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

Melania Trump's star cookies (left) and the Clinton family recipe for oatmeal chocolate chip cookies (right) face off in this election cycle's cookie poll.
Courtesy of Family Circle Magazine
Melania Trump's star cookies (left) and the Clinton family recipe for oatmeal chocolate chip cookies (right) face off in this election cycle's cookie poll.

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 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
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