My family will vouch that I’m one of the worst cooks in the world. I like to eat, but I can’t get excited about all the work that goes into food preparation. So I was surprised yesterday to find myself drawn to a copy of the 1929 edition of the Lodi Women’s Club Cook Book, which I discovered in the Museum’s collections thanks to one of our patrons.
The book is written in flawless English. It’s bound in an attractive hard leather cover and was obviously composed by a professional typesetter. Three well-placed women spearheaded the project: Editor Elizabeth Montgomery (wife of John S., the owner of a brokerage and insurance firm), Assistant Editor Cliffie West (wife of Lodi attorney Glenn West), and Secretary Ruth Ridenour (wife of Lodi dentist Irving Ridenour). The list of contributors, which includes “members of [the] club, and friends,” reads like a who’s who of early twentieth-century Lodi.
Scanning this book makes me feel as though I’m peering through a high-society dining room window. Abundance reigns. Recipes range from appetizers, through soups and entres, to “Spanish and Italian Dishes, cookies, “Electrically Frozen Desserts,” and pickles and relishes. As for appearances, I’m told that “A charming table is almost as important as good food.”
“Napkins should always match the [table] cloth,” advises the book. “Silver is laid one inch from the table edge [and] forks are placed at the left of tines turned up…. If two waitresses are serving, it is more prompt if two dishes of each course, one for each waitress, are prepared.”
Much as my wife and I would like hired help, this will never happen at our house. In fact, most of us will never experience the affluent world this book suggests.
The Lodi Women’s Club Cook Book for 1929 is more than a list of recipes and culinary advice. It reflects an entire way of life—long since gone—marked by elaborate social protocols and dependent on considerable wealth. In October 1929, much of that affluence disappeared when the stock market crashed and the Great Depression started.
I’m not quite ready to suggest that members of the club fired their maids right away and started eating with plastic forks. However, I suspect that a tough economy during the 1930s may have eroded the importance of good manners and served as a milestone in our march toward a fast food culture, not only in Lodi but throughout the United States.
I honestly don’t know if our collection holds any of the club’s cookbooks from later years, but I’m eager to start the search so I can test my suspicions.