by Alexandra Rasic, Jennifer Scerra, and Gennie Truelock—with special guest, Victoria Bernal
Labor Day is nearly here. Have you made your plans? — No? Then allow us to make a humble suggestion:
Picnics have long been a popular way for people to gather and enjoy a leisurely meal together. They can be small and intimate, huge and boisterous, or a nice happy medium. We sure love them, and we’ve enjoyed reading picnic menus we’ve come across in the Museum’s collection from the early 1900s through the 1920s as we have written blog posts for our From the Homestead Kitchen series. So, with summer rolling to an end, we all agreed that a picnic featuring historic recipes was in order.
We had a lot of menus to choose from, but we finally settled on one from a Los Angeles Times cookbook published in 1905 called “Picnic Luncheon for Jolly 6.” Jennifer wrote about the picnic lunch menus featured in this book in an earlier post, and Alex wrote a post about Wine Soup recipes from the book, too. It’s one of our favorites.
Like choosing a bottle of wine because you like the label, we admit to being lured in by the name of the menu. Being that we are only a “Jolly 3,” we decided to scale the menu down just a little and invite our friend Victoria Bernal, the mastermind behind the amazing @LAhistory on Twitter who we got to know during the pandemic as we collaborated on #NationalCookingDay (September 25) and #ArchivesCooking posts for social media. She captured our hearts with history-laden stories about making old recipes with her mom and detailed descriptions of her aunt’s Bridge Luncheon party spreads! She also promised to bring us some olive and cream cheese sandwiches after we spoke with her about our last food program inspired by the Kitchen series called Something’s Brewing: Women and Tea in 20th Century Los Angeles. So we took the Fried Chicken and Cheese off the menu and added Victoria’s cream cheese and olive sandwiches. Here’s a rundown of how things turned out written by each chef.
Strawberry Rolls (Jennifer)
“Wash and hull 2 boxes of strawberries, drain and slice them, spread on a platter, sprinkle over them a very little lemon juice and 6 tablespoonfuls powdered sugar. Remove the crusts from a dozen thin slices of bread; spread with melted butter, then the berries, roll and tie with baby ribbon at each end. Wring a napkin from cold water, pack the rolls in it, and then fold in a dry napkin.”
A menu that starts with dessert? Yay! Even better, this was only a light dessert aperitif and there was still a cake and a pie to come (but I’ll let Gennie tell you all about those).
I had some questions about this recipe before I began, but the strawberry roll ended up being much simpler than I pictured in my head. Somehow, I had imagined one of those fancy fruit and cake log things (which, how would you make that out a loaf of bread?). Instead, this made adorable, individual sized rolls, which you could eat one or two of, between more substantial picnic fare.
A couple of clarifications to the recipe: The recipe called for two boxes of strawberries. I bought 1-pound boxes and only ended up using one of them. For the melted butter, I used room temperature butter that was very spreadable, but not runny. For bread, I bought a brioche loaf, which can be sliced very thin, holds up to wet strawberries, and is light and sweet in flavor. I found brioche recipes in era newspapers, though it seems likely that many picnic goers at the time would have used a simple white bread or pullman loaf instead. I think so long as your bread is flexible without tearing, and doesn’t overwhelm the flavor of the strawberries, it could work here.
Sardine Salad (Alex)
“Dress a pint of sardines (which have been put up in oil, [sic]) with a half pint of good mayonnaise, into which has been stirred 2 tablespoonfuls of minced celery; scoop the centers, all seeds, from 6 medium-sized smooth tomatoes; fill the cavities with the salad mixture, and secure each lid with a couple of toothpicks.”
I was fully prepared to take a polite bite of this salad and set it aside, but this was surprisingly tasty! Not so much for Gennie who is not a fan of fish or tomatoes. She ended up taking the polite bite, but kudos to her for giving it a try! For my palate, this was a bit heavy on the mayonnaise…so much so that the type of fish one was eating would not be easy to detect, but the celery added nice texture, and I love tomatoes, so this was a winner in my book. This salad is also emblematic of the trend of serving delicate and pretty food that was often referred to as “dainty.” Historian Paul Freedman, author of the fantastic book, American Cuisine, 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.”
Tamale Croquettes (Alex)
“Mix together 1/2 pint each of oysters, sweet corn, chopped boiled eggs and graham bread crumbs, a beaten egg, a generous sprinkling of cayenne pepper and a level teaspoonful of salt; form, roll in cracker crumbs and plunge (in basket) in boiling fat, or brown nicely on buttered tin in the oven. Drain on brown paper.”
Given the option to “plunge” the croquettes in boiling fat, or brown them in the oven on a buttered tin, I opted to go the healthier route and baked them in silicone muffin cups at 425 degrees for about 25 minutes. I would never have called these Tamale Croquettes. I think Oyster Croquettes are a more accurate description as that is the essence of what you taste. The corn was lost in this recipe that tasted nothing like a tamale. Once again, take-one-for-the-team Gennie took a polite bite and then quietly put it out of sight. These croquettes were a favorite of nobody at our jolly picnic.
