How We Cook In Los Angeles
Ladies' Social Circle, Simpson M.E. Church
Los Angeles, 1894
The Simpson Methodist Episcopal Church was located at 734 S. Hope Street in Downtown Los Angeles (pictured). Built in 1880, the building later became the Third Church of Christ. Today only a later addition to the frontage still stands and is a Christian Science Reading Room.
This is the oldest cookbook currently in the Archive. Produced in 1894 by the Church’s Ladies Social Circle, this book was published when the city’s printing capabilities were still new. The very first hardcover book ever published in Los Angeles was printed just over a decade before, in 1881.
How We Cook in Los Angeles is not the oldest cookbook published in LA, as that title belongs to Los Angeles Cookery, but it may be the first book to include such extensive essay writing by women contributors, along with recipes. In addition to writings about local ingredients, from olives to citrus, several multi-page essays on personal food histories are included. Jessie Benton Freemont writes about growing up amongst lavish and politically-charged dinners, at the home of her Senator father in Washington D.C. Suffragist and abolitionist Caroline Severance details eating with Louisa May Alcott’s family. Severance is connected to multiple cookbooks in this Archive, including The Friday Morning Club.
The cookbook’s title, a literal “How To,” presents its contents as an introduction to specifically Los Angeles cuisine. Indeed, the pages include both language and recipes that I find repeated often in later local recipe books. In particular, the “Spanish” section sets up a way of organizing recipes that appears in many subsequent Los Angeles community cookbooks. While some of the included recipes may find their origin in Spain, such as one attributed to the chef of the King of Spain, most are for dishes that are now recognized as Central American or more specifically Mexican, such as tamales. In this cookbook, virtually any recipe from a Spanish-speaking nation is lumped into this section. These include recipes from Peru and Bolivia submitted by Mrs. Chas F. Lummis, the second wife of prominent Los Angeles figure Charles Lummis, whose Landmarks Club also has a cookbook in this Archive.
Beyond simply a reference to Spanish-speaking nations, the term “Spanish” was often used to white wash or Europeanize food that in fact had long-standing roots in the Americas. While this may have been done as a marketing technique to make white settlers moving West more open to new dishes, it was also a tactic by those who had lived in and owned land in Los Angeles in the decades before statehood, when the area was still under Mexican rule. Those “Californianos” often took great pains to distinguish themselves from newer Mexican immigrants by emphasizing (and sometimes fully inventing) direct links back to colonizers from Spain. For more on this topic, please see the “Further Reading” section of this Archive.
Many of the contributors to this cookbook may sound familiar to current LA residents, perhaps not as known characters but because their last names appear throughout the City, from street signs and neighborhoods to historic buildings. Examples include Baldwin, Bixby, Fremont, Haas, Otis, Sepulveda, and Van Nuys,
Black and white historic Church photo courtesy of the LAPL Photo Collection.
I have cooked from this book!
Mrs. J.H. F. Peck’s menu and tablescape design for “Dinner For October or November,” which includes:
“Orange Sherbet” by Mrs. Anne O’Melveny
“Oyster Cocktail” by Miss Ruth Childs
“Stuffed Olives” by Mrs. T.A. Lewis
“Salted Almonds” by Miss K.R. Paxton
“Graham biscuit or roll” made in a classic cast iron gem pan, by Caroline Severance, who explains:
“Through the infectious enthusiasm of a friend I was beguiled into a pledge which I find must now be redeemed, despite its evident lack of fitness to the matter in hand. For of all the imaginable roles, that of catering to the public taste in the way of menus, or in recipes for popular dishes, is for me, a most grievous ‘misfit.’ But, as a compromise, and perhaps as a novelty, I have been kindly permitted to give as my contribution, what will be a mere outline or hint of my own ideal menu and cooking, as illustrated practically at the table of Mrs. Bronson Alcott, the sturdy and capable mother of our famous Louisa and her sisters.”