Cooked Up After A Hillary Clinton Gaffe, The First Spouse Cookie Battle Is Back

Aug 18, 2016
Originally published on August 18, 2016 10:50 pm

Although Family Circle magazine's quadrennial presidential cookie competition sounds like it might have started with Mamie Eisenhower back in the 1950s, it actually got its start with Hillary Clinton.

Every presidential election cycle since 1992, the magazine has published a cookie recipe from the candidates' wives. The latest recipes were released Thursday morning, of course with a twist this year: Since Hillary Clinton is the first female nominee of a major party, it was her husband, Bill, who was asked to furnish a cookie recipe, along with Melania Trump.

The Clintons don't exactly win points for creativity this year. The campaign submitted the "Clinton Family's Chocolate Chip Cookies" — a reprise of Hillary Clinton's earlier oatmeal chocolate chip submissions. And Melania Trump's submission: "Melania Trump's Star Cookies." Family Circle readers will vote on the recipes in a poll on the magazine's website.

But this isn't so much a story about cookies as it is a story about Hillary Clinton. Back in 1992, Hillary Clinton was something of an oddity, a political spouse with her own high-powered career, who hadn't set it aside to stand by her husband when Bill Clinton became governor of Arkansas. Her career became an issue in the Democratic primary. There were questions about whether then-Gov. Bill Clinton had funneled state business into her law firm.

When asked about her career in a press gaggle, Clinton responded, "You know, I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession, which I entered before my husband was in public life. And I tried very, very hard to be as careful as possible, and that's all that I can tell you."

The uproar was almost immediate. Her comments were taken as a slight against stay-at-home moms and women who did have time to make cookies, and catapulted her into controversy.

Around the same time, an industrious public relations person at Family Circle magazine 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. What started out as a gaffe, she says, became a fun contest, and that contest has become a tradition.

That year, Hillary Clinton submitted an oatmeal chocolate chip cookie. Barbara Bush entered chocolate chip cookies, no oatmeal. People around the country voted on their favorite recipe, and Clinton's won.

In fact, news reports from 1992 discuss Clinton throwing herself into the competition, getting her friends to help bake cookies and passing them out to get more votes. It seems after all the controversy about her baking cookies comment, Clinton, the Yale Law School graduate, actually campaigned for the first lady baking contest while her husband campaigned for the presidency.

Here's how The New York Times described Clinton's cookie campaign:

"The public has been invited to vote, so Mrs. Clinton is giving her cookies a jump start at the convention this week. On Monday, she told an audience of Congressional wives at a tea given in her honor by Doris Matsui, wife of Representative Robert T. Matsui of California, the Democratic Party treasurer, that while she hadn't sought a competition, she was going all out to win.

'Join with me in the first real effort of the election year,' she said. 'Try my cookies. I hope you like them, but like good Democrats vote for them anyway.'"

Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, finds it all mind-bogglingly antiquated. Women were working outside the home and were significant sources of income for their families long before 1992, and they certainly are now.

Walsh noted, "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. And the price she paid was then being placed in the midst of a cookie bake-off." Though, she also points out, baking cookies and being an accomplished woman are not mutually exclusive.

Melania Trump's submission, Ragone says, is very simple and seems traditionally Eastern European — dough rolled out and cut into the shape of stars.

And Hillary Clinton's oatmeal chocolate chip cookies from 1992 and 1996 (they won both years) are back.

Because Hillary Clinton is now the nominee, "They're changing the name to being the Clinton family recipe. So they're going from the, you know, wife's recipe to the Clinton family recipe," Ragone said.

No word on whether the former president or Melania Trump will be actually baking and campaigning for these cookies.

