Who Baked It Better: Bill or Melania?

The first lady cookie bakeoff has been a sexist tradition since 1992. How did Bill and Melania do at America's toughest cookie challenge?
Publish date:
November 4, 2016
politics, Bill Clinton, Donald Trump

One of the most delightfully archaic and sexist traditions of the American election cycle is the First Lady Cookie Bakeoff, politely renamed the "Presidential Cookie Bakeoff" this year, but since "ladies" is gender-neutral, I'll be using its hallowed and respected name. The setup: The First Lady, as host of the United States, may be called from time to time to present visiting foreign leaders with home-baked cookies. Thus, the American people need to know which candidate's spouse is the better baker, as this may have a bearing on their voting decisions.

In 2012, Michelle Obama's cookies narrowly beat out Ann Romney's with a panel of anonymous judges, all of whom stubbornly refused to participate this year after the horrors I visited upon their intestinal tracts last time. This year, it was President Bill Clinton versus Melania Trump in the kitchen beatdown that would decide the fate of America, and my unwary neighbors were my victims as I stalked them one by one with platters of deceptively enticing cookies.

Quick sidebar on the origins of the bakeoff. While it's often treated as something that's been a part of the election since time immemorial, it actually dates to 1992 and Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign. His wife, then First Lady of Arkansas Hillary Clinton, was pretty irritated with the press when they asked why she tried to be a silly career woman instead of doing something sensible with her life.

"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. Some Americans did not take kindly to this, and this is when some brilliant marketing person at Family Circle decided to initiate the First Lady Cookie Bakeoff (which she won in 1992 and 1996, by the way).

I think we can all pause for a moment here and revel in the sheer, unadulterated sexism of this completely bizarre tradition. It ties into deeper attitudes about First Ladies and what they are supposed to do. Despite the fact that First Ladies actually have and pursue policy agendas and lead very public lives, there's still this notion that they're the hostesses of the White House, despite the fact that the White House has a huge staff that actually takes care of the whole hosting situation.

Yet, the bakeoff has become a strange little oddly enough part of the election, though it was marred in 2008 by the Bill Clinton plagiarism scandal, when he gamely submitted an entry that turned out to be ripped off from Betty Crocker. This year he wisely stuck closer to home with what is effectively a reprisal of Secretary Clinton's 1992 cookie recipe, now called the "Clinton Family Chocolate Chip Cookies."

Of note: He eats a mostly plant-based diet, with the exception of fish now and then. As such, I would have expected a vegan cookie recipe (since if you are putting fish in your cookies, I do not know what is wrong with you and you are definitely not fit to occupy the White House in any capacity), and that actually would have been pretty exciting. There are some mighty fine vegan cookies out there.

A vegan cookie recipe was not, however, what I got. In fact, I got a pretty generic oatmeal chocolate chip cookie, except that it used vegetable shortening instead of butter. I have pretty strong feelings about vegetable shortening, and so I was predisposed to dislike these cookies, especially since I also loathe oatmeal except in highly controlled circumstances, and the ratios of the recipe looked off to me — so much so that I double checked it in several places to confirm that they were right.

Setting aside my reservations, I duly followed the recipe directions and baked for the recommended amount of time. What I got was a collection of weird, gluey masses that looked nothing like the photographs that accompanied them, making me suspect I might have overblended the recipe slightly. But also? The proportions were weird and I suspect it should have had double the amount of flour recommended

One of my judges flat-out refused to taste them, which was not a particularly auspicious start. I found them surprisingly not terrible, for oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, although they were way too sweet and I maintain they should have had more flour, to make them less like chocolate-and-oat-clusters and more like cookies. They also should have had butter, because if god had wanted us to use vegetable shortening, she wouldn't have given us cows.

Comments from the judges included: "Mmm...oh." "Interesting." "Are these the Trump cookies?"

I don't think I'd go out of my way to make these again, and I suspect the chickens will be eating a large number of them, but they went better than expected. Which is more than can be said of Melania Trump's star cookies.

So, I was actually excited about these. I like a nice, traditional, simple Eastern European sugar cookie and the use of sour cream to add a little tang intrigued me. That said, two things gave me pause. One was the lack of any other flavoring, like, say, vanilla, and the other was the lack of salt. I assumed this was also a mistake and checked in multiple places, but no, apparently she thinks her husband's Twitter account is salty enough to meet our needs.

That said, I bravely ventured forward. These at least had butter, though not enough of it, which was worrying, but I set aside my fears. I duly chilled and rolled out the dough, though I got a smaller yield than the recipe indicated. The cook time was right on the money, though, and they came out lovely and tinged with gold.

I waited impatiently for them to cool.

Friends, it is rare that I do not finish a cookie.

I bit one delicate little arm off that star and felt like I had sunk my teeth into a piece of rotting cardboard. It was utterly flavorless and dull, and so dry that my mouth recoiled in horror.

"Ergh," I said. "Oof."

Judges: "I hope you won't be offended, but these were really terrible." "Were they supposed to taste like that?"

One set of cookies appeared highly suspect, given my preexisting sentiments, but turned out to be pretty good, performing much better than predicted.

The other set of cookies looked seductively delicious, but turned out to be a clever ruse.

I leave it to you to draw your own conclusions. Don't forget to vote!