Around the time this recipe was published, oysters were hugely popular and readily available throughout the US, so much so that corn may truly have been seen as the standout ingredient in this dish. Between 1880 and 1910, Michigan State University researcher Mari Isa notes that “as much as 160 million pounds of oyster meat was harvested per year.” Being so abundant, oysters were inexpensive, “which only boosted their popularity. In 1909, oysters cost half as much as beef per pound. Oysters were used to add bulk to more expensive dishes such as meat pies. They were eaten at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and by rich and poor alike.” Sadly, overharvesting did irreparable damage to the supply moving forward, which is why they are seen as a more exotic food today.
Cucumber Pickles (Jennifer)
“TWO DOZEN SPICED CUCUMBERS, home made, are always best.
But because this is not in fact a recipe, I turned to the San Francisco Call from 18 October 1908 to fill in the gap.
“Quick Cucumber Pickles
Take large but not too old cucumbers, split in quarters lengthwise. Put in strong brine and let remain overnight. In morning heat strong vinegar, whole spices, a stick of horseradish and onion and boil well; pack picked close in glass jars and pour vinegar over and seal as other fruit.”
Before settling on this recipe, I had a little debate with myself about whether “spiced cucumbers” were really meant to be pickles. Maybe it was supposed to be something more like a spiced cucumber salad? But since my newspaper searches turned up nothing that used the words “spice” and “cucumber” that wasn’t a pickle, I decided to just go for it.
A few notes on the recipe: These turned out potent! As you have heard us talk about time and time again, recipes from this time period are frequently hazy on details. So, when I read strong vinegar, I interpreted that as white vinegar straight from the jar. Even though these were eaten less than six hours later, cucumbers quick-boiled in white vinegar with no water and no sweetener are still very sour! Add to that the pickling spice mix (2 tablespoons), red chile flakes (1/2 teaspoon), and horseradish root (delicious) and it packed a punch. But dilute the vinegar and add a bit of sugar and I think this is a winner.
Lemon Pie (Gennie)
“The grated rind of 1 and chopped pulp of 2 lemons, rejecting seed and white fiber of rind; 1 teacupful of water, 1 tablespoonful (scant) of flour, 6 tablespoonfuls of sugar. Mix the last two, then add water and fruit; make incisions in the upper crust as for other fruit pies. A little baking powder in the crust is an improvement.”
Over the last several years, baking has become my happy place, so I quickly called “dibs” on the dessert portions of the picnic menu. The first item listed was for a Double-Crusted Lemon Pie with a very strange suggestion for the filling. I was expecting to make either a lemon custard or curd for the filling, or even a variation on the lemon cake pie that I made for a previous post, but the ingredients and instructions would not have made any of those items. Looking at the scant number of ingredients and few thickening agents that would help the filling set up, I was worried about a pie that would produce the dreaded soggy bottom. So instead of making a traditional 9” pie, I opted to make this dish into hand pies instead, which also makes this dessert easier to pack, transport, and serve! I prepared my favorite pie crust and cut it using a 3” round biscuit cutter. I made the pie filling as suggested, but I did omit the water because I felt the filling would have been too runny. Then, I placed about a tablespoon of the filling into the center of the pie crust, covered it with another pie crust round on top, and pressed the edges with a fork. I cut three slits into the top of each pie and brushed it with an egg wash. The pies were baked in a 375 degree oven for about 25 minutes. To finish them off, after they cooled, I drizzled a simple glaze of confectioner’s sugar, vanilla extract, and milk, over the top. The result? It wasn’t a pie that I was very happy with, a bit too sour for my liking, but the rest of the group (especially Jennifer) seemed to enjoy the flavor. I happily sent them home with the leftovers.
Picnic Pudding (Gennie)
“One cupful sugar, 1-3 cup butter, 1/2 cup sweet milk, 1 1-3 cups flour, 1 teaspoonful Royal baking powder, whites of 4 eggs, beaten light and added after the other ingredients have been thoroughly mixed; 1/2 teaspoonful of pistachio or almond extract. Bake in bread pan. Filling: One pint milk, 2 tablespoonfuls each of cornstarch, sugar and grated chocolate, 4 yolks of eggs. Mix as for other boiled custards, dissolve the chocolate in a little of the scalding milk separately. Add a piece of butter the size of a walnut, a generous pinch of salt, and lastly a teaspoonful of vanilla. Chop a pound of dried figs , add 1/2 paint of cold water, bring slowly to boiling point, then stir constantly until a thick jam is formed, add more water, as it cooks down, if required. Cut the cake into 4 equal parts, spread a layer with custard, add another layer, and spread on the fig jam, spread the third layer with remaining custard, and add the fourth. Ice thickly with boiled icing to entirely encrust the custard, insuring safe carriage; set thickly with halved pistachio nuts or almonds.”
