When is a Cookie More than Just a Cookie?

The Huffington Post reported this week on a controversy simmering among some women, started when Jennifer Steinhauer wrote about school bake sales for The New York Times (you can access the original article here). Generally, one would assume the topic of bake sales would not cause such an uproar, but not so in this case: Steinhauer chastised parents—mothers, really—for bringing store-bought goods to the sales, rather than lovingly making something in their own kitchens.


Sure, her article has all kinds of qualifiers, letting off the hook those who can’t afford baking stuff from home (though she gently reminds readers that flour and sugar are cheaper than store-bought fare), but the bottom line—according to Steinhauer—is this: women who don’t bake for sales show an appalling lack of care. Steinhauer quotes a blogger, Waverly Gage, to make her argument clear: “Whether it is to raise money for your school or your church or whatever group, you’ve been asked to bake something and put something of yourself into it, and when someone goes and buys store-bought cookies, it misses the entire point . . . Baking is supposed to be an expression of you.”



As a disclaimer, I should say here that I love to bake, but hate to cook. I make some kind of cookie almost every weekend, enjoy baking rolls and bread when I have the time, and would much rather eat homemade baked goods than stuff purchased at the store. Though I’ve never participated in a bake sale, I’d probably supply homemade goods, and wouldn’t mind baking for my kids’ school parties, if the school system here and in many other places hadn’t banned homemade goods for classroom consumption (and for good reason: there’s so many ways kids could get sick from eating food cooked in unsanitary kitchens, or with ingredients not known by their parents).



Despite my love for baking, reading Steinhauser’s piece, and the uproar it has caused, makes me a little—or a lot—angry. Because, sometimes, a cookie really is just a cookie, not an expression of one’s mothering fitness, care, or love for her children. And Steinhauser isn’t the only one to dictate that homemade cookies = motherly love. The comments section at the end of her article, and at the end of other articles responding to her article, suggest that some kind of mommy war is a live and well, this time over who loves their kids more, those whose cookies come from their own ovens, or those who buy cookies from a store.


In this case, at least, the lines don’t seem to be drawn so much between stay-at-home and working moms, the supposed conflagration so many in the media seem to enjoy fueling.A number of comments argue that they’ve seen “lazy” stay-at-home moms who bring store bought cookies to school functions, and some working mothers chimed in to say that, although they are exhausted by all they do (sometimes providing a woe-is-me list of their duties) they would not fathom buying something from the store. The sacrifice, they say, allows children to know that they are loved by their bakin’ moms. Several wrote that they cannot imagine how “loaded” this topic is, before claiming that baking isn’t really that hard, and why can’t others just learn how to do the best they can in the kitchen, because their kids will feel the love.


To which I might respond: Really? Has it come to this? Mothers judging each other by the provenance of their baked goods? I wonder if my kids would even notice what I bring to a school function, let alone whether it’s homemade or not. Case in point: Sunday, there was a reception after their piano recital, to which I brought a homemade treat they both like very much, and which takes a good bit of time to make. Both chose someone else’s store-bought cookies. And I would have, too: they were Lofthouse sugar cookies, with gobs of frosting.(Though I imagine if someone would have brought Oreos, they would have had those, too.)


Despite my aggravation that this is even a problem, the bigger issue is that, once again, the mothers take the fall. No one wonders whether the fathers love their children more, or less, when they haven’t done a darn thing to procure goods for a bake sale. Far as I know, most men can buy cookies from the store as easy as can women; and making a batch of cookies is easy enough for anyone who can read a recipe. One commenter on the NYT site went on and on about how he had finally convinced his wife that making the effort to bring homemade stuff to potlucks was worth it, as she had been an inveterate bringer-of-store-bought goods, and I wanted to say “Hey buddy, why not get off your butt and make something yourself—or buy it at the store. Why does your wife need to be in charge of what you carry to potlucks?” Luckily, someone else called him out. But why castigate moms in the first place, as if women are the only ones capable of making choices about what should be brought to potlucks or school functions or anywhere else, and therefore can be judged for their parenting abilities, based on what they bring?


This post may seem outside the topic of our blog, and maybe it is; could be I just wanted to vent a little about Steinhauer’s original post and just about every comment that followed. At the same time, I’ve noticed in our church, at our office parties, at our school functions, women carry the burden of figuring out what to bring, making that “what,” and then schlepping it to the party/potluck/function, as if the men in their lives are completely incapable of doing the same. Although my husband and I work the full-time, and share childcare responsibilities, I almost always bake the goods for any potluck we attend—even when it’s for his department functions. This year, at least, I made him buy the fruit for a department potluck salad, chop up the ingredients by himself, and stir, which is a big step forward for both of us. Up next: Perhaps he can make a fruit salad without me standing nearby, giving him instruction.


I’ve always taken control of potluck decisions because, I’ve argued, if I followed his lead, and he ended up taking Oreos to the department potluck, the offering would still be a reflection on me and my care for his family, rather than on him. Turns out, I may be right. Because what seems just a store-bought cookie is actually a symbol of an appalling lack of love and care for my man and my children: and, also apparently, a reflection of our culture’s oft-times pernicious, if sublimated, sexism.