By Joe Stumpe
When members of the Thursday Afternoon Cooking Club first got together 127 years ago, they surely didn’t anticipate that some of their great-granddaughters would be carrying on the tradition today.
Yet that’s what has happened with the Wichita group, which is thought to be the oldest club of its kind in the United States. At least half of current members have a previous relative who belonged.
“It’s been a wonderful experience for me because my great-grandmother was one of the founders, and my grandmother was in the club as well,” said current president Barb Mohney. “It’s been nice to be a part of the family legacy and generational experience. And the women in the club, they’re just lovely people.”
This month, a book celebrating that legacy of family, female friendship and food is being released by local author Sondra Langel. Called Thursday Afternoon Cooking Club, it’s part cookbook and part history book, packed with recipes and stories, historic photographs and gorgeous new images by noted lensman Larry Schwarm.
Langel isn’t a club member, but she is friends of many who are and was granted access to the club’s huge stash of handwritten recipes, meeting minutes and other materials.
Club members also spent a month with Langel in her kitchen, making sure the recipes in the book – some dating back to the club’s first years – still work for modern cooks.
“We set up my kitchen as a test kitchen,” Langel said. “Club members rotated through. Every morning three would come and we’d make one menu. We’d sit down and eat, have a glass of wine. Then another group would come in the afternoon. It was really fun, all of us together in the kitchen.”
As the book relates, the club was started in 1891 by a cooking teacher, Laura Spangler. The purpose was to teach cooking and the newly developing art of domestic science. Even though members were well-to-do and probably left most of the cooking to hired help, it was a housewife’s duty to manage the kitchen and be prepared to entertain. Like all members, Spangler went by her husband’s name – “Mrs. E.R. Spangler” – in club documents.
Despite that, Langel writes, it would be wrong to assume the members weren’t women with minds of their own. Spangler, for instance, also belonged to the Hypatia Club, formed by Populist Party rabble-rouser Mary Elizabeth Lease.
Another original member was Mrs. B.H. Campbell, Mohney’s great-grandmother. She became known as the “mother of the club,” serving as president 11 years and overseeing a cookbook it produced in 1922.
Early on, the club devoted many sessions to demonstrations of new cooking techniques and equipment. The very first demonstration was how to make angel food cake, which had just been invented a few years earlier.
“Ever since, the club has just loved angel food cake,” Langel said. “They have it maybe twice a year.
The book chronicles how the club adapted to the times – for instance, simplifying its menus during World War I and donating the money that would have been spent on food to the Red Cross. The impact of self-serve grocery stores, electric appliances, World War II rationing, Betty Crocker and Julia Child on club members is covered. In 1965, Langel notes, the club’s minutes suddenly (and with no explanation) began referring to members by their own names.
The club inspired a long article in The New York Times two years ago, on its 125th anniversary, which indirectly led to Langel’s book.
The Times writer expressed interest in writing a book or even a movie about the club, but members balked because it would have required them to sign over intellectual property rights to all club materials, Langel said.
“Everybody was very disappointed. I have a lot of friends in the club. I thought about it a while and thought, ‘What the heck, I can do that.’ ”
Langel, who chairs the Wichita Art Museum board of trustees, had collaborated with Schwarm, distinguished professor of photography at Wichita State University, on an earlier book called Wichita Artists In Their Studios. For Thursday Afternoon Cooking Club, local cooking instructor Adrienne Rathbun styled some of the food and the Greteman Group designed the book.
“Oh, absolutely,” Mohney said when asked if members are excited about the book coming out. “And we’re very appreciative of Sondra’s interest and willingness to take that on.”
Mohney doesn’t see the club holding its last luncheon anytime soon. Members have tended to be in their 50s or older, recruited after retirement or when their children were grown. The club meets eight times a year. Each member hosts a lunch once every three years, with two other members serving as co-hosts. Members who are too old to host remain honorary members.
“We took in four new members this year,” said Mohney, a retired high school principal. “You might think interest in this kind of thing might be dying, but we didn’t seem to have difficulty identifying people who were excited to participate.”
Thursday Afternoon Cooking Club will be available for sale in early December. It can be preordered and purchased at ThursdayAfternoonCookingClub.com.
It will also be sold at CityArts, The First Place, the Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum, The Workroom, Trios, Watermark Books and The Wichita Art Museum.
Strawberry Romaine Salad
1 head romaine lettuce, washed and torn
1 pint fresh strawberries, sliced
1 red onion, sliced
¼ cup slivered almonds, toasted
2 cups mayonnaise
1/3 cup light cream
1/3 cup raspberry vinegar
2 tablespoons poppy seed
2-3 teaspoons raspberry jam
Combine dressing ingredients; set aside. Toss romaine, strawberries and onion. Just before serving, drizzle dressing over salad. Garnish with almonds.
Tiny Orange Muffins
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup buttermilk
2 cups all-purpose flour
Grated zest of 2 oranges
½cup golden raisins
Juice of 2 oranges
1 cup brown sugar
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
In large bowl, cream butter and sugar. Add eggs and beat until well mixed. Dissolve baking soda in buttermilk and add to mixture alternately with flour. Add orange zest and raisins. Fill well-buttered mini muffin pans ¾ full, and bake 15 minutes. Remove immediately.
In a small bowl, mix orange juice and brown sugar. Pour 1 teaspoon of the mixture on each warm muffin. Top with additional grated zest, if desired. Best when served warm.
Yields 4-5 dozen.