If you were dining at the home of an aspiring Los Angeles hostess in 1930, you might have been served smoked salmon appetizers (strips of salmon rolled “around a midget sweet pickle in the form of a calla lily”), followed by tomato bouillon, lobster timbales, baked veal and a frozen chestnut mousse.
Flash-forward 70 years and our hostess’ great-granddaughter might offer a fancy spread of curried walnut chicken triangles, duck with dried cherry port sauce, roasted garlic thyme custards, spinach with pancetta and pine nuts, and a gingerbread cake with caramelized pears.
Trace the source of all of the party dishes on California tables, and it’s likely that many originated in a Junior League cookbook. These popular collections of home-tested recipes record the development of a certain kind of cutting-edge California cuisine from the ‘30s to the present day. That first menu comes from “The Junior League Recipe Book” published in Los Angeles in 1930, the latter from “Dinner With Good Friends” (very good friends, one might say) in “California Fresh Harvest” by the Junior League of Oakland-East Bay published in June.
Celebrating its centennial this year, the Junior League was founded in 1901 in New York City and its chapters have spread to Great Britain, Canada and Mexico. Until recently, membership was limited to women ages 20 to 40, who devoted themselves to charitable work. Today, the age restrictions have largely vanished, and league members pursue careers as well as volunteer work. No longer are they just “young women of leisure,” as they are described in the introduction to the old Los Angeles league book.
As one of the organization’s chief fund-raising tools, Junior League cookbooks have always found an enthusiastic audience among California readers because the recipes fit the needs of the average cook, from simple fast dishes to food fancy enough for company--"good home cooking with a little bit of panache,” says one fan.
They reflect regional tastes, ingredients are easy to find, procedures are straightforward, and enthusiasm floods their pages. There’s a feeling of comfort and security in using recipes from women who could be friends or neighbors, often accompanied by glowing comments. “A great mid-week supper. Your kids will love it,” says the introduction to Tijuana torte, an easy casserole of ground beef, cheese and tortillas in “California Sizzles” (1992) by the Junior League of Pasadena.
“Delicious is an understatement for this coffeecake” goes with a frosted oatcake in “Delicious Decisions” by the Junior League of San Diego (1987). And who could resist chocolate caramel shortbread bars that are “sinfully rich and wonderful!” from “California Fresh Harvest,” the recent book by the Oakland-East Bay Junior League.
Recipes come from popular restaurants, caterers, hotels and bakeries as well as league members. While “California Fresh Harvest” offers candied ginger shortcakes with peaches from the Point Arena Bakery, and picholine olives braised with white wine and lemon from Chez Panisse, the 1930 L.A. book includes a cold julienne of chicken en aspic from the California Club, milk-fed chicken Jerusalem from the Town House, and spring chicken saute mascot from the Biltmore Hotel. (Other contributors included names prominent in Southern California history, including: Mmes. Secondo Guasti, Walter Leimert, John O’Melveny, Ernest Duque and Asa Call.)
The books change with the times, not only in terms of culinary fashion, but in deeper ways. A decade after that 1930 cookbook, the league produced another. This one is sprinkled with practical dishes for women whose lives and resources had been affected by economic changes. The Depression had taken its toll, and World War II was on the horizon.
These leaguers could turn to practical recipes for tamale pie, “Mexican” chili, “supper” spaghetti and macaroni in a chapter of “Sunday Night Suppers.” Scattered through other chapters are such classics of economy as lentil soup with wieners, tuna supreme (tuna, rice and ketchup mixed with white sauce) and “Italian Delight” (noodles, corn, canned tomato soup and cheese combined with cooked veal or chicken). Interestingly, the name “risotto” makes its debut in this book. But instead of the Italian rice dish, it was a baked dish of Hungarian goulash and rice topped with peas.
Even the way the books were put together changed. In the 1930 book, recipes were written without much detail and were only tested by the women who contributed them. What is lacking in detail is compensated for with quaint charm. To make Mom’s Brunswick Stew, you need “1 heavy hen (not too old).” This you “put in pot and cook until meat comes off the bones. Remove bones. Put meat back in liquid and add 1 can tomatoes, 1 can corn, 1 can lima beans.” The seasonings are “about three tablespoons Worcestershire and a little Tobasco[sic],” and salt. The last step is to peel four potatoes and add them “about an hour before chicken is done” (how long does it take to cook that tough old hen?).
Leagues today put more effort into honing their recipes than the authors of some commercially published books. They may be triple-tested in home kitchens, graded on evaluation forms, tasted at committee meetings and revised and improved.
As well they should, Junior League cookbooks sometimes circulate for years. The older, out-of-print books occasionally turn up at used book stores, book sales and thrift shops. Buyers snap them up, often at bargain prices, appreciating their historical value and local flavor.
You don’t have to be a cook to love the 1964 book by the Junior League of Pasadena, “Pasadena Prefers.” This spiral-bound book was divided into sections that reflected the leisure-minded society of that day. Leaguers designed their meals around tailgating, “riding and racquets,” lawn sports (shuffleboard, badminton), skiing, golf, armchair sports and parlor games. Reflecting an improved economy, the chapter on “Yachting, Boating, Sailing and Snorkeling” addresses the requirements of those with boats smaller than 40 feet and those plying the seas in larger vessels. The parlor games chapter notes that “Charades, dancing, conversation for adults in evening clothes--require extraordinary dinners.”
By this time, food had become self-consciously “gourmet.” A recipe for “Gourmet White Wine and Gruyere Casserole” specified, in italics, that “imported” Gruyere should be used.
Some books are general recipe collections, appetizers to desserts. Others are organized around themes. “R.S.V.P.: A Complete Cookbook and Entertaining Guide” published by the Junior League of Newport Harbor in 1982, covers every aspect of party giving: invitation design, table settings, centerpieces, serving pieces, napkin folds, a countdown schedule, menus and recipes.
“California Sizzles” focuses on easy dishes that can be prepared quickly and that typify the California lifestyle. “California Fresh Harvest” explores crops, commodities and tourist attractions of Northern California in a format as worthy of a cocktail table as a kitchen counter.
Pasadena’s “The California Heritage Cookbook” (1976) weaves the state’s history through its chapters and displays antique maps on its end papers. “San Francisco a la Carte,” produced in 1979 by the Junior League of San Francisco, tours the city highlights and tells how to make such local specialties as Palace Court salad, Green Goddess salad dressing, cioppino and fried cream.
The effort that went into compiling these books was motivated by more than league pride. “The most important message about the cookbooks is they are really a means to an end,” says Jane A. Silverman, executive director of the Assn. of Junior Leagues International. “They [the leagues] use them to fund just great, great projects.”