From the Homestead Kitchen: A Recap of Something’s Brewing

by Alexandra Rasic

Last Sunday, Gennie Truelock, Jennifer Scerra, and I presented Something’s Brewing! Women and Tea in 20th Century Los Angeles, a rollicking exploration of the many roles that taking tea has filled in the lives of women. As we explored the social impact of gathering for tea, we sampled eight historic recipes…and we drank some tea. This was the second program we presented based on research the three of us have done for a series of posts on this blog called From the Homestead Kitchen. (In the first, we made and talked about Everything but the Turkey from a 1929 Thanksgiving menu.) When the coronavirus pandemic began and people scampered to fill their cupboards and freezers with food last March, we started taking a closer look at food-related books, pamphlets, magazines, and objects in our collection, and we’ve learned a great many things since then. The ways people ate and cooked between 1830 and 1930 (the parameters of our interpretive period) changed dramatically to say the least. Families went from cooking on open flames to using gas ranges; from preserving meat using salt to refrigeration; and from making their own cheese to buying it processed in a variety of shapes and flavors.

Something’s Brewing started with a look at how tea became a popular drink in places like Asia and Europe; but never gained as much popularity in America, where unlike other parts of the world, it came to be a beverage associated primarily with women. Next, we looked at how the practice of snacking at “tea time” took hold in England at about the same time that the very first women’s rights convention took place in Seneca Falls, NY, a mere ten days after a transformational tea party hosted by Jane Hunt in 1848. We followed that up by exploring how Los Angeles became a hub for the Women’s Club movement as women organized during the Progressive Era, a period filled with social activism and political reform throughout the country. Then we looked at the rise in popularity of Tea Rooms, safe spaces for women advertised as a home away from home that were often owned and operated by women, providing a viable source of income for them. We noted the social component of taking tea and how it impacted entertaining and led to the creation of novel recipes and menus. And finally, as is the true American way, we dove into how “taking tea” was monetized through the creation of Tea Room restaurants in department stores like Bullock’s.

So what was on the menu? Throughout the program we sampled a Perfect Sponge Cake, Angel’s Cake, Orange Biscuits, a frosted Salad Loaf and Cake Sandwich Loaf, Emrelette and Oroette cream cheese sandwiches, a Blushing Pear salad, and Blushing Bunny. You can check out the recipes here, and admire (or chuckle at!) pictures of some of our creations below.

The Perfect Sponge Cake from the Castelar Crèche Cookbook in the Homestead’s collection. It was delicious! Gennie filled it with cream and strawberry rhubarb jam.
Angel’s Cake from The Woman Suffrage Cook Book. First published in 1886, and again in 1890, the book is digitized and available for free online. Gennie served this with homemade lemon curd and blueberries. It was lovely.
Women’s Club President Mary M. Coman’s Orange Biscuit recipe from the citrus section of the Covina Women’s Club Cook Book from the Homestead’s collection. Jennifer has become quite good at making these tasty treats.
These open-face Emrelette and Oroette cream cheese sandwiches made on brioche bread were tasty. The Emrelettes were flavored with crème de menthe syrup and the Oroettes with pineapple and orange syrups. Peeling grapes before soaking them in the syrups was the most time consuming step.
Let’s talk about gendered food, shall we? As Gennie said, add “Blushing” to the name of any recipe and you communicate that it must be something that girls will like. This is just one example of “dainty” luncheon food that we talked about during the program. Historian Paul Freedman explains that dainty was the most popular adjective used to describe women’s taste preferences between 1890 and World War II. The word could be associated with all kinds of feminine things, “but with regard to food, it meant delicate, colorful, and decorative.” This dish was easy on the eyes, but not on the taste buds. This recipe also came from from Luncheon, Tea and Party Suggestions.
Last but not least, we sampled Blushing Bunny, a “modern” take on Welsh Rarebit (cheesy toast with mustard that sometimes included ale and/or paprika) created in America sometime between the late 1890s, when canned soup was made available, and the 1920s, when Prohibition was in full swing. This recipe also came from Luncheon, Tea and Party Suggestions. If you like canned tomato soup and American cheese, this recipe is right up your alley!

Was every recipe a winner? No. But we sure had a great time exploring the history of taking tea and sharing our culinary creations with one another and the people who joined us on Zoom. Viewers had great observations, questions, and comments including our favorite that came from Cynthia at about the 90-minute mark who said, “I don’t know how you swallow something that does not taste good,” after we unanimously recoiled from our first bites of the Blushing Pear salad, which while absolutely gorgeous to look at, was absolutely terrible in flavor. “That is not good…that is not good at all,” remarked Gennie, who made the dish. “There is, I will say, a strong aftertaste of mayonnaise…which is challenging on pear,” said Jennifer. I rounded out the chorus with “It’s a mistake…a grave mistake.” 

So what’s next on the menu? We’ll continue exploring the Homestead’s collection for inspiration and keep you posted.

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