled with lightly frosted chocolate spice balls, almond cookies, pale white anise flavored cookies, jam-thumbprints, long skinny cookies covered in powdered sugar or sesame seeds and peanut butter cookies with a Hershey's kiss in the middle. The table seemed to go on and on, heaped high with the equivalent of green kryptonite to my diet . . .cookies. I can refuse many things, but cookies I cannot. They weaken my will-power.
But as I moved closer to the table I noticed little white cards with the names of the cookies handwritten on there and the name of the relative who had made them. That's when I realized that all of these cookies were hand-made for the bride and groom by family members.
Many sources mention the tradition of all of the women in the family gathering together to bake these cookies and catch up on family gossip. Grandmothers, Mothers, Sisters, Aunts and Cousins and future-in-laws as well would start slaving over these cookies months in advance to ensure they had more enough to go around and have some left over for the guests to take home. If there was talk of someone in the family not being able to make their allocated amount of cookies then, someone else in the family would be nominated to pick up their slack and make the remaining cookies. The cookies would get done, one way or another.
After the wedding, I began asking other foodie friends if they had ever seen or enjoyed cookies from an Italian Wedding Cookie Table. I was surprised, because I could not find one person who actually liked wedding cookies. In fact, I found just the opposite, many people hate them. What? How could anyone hate a defenseless little cookie?
There were two common complaints given: 1) That the cookies tasted generally like paste . . .all of them. Regardless of the type of cookie, they completely lacked of sweetness and flavor. 2) That the cookies tasted stale or were rock hard.
First let me say this, I can assure you, having skipped dinner that night at Julie and Kelly's wedding reception in favor of trying one of each of the wedding cookies on their table . . .their cookies did not taste like paste and nor were they stale. They were soft, flavorful and uniquely delicious.
How could a simple cookie tradition have so few fans? And why would this tradition linger on if it was commonly known that these cookies were stale and tasteless? It wouldn't. Which leaves me with two hypothesis.
First - The cookies I tasted did have very interesting, even old-fashioned, subtle flavors. Could it be in our society with cookies at the mall bigger than your head that are not only frosted and then topped with M&M's, but also chock full o' nuts and chocolate chips that we, as a society, have lost sight of what a simple, traditional cookie can taste like? A tea biscuit, so to speak? Perhaps our palates have been so blown out by the rich and decadent (ingredients that would have been very expensive and in short supply back in the old days, no doubt) we think the wedding cookies are bland by comparison? Or perhaps some wedding cookie makers are simply better than others.
Second - I believe the stale cookie issue is a simply matter of most of these cookies being made months in advance. If they are not stored or frozen and re-thawed properly, I can absolutely see how they might taste stale and old. Again, I come back to some wedding cookie makers are simply better at the craft than others.
All I believe is needed to truly appreciate this sweet veil of tradition is an experienced wedding cookie maker and a palate willing to enjoy the subtle, graciousness of a small, simple tea cookie.I wish you could have tasted the cookies made for Julie and Kelly's wedding - they were brilliant.
Weddings really are a wonderful way to learn more about other religions and cultural traditions. I say, go to as many different weddings as you possibly can. I always end up learning something new about myself or a religion or tradition that I had never knew existed before.
In this case, I learned first hand that cookies really do equal love. I heart cookie tables and all the tradition and love that goes into them.
Speaking of love, I wish the happy couple much luck, love and light in their future lives together as husband and wife.