The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The 2016 first lady cookie contest is just as weird as the rest of the election

Melania Trump's Star Cookies. (Deb Lindsey /For The Washington Post)

Hillary Clinton has said that if she is elected president, she won't have Bill pick out the china. Another thing the former president won't be doing? Facing off against Melania Trump in the Family Circle First Lady Cookie Contest.

That's not to say the Clintons aren't participating in the 24-year-old contest, which opened its public ballot today on the magazine's Facebook page. But the recipe they submitted isn't Bill's — it's Hillary's original recipe from 1992, now called the Clinton Family's Chocolate Chip Cookies. The contest no longer focuses on first ladies, either — it's been renamed the Presidential Cookie Poll.

“I don’t think we were thinking that much about gender,” said Family Circle’s food director, Regina Ragone. “It just evolved.”

It's no surprise that the Clinton camp chose to rename and re-submit the recipe, which is permitted in the contest rules. It's already a winner, beating out Barbara Bush's chocolate chip cookies in 1992 and Elizabeth Dole's pecan cookies in 1996. It will go up against Melania Trump's sugar cookies with a touch of sour cream, cut out in the shape of stars.

Is the cookie contest a grim exercise in retrograde domesticity, or just some harmless fun? It's hard to argue for the latter when previous contestants have included Harvard-educated lawyer Michelle Obama and former secretary of transportation (and later, senator) Elizabeth Dole — and when society still guilts high-powered women about spending time outside the home. In a year in which the role of first spouse will go to either a former president or a woman who is open about employing a personal chef, asking candidates' spouses to prove their homemaking bona fides makes even less sense. But even now that she's the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton can't escape it.

Make the recipes: Melania Trump’s Star Cookies; Clinton Family’s Chocolate Chip Cookies

“I think it makes her more human and softens her a little bit,” Ragone said. “I don’t think that it distracts” from her accomplishments. “A woman today can be in the kitchen and in the office, if that’s what they want to do.”

Clinton is the entire reason Family Circle has a cookie contest. During Bill's first presidential race, when the Clintons were billed as "buy one, get one free," Hillary was criticized for her ambition. On the campaign trail in March 1992, she made the mistake of being straightforward about it: "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," she said. The quote was "a turning point in the evolution of the role of first lady," said Carl Sferrazza Anthony, the historian for the National First Ladies' Library.

The stay-at-home moms of America were outraged by Clinton’s remarks. But Family Circle sensed an opportunity, inviting Clinton and Barbara Bush to a bake-off that was one part publicity stunt, one part Clinton damage control.

A 1992 Washington Post story about Clinton's image during her husband's first presidential race began with a scene of her charming then-Republican consultant Roger Ailes (oh, how the tides have turned!), handing him a bag of her chocolate chip cookies. He later snapped: "I suspect that those are still liberal cookies." Other stories at the time quoted her as courting cookie voters: "I want people to vote for my cookies. It's a matter of honor," she said in the New York Times.

But the contest was never intended to be a serious evaluation of the first lady’s baking skills. Anthony said the public considered it “funny and ironic to hold this cookie contest in 1992.”

That cheekiness didn’t continue with the tradition. Now, “it’s seen as very humorless,” Anthony said. “The media writes about it as if it goes back to Martha Washington. If you know the full story of it, it’s very funny to see how it’s now perceived.”

It's hard to say what would have been a more powerful statement for feminism: making Bill Clinton adhere to the same domestic rituals that his first-spouse predecessors have for decades, or abolishing the whole thing altogether. To be fair, Bill did submit a different cookie recipe in 2008, when the contest took place before Obama clinched the nomination , but it was defeated by Cindy McCain's. The 1992 recipe, which includes eggs, does not adhere to Bill Clinton's current dietary practice, either: He has been a vegan since 2010.

And Family Circle did consider calling the whole thing off.

“We had a hard time getting the recipes,” said Ragone, who blamed the chaos of this election cycle for the delay. “We started thinking, maybe it’s not as interesting anymore, maybe it’s not as current.”

After hounding both campaigns, the magazine finally received the cookie submissions in late July. (Note to future candidates’ spouses: If you think ­cookie-baking is beneath you, just refuse to play the game.) Family Circle then tested and honed Trump’s recipe. Sour cream cookies have Eastern European origins, and Ragone wondered whether the recipe was from Trump’s home country of Slovenia.

"It definitely looked like a grandmother's or a handed-down recipe, because there were hardly any directions," said Ragone. In Ragone's opinion, it's an original recipe — though, that hasn't stopped Democratic jokers from alluding to Trump's plagiarism incident at the Republican Convention. On Democratic Underground, a post claims to reveal Trump's "Family recipe, passed down through generations." The picture below it is of the Toll House cookie recipe on the back of a bag of Nestle chocolate chips.

Neither the Clinton nor Trump campaigns responded to a request for comment. But Melania Trump provided a statement to Family Circle about the recipe: “Star cookies are my favorite because they’re simple yet delicious. I decorate them with colorful frosting or eat them with chocolate ice cream or whipped cream. They pair perfectly with fruits and complement your coffee and tea.”

In a way, the cookies reflect their origins. Melania's plain cookies with a hint of Eastern European influence are a blank slate for frosting or ice cream in the way that a model is for clothes. They're as opaque as her public persona and as simple as the "quiet, homebound life" that Melania was reported to have lived in New York as a young model, before she moved into Trump Tower.

Hilllary's cookies — they are hers, no matter what the campaign or Family Circle says — parallel her race to the White House, too. They're engineered to people-please without taking many risks. And, given that it's their third time in the competition, they seem to be on message with Clinton's aspirations: You liked these? they seem to be saying. Here's more of the same thing I've been doing since nineteen-ninety-freaking-two.

If Clinton’s cookies continue their winning streak, it may be a bellwether for what happens in November. Five out of six of the past contest winners have gone on to win the White House. And even if she becomes our first female president, Clinton will be forever linked with cookie-baking, whether she likes it or not.

But, if she’s being honest, Ragone isn’t sure either contestant really bakes too many cookies these days.

“I’m sure they all have people cooking and doing so much stuff for them,” Ragone said. Especially Melania: “I just don’t get that impression” that she likes to bake. “She doesn’t say she makes them. She just said they’re her favorite.”


Melania Trump’s Star Cookies

Clinton Family’s Chocolate Chip Cookies

More from Food:

Have questions about cooking? Join our live chat Wednesdays at 12.