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Traditional presidential cookie contest is off, but many ‘first lady recipes’ have long been bogus

UPDATED: Mon., Sept. 7, 2020

Melania Trump’s sour cream star cookies.  (Deb Lindsey/For the Washington Post)
Melania Trump’s sour cream star cookies. (Deb Lindsey/For the Washington Post)
By Emily Heil Washington Post

This year’s presidential campaign is like no other: The conventions were virtual, there’s no baby kissing, and folksy diner visits are out. One other way that it will differ from those in the past quarter-plus century? There will be no first lady’s cookie recipe contest sponsored by Family Circle magazine pitting the favorite treats from the spouses of opposing candidates in a kind of sugary proxy battle for the nation’s stomachs, if not their hearts and minds.

That’s because Family Circle, the magazine that dispensed cooking, home and parenting tips since 1932, ceased publication last year, a victim of shifts in the media landscape. A spokeswoman for Meredith Corp., the former glossy’s parent company, said she was unaware of any efforts to keep the cookie-contest tradition alive. Others might yet step into the breech. But perhaps it is time anyway to stick a fork in the dated ritual.

Political prognosticators, though, might have lost a tool for gauging the mood of the nation. The Family Circle contest correctly predicted the winner of the election in five of the past seven cycles, which is at least better than your average cable pundit. Its crystal ball failed during the last election, when in 2016, the Clinton family chocolate chip recipe bested now first lady Melania Trump’s submission for sour cream star cookies (the magazine had by then restyled the contest as the gender-neutral “Presidential Cookie Poll.”)

The Clintons’ recipe won against Barbara Bush’s chocolate chip variety in 1992 and again in 1996 against Elizabeth Dole’s pecan cookies – both presaging wins by Bill Clinton. Another miss came in 2008, when Cindy McCain’s oatmeal butterscotch cookies bested Michelle Obama’s shortbread recipe, though John McCain’s campaign wasn’t successful.

The demise of the presidential cookie face-off in the 2020 cycle might be apt. The contest actually began in 1992 because of Hillary Clinton when her husband’s campaign went into damage-control mode over her derisive comments about cookie-making. (In defending her own legal career and ambitions, she told a reporter, “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas.”)

The contest launched as a lighthearted, somewhat ironic stunt, first lady historian Carl Sferrazza Anthony told the Washington Post in 2016, but it eventually came to be viewed as a serious part of the presidential-campaign gauntlet.

And now, 28 years later, Clinton is out of politics, though she did speak at last month’s convention endorsing Democratic candidate Joe Biden. So perhaps it is appropriate that the contest’s life span paralleled her own public life, which saw her evolution from first lady to senator, secretary of state and presidential nominee, jabbing at glass ceilings all the way.

Another argument for ditching the quadrennial sideshow? Many recipes purporting to come from first ladies’ well-loved recipe boxes are … now, prepare to be shocked, shocked … pure fabrication. In her 2015 memoir, Barbara Bush recalled that inaugural Family Circle contest, noting that the recipe the magazine used was a previously published one, and it was originally from a former housemate of hers at Yale.

And you should also cast a wary eye on other dishes purporting to come from the Bush family matriarch’s kitchen. She went on to describe how a campaign volunteer began disseminating recipes of Bush’s that swapped in healthier ingredients in place of butter and eggs. Eventually, the campaign worker merely started sending out recipes she liked under Bush’s name.

“I knew nothing about this until a woman told me one day how much she loved my bean recipe,” Bush wrote. “Bean recipe! My bean recipe was to open a can. What on earth was she talking about? So there it is. There are cookbooks all over the country with ‘Barbara Bush’s favorite recipes’ that I’ve never seen before. I just hope they’re good.”

Nancy Reagan was hardly the kitchen-proficient housewife, according to an upcoming biographer of the former first lady by the Washington Post’s Karen Tumulty, which sheds some doubt on the origin of Reagan’s famous recipe for monkey bread.

“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.”

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