“Knead and beat 500 licks till dough is soft and blisters,” instructed Willa Eslick, future Member and wife of then-Representative Edward Eslick, in her recipe for “Beaten Biscuits.” Congressman Fiorello La Guardia scolded over-cookers: “Do not boil your spaghetti to a paste as is often done,” in his “Spaghetti à la Progressive.” With nearly 800 pages of recipes cooked up primarily by the wives and daughters of Representatives, and with occasional contributions by Members, the 1927 Congressional Club Cook Book served up a juicy slice of congressional life.
The Congressional Club began in 1908 as a social club for the wives and daughters of Representatives, Senators, Supreme Court Justices and Cabinet members. In 1927, when headquarters at 2001 New Hampshire Avenue, N.W., felt too cramped, the club decided to raise money for expansion by selling a cookbook. And not just any cookbook—a massive compendium of recipes from the tables of Congress and the White House. By providing recipes from their kitchens, Representatives and their families opened their cupboards and gave readers a glimpse of their lives outside the Chamber.
Thumbing through the Congressional Cook Book provides a snapshot of the technology and politics of the time through food. Dr. J. M. Doran, U.S. Commissioner of Prohibition, gave pointers about “substitutes for intoxicating liquors in food products,” because alcohol was banned by the 18th Amendment. Extracts from Thomas Jefferson’s cookbook pepper the volume with governmental gastronomic precedents. With increased refrigeration and mass-produced ingredients, these dishes mirrored the changing cooking and technological landscape of the early 20th century. Some of the recipes involved frozen foods, gelatin, and food coloring.
Shortly after publication, club members enjoyed a luncheon featuring recipes from the cookbook, as shown in one House Collection photograph. Holding scrumptious-looking desserts and a copy of the cookbook, stood Mrs. James Davis, wife of the Secretary of Labor (whose recipes included Welsh fruit cake); Mrs. Curtis D. Wilbur, wife of the Secretary of the Navy (soft gingerbread); Mrs. Peter G. Gerry, wife of the Senator from Rhode Island (oysters baked in the shell); Mrs. William Jardine, wife of the Secretary of Agriculture (cannelon of raw beef); Mrs. Herbert Hoover, wife of the Secretary of Commerce and future President (spoon bread); Mrs. Clyde Kelly, wife of the Congressman from Pennsylvania (radiator sweet pickle); and Mrs. Louis Cramton, wife of the Congressman from Michigan (Turkish delight).
“Recipes reflect the society that produces them,” cultural historian Jessamyn Neuhaus theorized. Written primarily by women, and intended for a female audience, this cookbook often takes a traditional view of marriage and the roles of wives. For example, husbands’ names are used to identify contributors. One tongue-in-cheek recipe by Mrs. Fred Purnell provides instructions about how “To Preserve a Husband.” Mrs. Purnell suggested being careful in selecting a husband, but noted that “even poor varieties may be made sweet, tender and good by garnishing them with patience, well sweetened with smiles and flavored with kisses to taste.” She warned against keeping them in a pickle or hot water. Serve with peaches and cream.
Although the cookbook primarily upholds traditional gender roles, with wives at home cooking for their husbands, a few pages challenge the status quo. Several of the female contributors were, or would become, Members of Congress: Florence Kahn (chicken liver brochette), Katherine Langley (nut bread), Mary Norton (fish supreme), Pearl Oldfield (charm tart), Edith Nourse Rogers (brown Betty), and Willa Eslick (frozen vegetable salad). In addition to Fiorello La Guardia, male Representatives Abram Piatt Andrew (Gloucester fish chowder) and William P. Cole (Spanish cream) felt comfortable in the kitchen as well as the House Chamber.
Recipes from the 1927 cookbook allow current readers to bite into a different culinary and political time, and to get to know historical Representatives better. As you prepare for the holidays, consider a congressional selection to spice up your menu.
Sources: The Congressional Club Cook Book: Favorite National and International Recipes (Washington, D.C.: The Congressional Club, 1927); and Jessamyn Neuhaus, Manly Meals and Mom's Home Cooking: Cookbooks and Gender in Modern America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003).Follow @USHouseHistory