Antiquated or not, the voting in this year's presidential cookie competition begins today.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Here's one more way you know this presidential race is different. We're about to talk about Bill Clinton's cookie recipe. Every four years, Family Circle magazine has hosted a cookie bake-off between the wives of presidential candidates. This year, there's a twist. Since a woman is running for president, her husband was asked to furnish a recipe. As NPR's Tamara Keith reports, the Clintons' history with this bake-off goes way back.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: This isn't so much a story about cookies as it is a story about Hillary Clinton because this cookie competition that sounds like it could have started with Mamie Eisenhower actually got its start in 1992 with Clinton herself. Clinton was something of an oddity, a political spouse with her own high - powered career, and her career had become an issue in the Democratic primary. There were questions about whether her husband, the governor, had funneled state business into her law firm. And when asked about it in a press gaggle, this is how Clinton responded.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

HILLARY CLINTON: You know, I suppose I could've stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to was fulfill my profession, which I entered before my husband was in the public life.

KEITH: The uproar was almost immediate, taken as a slight against stay-at-home moms and women who did have time to make cookies. Her good friend from childhood, Betsy Ebeling, was there.

BETSY EBELING: I remember she turned to me. She said - 'cause somebody said something to her. And she said - did that bother anyone? I said, no, it didn't. I mean, it was one level of reality at that time. But there - as we know, there are many levels to reality.

KEITH: After that moment, as Robert Siegel described it on this program, Clinton opted to take a lower profile for a while.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROBERT SIEGEL, BYLINE: A casual remark about tea and cookies catapulted Hillary Clinton into controversy. Campaign observers say that she has played a quieter role since then.

KEITH: The controversy got some wheels turning at Family Circle magazine, and the cookie bake-off for candidates' wives was born. Regina Ragone ran the test kitchen at the magazine.

REGINA RAGONE: It was our PR person at the time who was very sharp. And I think she just jumped right on it, seeing what would happen. And since we're so famous for recipes and cookies, this would be the perfect, you know, opportunity for us to do it.

KEITH: It was Hillary Clinton's oatmeal chocolate chip cookies versus Barbara Bush's chocolate chip cookies without oatmeal. News reports from 1992 say Clinton threw herself into the competition, getting her friends to help bake cookies and passing them out to get more votes. It seems after all the controversy about her baking cookies comment, Clinton, the Yale Law School grad, actually campaigned for the first lady baking contest, while her husband campaigned for the presidency. Debbie Walsh is director of the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University.

DEBBIE WALSH: It felt almost as though she 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. And the price she paid was then being placed in the midst of a cookie bake-off.

KEITH: Hillary Clinton won that bake-off. Walsh finds it all mind bogglingly antiquated. Women were working outside the home and were significant sources of income for their families long before 1992, and they certainly are now, though she also points out baking cookies and being an accomplished woman are not mutually exclusive.

WALSH: Its time had passed even when it had first begun, and yet - and here we are. It's rather amazing to think that now in 2016 that still goes on.

KEITH: But there's a twist this time because Hillary Clinton is now the nominee. These days, Regina Ragone is the food director at Family Circle. She says the oatmeal chocolate chip cookies from 1992 are back.

RAGONE: But now they're changing the name to be the Clinton family recipe. So it's going from being the - you know, the wife recipe to the Clinton family recipe.

SHAPIRO: And NPR's Tamara Keith is here in the studio now, and you brought cookies.

KEITH: I did. I was up late last night baking.

SHAPIRO: The Tupperware opens, and there are two kinds of cookies in here.

KEITH: Yes. So let's start with the Clinton family cookie, which is an oatmeal chocolate chip.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) I love that I get to eat cookies on the radio. Good texture, nice and dense, very chocolatey.

KEITH: It's a traditional cookie. And the Melania Trump cookie recipe is interesting. Ragone says that it's simple and seems sort of Eastern European.

RAGONE: It's not that sweet. It's almost biscuit-y (ph). You know, it's flour, butter, baking soda, some eggs and a little sour cream, and that's it.

KEITH: It's kind of like a sugar cookie. Roll out the dough, and then it's supposed to be star-shaped. So here you go.

SHAPIRO: This is a very blank-slate cookie.

KEITH: Yes. You could...

SHAPIRO: No cinnamon, no cardamom, not a lot of sugar.

KEITH: No vanilla even. It's a very simple cookie. You could put frosting on it, but the recipe doesn't call for that.

SHAPIRO: Both cookie recipes are online at npr.org. Tam, thanks for the insight and for the cookies.

KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.