Editor’s note: This story was published in The Wichita Eagle on May 21, 2003.
Much has changed in Wichita since 1891. Heck, nearly everything has changed.
But during all that time, a group known as the Thursday Afternoon Cooking Club has gathered to eat lunch prepared in members' homes, exchange recipes and talk about the art of entertaining.
The secret to its longevity?
"I guess I would say that women have always been interested in entertaining and in doing food well," current president Rebecca Ritchey said. "It's a subject that's timeless."
Indeed, the club is still going strong, with two dozen members ranging in age from their early 40s to mid 80s. Last week, the smartly attired group assembled in hostess Nancy Brammer's home just off the 16th fairway at Tallgrass Country Club.
In the kitchen, Georgia Chandler put the finishing touches on medallions of stuffed chicken breasts, while Elizabeth Enoch dished up a marinated green bean salad and Brammer cut pieces of chocolate torte.
After catching up on news of families, vacations and mutual friends, members moved to three tables, where the cooks served them.
"To this day it's a sit-down luncheon, and we serve from the left and remove from the right," Chandler said, repeating the first piece of etiquette each member learns.
The club was started in the fall of 1891 by Mrs. E.R. Spangler (first names were not used in minutes during that time), at least partly because Spangler felt that younger Wichita women didn't know how to properly entertain. Members were charged a 25-cent initiation fee and 10 cents for each lunch attended.
The club's motto was "Health, Strength, Happiness," and from the start, members were encouraged to concentrate less on extravagant recipes than on those that could be used for everyday dinners.
Nevertheless, it was a time when many of the members had servants, and lunches tended to be more elaborate affairs.
At the first meeting, according to club minutes, one member was assigned to give a lesson on homemade mayonnaise dressing, and another a lesson on oyster patties.
"They used a lot of condiments and relishes and extra little things that we don't use today," said Margaret Houston, who downplays her reputation as one of the club's best cooks.
Added Ritchey: "You always get a sense of what was going on in the world just because of what they were eating. For instance, during the (Second World) War, they were working very much with ration books."
In recent years, one member says, the emphasis has changed to food that is healthy and easy to prepare, without sacrificing flavor.
For instance, Chandler told members how she'd modified the printed recipe for her dish by buying chicken breasts that had already been marinated in teriyaki sauce.
"It used to be everything had to be from scratch," Chandler said. "Now if you can use an Oreo cookie crust, that's fine."
Despite the number of lunches served through the years, club minutes don't reflect any negative reactions to food, or anything as dramatic as a kitchen fire. Then again, that wouldn't be in keeping with the genteel beginnings of the club.
"Sometimes there are accidents, but usually it's covered up well," said Mary Aikens, a member since the 1950s. "Ordinarily they'll try (a recipe) out on their husbands ahead of time."
In some ways, the club's development probably reflects the lessened importance of old-fashioned cooking and entertaining in our society, and the other demands on members' time. It now meets once a month instead of twice, and members no longer give cooking demonstrations in their kitchens. The average age of members has increased, and its geographical base has moved east.
But the occasional vacancy (members rarely resign until they feel they're too old to prepare the lunch) is quickly filled, with daughters or nieces or friends.
Chandler said she already belonged to more things than she should have when she was asked to join eight years ago, "but the fact that the club had started in 1891 was just more than I could pass up."
"It's just a delightful group of women, and a wonderful way to get delicious new recipes."
Excerpts from club minutes
Excerpts from Thursday Afternoon Cooking Club minutes:
Nov. 8, 1928 -"Mrs. Pratt, Mrs. Knorr and Mrs. Ross as the menu committee served a most tempting luncheon of noodle soup, scalloped chicken with nuts, marshmallow sweet potatoes, corn pickles, strawberry preserves, flat rolls, fruit salad, cinnamon pin wheels and coffee. A letter was read from Mrs. S.R. Deuford telling us of our efforts of the table setting contest at the Innes store which resulted in carrying off the first prize. A discussion of table settings and the proper way of removing dishes followed . . ."
April 8, 1943 - The Thursday Afternoon Cooking Club met at the home of Mrs. Howe - a place where we always feel most welcome in her home of hospitality. Red bud branches artistically arranged a beautiful centerpiece for the dining table. Mrs. Hatton, Mrs. Lilleston and Mrs. Norton served a delicious luncheon consisting of salad of fresh shrimp, hard-boiled eggs, beets and carrots in a sort of Easter nest, and dainty sandwiches of several kinds. For dessert, we enjoyed apples baked with honey instead of sugar, with ginger bread that melted in the mouth. Tea was served instead of rationed coffee and was oh! so good.