It’s come to this: the longrunning cookie contest between the spouses of presidential candidates won’t happen this year. That’s because the institution that hosted it—Family Circle, one of the legendary “seven sisters” of women’s magazine publishing—shut down last year. But it’s hard to imagine an election tradition that would be less appropriate to the current moment, and even thinking about the tradition shows just how dark the situation has grown in the last four years.
The cooking contest wasn’t a tradition dating back to the aggressively normative 1950s, or even the early 20th century period when “scientific” cooking, kitchens, and nutrition were national obsessions. Although to be clear, there is a long history of homey politicking around food; as the New York Times reported in 2000: “For decades, presidential campaigns have been forced to offer family recipes. Postcards from the past, when wives stayed home and cooked, they’re served up as a window on the family life of the candidates — if somewhat artificially flavored. When Walter Mondale ran, his campaign provided an entire cookbook of family recipes.” These were always liable to be a bit bogus, though, as the Washington Post noted in an article about the end of the cookie contest:
“To the world, the Reagans presented an image of what every American family wanted to be in the middle of the 20th century,” Tumulty writes in the manuscript for the forthcoming “The Triumph of Nancy Reagan.” “Ronnie was named ‘Screen Father of the Year’ in 1957. In GE ads, Nancy was living every housewife’s dream as she marveled at how easily she could turn out a souffle with her state-of-the-art appliances.”
But let’s not forget that the former Nancy Davis was an actress in her own right. “In reality, her son said, she ‘couldn’t make steam. She was just the worst cook,’ ” Tumulty writes. “Even coffee was beyond Nancy’s abilities in the kitchen.”
The cookie contest specifically was the product of the late 1980s and early 1990s cultural anxiety about the increasing number of career-oriented women. Few people were such a lightning rod for that anxiety as Hillary Clinton, and she played right into it when she infamously told reporters: “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was fulfill my profession, which I entered before my husband was in public life.”
As Time recalled in 2016, the backlash was significant. (This, too, was not long after she made a comment in an interview about not being the Tammy Wynette stand-by-your-man type of woman, a wildly controversial remark that in retrospect is perhaps one of the most ironic lines in American political history.)
“If I ever entertained the idea of voting for Bill Clinton, the smug bitchiness of his wife’s comment has nipped that notion in the bud,” went one letter to the magazine.
In stepped Family Circle, reported WBUR in 2016:
Around the same time, an industrious public relations person at Family Circlemagazine came up with an idea: a cookie bake-off for the candidates’ wives (it’s now billed as a poll, not a bake-off). Regina Ragone, now the food director at Family Circle, noted how the magazine was “famous for recipes and cookies,” and that Hillary Clinton’s remark seemed to be “the perfect opportunity” to start a cookie competition.
And so, Clinton did damage control via oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, committing to the contest with gusto, fully admitting that she wanted to win and (perhaps half-jokingly) promoting her recipe at a tea at the Democratic National Convention. “It felt almost as though [Hillary Clinton] had stepped outside the bounds of what was seen as the traditional role of first lady, potential first lady. And therefore, she had to pay a price,” Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, told WBUR. “And the price she paid was then being placed in the midst of a cookie bake-off.” She did ultimately beat Barbara Bush in the 1992 contest, and the tradition carried on for the next 30 years, through numerous elections, even circling back through to the Clintons once again, with Bill competing. (Laura Bush’s winning “cowboy cookies” recipe, by the way, is genuinely delicious.)
But it’s fitting that the “Presidential Cookie Poll,” as Family Circle eventually renamed it, is gone; after all, Hillary Clinton is finally out of electoral politics (even if she is still providing commentary on Twitter). This year, forget cookies—the Republican National Convention was dominated by the spectacle of Lara Trump and other Republican women attempting to wrest control of the banners and sashes of the women’s suffrage movement. Trump is attempting to appeal to white suburban women by painting a picture of violence, chaos, disorder, and bad schools; Melania plays off his dark vision with the absolute barest words of empathy.
And, too, Family Circle is exactly the kind of small-c conservative, mainstream outlet that basically doesn’t exist anymore. Mass-market women’s magazines reaching millions of readers including Family Circle as well as Redbook and others fully occupied the middle ground of American culture, even as they helped create and maintain what that middle ground meant over the course of the 20th century. Measures like the cookie contest were in fact their last gasp. Now, nothing escapes hyper-partisan politics, and it would be completely ridiculous to conduct a friendly cookie taste test when the news is dominated by police brutality, pandemic deaths, and outright fear about the stability of the American political system.
Who cares about chocolate chip cookies?