Few tears flowed from last month’s announcement that Family Circle’s First Lady Cookie Contest had dissolved like a Nilla wafer in milk. Most people viewed the now-defunct women’s magazine’s presidential-election-year tradition of asking readers to make and rate the potential First Lady’s favorite cookie recipes as stale, stupid, and sexist.
Me? I think we need this contest now more than ever.
Stress baking in reaction to the pandemic, racial injustice, and a divided electorate is huge right now. That makes this the absolute worst time to take away this chance for Democrats and Republicans to rationally and respectfully debate butter versus Crisco, walnuts versus pecans, and food processor versus hand-beating. People can disagree about whether peanut butter chips are a legitimate substitute for real peanut butter and whether black and whites are really just mini cakes, but it’s hard to yell about it with your mouth full of cookie. This contest could actually be a sweet spot in a bitter election cycle.
The Family Circle cookie contest actually started as a joke. It was prompted by Hillary Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign answer to a reporter’s question about her law firm work. “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do is fulfill my profession,” was her infamous reply, widely digested as a putdown of stay-at-home moms. Eager to make amends, Clinton gladly handed over her chocolate chip oatmeal cookie recipe to Family Circle editors.
The bake-off became a fun — and often derided — part of the American presidential election conversation ever since.
Critics wonder how a candidate’s spouse’s baking prowess ended up driving our democracy. I think I can answer that.
Knowing your way around a kitchen is not incompatible with career ambition, as Kamala Harris’s cooking videos attest. Being well-rounded can be an asset in a people-centered career like politics; common taste, a subset of the all-important political “common touch.” Past winning recipes in Family Circle’s contest have, in fact, almost all been variations on the chocolate chip, America’s favorite.
That five of the seven winners belonged to the winning First Family is also no accident. More than a delicious diversion, this contest is also a polling tool at least as accurate as most pundits. A 2020 cookie contest could give us something to go on in the event of a delayed outcome next month.
All of which explains why I launched my gonzo quest to single-handedly revive the contest. I already had Melania Trump’s 2016 star-shaped sugar cookie recipe. (She was one of the two anomalies to lose the contest while winning the White House). I took her press office’s silence as indication that she wanted to double-down on her stars. In any case, she liked her stars enough to make them part of the White House’s 2018 Christmas celebration.
As for Jill Biden: Presidential cookie contest-wise, she was the proverbial bridesmaid to Michelle Obama and her shortbread (2008) and triple-chocolate chip (2012) selections. Does Jill Biden even like cookies? I wondered.
My e-mail and tweets to Jill Biden’s press rep were not returned, her dessert preferences apparently being kept a state secret. Google searches produced Jill Biden recipes for chicken Parm and nuggets, spiced nuts, and chocolate cake — but no cookies.
Jill Biden contributed the cake recipe to a Delaware Hadassah cookbook. I called one of its editors in hopes she and Biden had discussed other dessert recipes — for a cookie, perhaps? This yielded only a story about how gracious Biden was when it was discovered that her recipe had been inadvertently dropped from the manuscript. (She signed books at the publishing party anyway.) The baker of Jill Biden’s daughter’s wedding cake similarly said she thought Biden and her boss talked cake and only cake.
Inquiries to Biden’s favorite gourmet market and restaurant, and to her community college co-workers, family, and friends were mostly ignored and occasionally rebuffed.
“You wouldn’t believe all the crazy calls we get. But I do think she likes cookies,” one nephew said, before directing me to the campaign.
I took exception to the characterization of my important investigative recipe work as crazy. But I was encouraged by the crumb he dropped about Jill Biden liking cookies.
“I don’t know Jill’s favorite cookie, and I certainly am not going to ask them about it right now,” barked one family friend on the eve of the first Biden/Trump debate.
OK, but when would be a good time? It’s hard to find a pause in the news cycle to sneak in a cookie question.
I recalled a Family Circle editor saying the magazine nearly canceled the contest in 2016 because “we had a hard time getting the recipes,” and thought, "Amen to that, sister.”
Then, a breakthrough: Jill Biden’s friend and former Delaware Technical Community College colleague Mary Doody picked up her phone to say she was having lunch with Jill that very afternoon and would ask her about cookies.
And then, the very next morning, an e-mail from this sweet, sweet cookie Deep Throat with a link to Giada De Laurentiis’s cranberry chocolate chunk oatmeal cookie recipe, which she said was Jill’s favorite, along with the heartwarming story that “these are the cookies that Jill would make for [the Bidens' late son] Beau when he was in Iraq.”
So I’ve done my patriotic duty. You need to bake Melania Trump’s sleek sugar cookie stars and Jill Biden’s oatmeal indulgences and vote twice: once for your favorite cookie and once for real.
May we all win.
Carolyn Wyman can be reached at email@example.com.