I have to admit that this recipe was a bit challenging. I had to read through it several times to understand all of the components and visualize just what it was supposed to look like in the end. Although it is called a Picnic Pudding, this item is actually a layered cake. I assume they are referring to it as a “pudding” much in the same way that British people call simple or rustic end of meal desserts “a pudding” regardless of the type of dessert it actually is. So what is this particular dessert supposed to be? It is a rectangular sponge cake baked in a loaf pan, filled with alternating layers of chocolate custard and fig jam, and covered in a boiled icing to help keep it all together when transporting it to your picnic. The cake portion of the recipe called for either an almond or pistachio extract, and feeling adventurous, I decided to go with a pistachio-flavored cake. This added a light green coloring to its overall appearance, which I thought was very appropriate since everything about this cake was so outlandish. I made the recipe as it is written, but I did cheat and purchased fig jam instead of making it myself. For the frosting, no recipe was given, perhaps most people knew how to make a boiled icing in 1905, but I’m more of a buttercream gal, so after a quick Google search, I found a basic 7-minute boiled frosting in order to finish the cake off. I have to admit the frosting was my favorite part of the entire dish. It was light and marshmallow-y, and I had so much leftover after covering the cake in a thick layer that I saved it for other purposes (fluffer-nutter sandwiches, anyone?).
So what was the Picnic Pudding like? Meh at best. It was a bit on the sweet side and as individual components the flavors weren’t that great (for me the chocolate custard was especially blah), however, all together it tasted a bit better, if not a little strange. Jennifer didn’t think that the fig, pistachio, and chocolate combo really worked together. But Alex and Victoria felt that the flavors worked. Alex even mentioned that they were familiar flavor-profiles found in Eastern European and Middle Eastern desserts that she grew up eating.
Pomelo Beverage (Alex)
While the recipe list refers to a Pomelo Beverage, the recipe itself calls for the use of grapefruit, which is different from pomelo. Grapefruit is what I used, and they are actually a hybrid created by crossing pomelos with oranges. This recipe should be made to taste and can easily be modified (even to include alcohol!). I used the juice of four large grapefruits, but when mixed with sugar and enough water to fill a two-quart pitcher, the grapefruit flavor was too mild. Making this again, I’d use juice from at least two more grapefruits.
Olive and Cream Cheese Sandwiches (Victoria)
While I love attempting to cook from the archives, I’m not much of a culinary expert, so I brought a very simple sandwich: Olive and Cream Cheese Sandwiches. There were a number of early 1900s recipes for this sandwich (most of which suggested adding mayonnaise and using green olives), but I made them using my mom’s simple recipe of cream cheese, black sliced olives and sandwich bread. I also brought a version of the recipe published in the “Things To Eat” supplement from a 1910 issue of Out West magazine. J.R. Newberry Co., a grocery store chain in Los Angeles, printed a number of recipes and household tips for this supplement. Here is their recipe:
“Cream Cheese and Olive Sandwiches — Take a cream cheese and a dozen or more pitted olives, the latter cut up fine. Mix thoroughly and make up into balls about as large as a walnut. Place the balls on thin unsweetened crackers such as baronet biscuit. Do not cover the balls but serve as many crackers without the balls as there are with. Some cooks add finely chopped walnuts to the cream cheese and olives.“
Throughout our picnic lunch, we were reminded of the unlisted ingredient that makes a picnic so much fun: the people! You can’t help but relate personal stories when enjoying a meal like this with others. You are also reminded of how much we learn from one another, and being lovers of learning, we eagerly asked questions and shared knowledge and observations about what we were eating and more. A fascinating feature of the recipes shared in the Los Angeles Times cookbook is that each contributor’s name, and sometimes their complete address (!!), were shared with each listing. When Alex noted that the “Jolly 6” recipe came from Mrs. A. R. Brown from Rivera, CA, and deduced that this was Pico Rivera today, Victoria said that indeed it was as the unincorporated communities of Pico and Rivera came together to form Pico Rivera in 1958.
Something else we were reminded of quite a bit as we looked at picnic menus in our collection is that they reflect changes in technology and society. Take the rise in popularity of, and access to, the automobile as an example. Our Los Angeles Times cookbook includes a recipe for an Automobile Salad, a standard salad recipe that features a dressing that would need to be prepared over a fire. Adventurers of the era were ready to embrace technology that would make preparing these picnic recipes on the road possible.
According to the National Automobile Museum in Reno, Nevada, visited by Alex shortly after the jolly picnic, “More than 2,000 accessories could be purchased at the peak of the Model T’s popularity in the 1920s,” many of which were related to picnics and camping. The 1921 Lamsteed Model T Kampkar seen below seated six adults; included sleeping room for four; and featured a folding table, a two-burner stove, an eight-gallon water supply, and storage for bedding, clothes, and food in lockers along with a camping set and cooking and eating utensils packed in a small trunk. It predated RVs by 50 years!
More proof of the popularity of “travelling picnics” can be found in ephemera in the Homestead’s collection such as these images from the July 1928 issue of McCall’s magazine featuring ideas and suggestions for entertaining on the go.
So as you set out to celebrate the last days of summer over the upcoming Labor Day weekend, be it taking a drive, heading to the beach, or camping in the mountains, we hope this menu for a “Picnic Luncheon for Jolly 6” inspires you to gather some friends or family together and continue the time-honored tradition of a leisurely summer picnic. You can even host it at the Homestead before taking a tour! And by all means, share what was on your menu with us by commenting below or tagging us on social media @homesteadmuseum with the hashtag #SummerPicnic.