A cookbook 127 years in the making

‘Thursday Afternoon Cooking Club’

Written by Karen Long | Photography by Larry Schwarm

When Sondra Langel originally moved into her Lakepoint home, she had no idea she would someday press it into service as a test kitchen and photography studio. But something in the universe must have known, because the house came equipped with a catering kitchen, an enclosed sun porch and an island the size of a ping-pong table.

Langel, who is president of the board of the Wichita Art Museum, is also the author of the newly released cookbook, “Thursday Afternoon Cooking Club,” which traces the history and presents 80 recipes from the Wichita club of the same name that has been meeting consistently since 1891. Langel wore many hats during the project, including a chef’s toque as she rolled up her sleeves and floured her hands, along with the club’s current-day members, to test all of the recipes. She then served as food stylist and assistant to Wichita photographer Larry Schwarm to visually capture flaky croissants, rich pies, hearty main courses, seasonal salads, multiple variations on pots de crème and much, much more.

Mrs. Spangler starts a cooking club

The year 1891 was a wild time for the country, Langel says. “It is right at the industrial revolution. Every day new things are being invented and people are thinking about how these new tools and technologies are going to affect their lives.”

Just as Wichita was outgrowing its cowtown phase, a local cooking teacher, Mrs. E.R. Spangler (first name Laura; early club members referred to each other by their married names) sent notes to a few of her friends, inviting them to join her in forming a cooking club to train young women, share household tips and explore new kitchen technology.

“Their very first meeting they asked one of their members, a Mrs. Rush, to demonstrate angel food cake — which is an American invention,” Langel says.

This was before boxed cake mixes, electric beaters or even gas ranges, so achieving the heavenly, airy heights of the novel confection involved beating 1½ cups of egg whites with a rotary hand beater, and measuring the temperature of a wood-burning stove by timing how long it took a piece of glazed paper to brown. (Complete details provided in the cookbook should you wish to try it at home.)

One of the founding members was Mrs. B.H. Campbell, (Ellen). She became known as the “mother” of the club and served as president for 11 years, from 1896 to 1907. The club’s first meeting was in her residence, Campbell Castle on W. River Blvd., which is now in the heart of the Riverside neighborhood.

“It was kind of out in the country at the time,” Langel says.

Fashion shoot on a plate

In the spring of 2015 a “New York Times” writer came to Wichita, interviewed club members, and wrote two stories about the Thursday Afternoon Cooking Club, one for the Wichita paper and one for the “Times.” There was buzz about a possible cookbook, and maybe even a movie, however, the deal never was made. The club kept all of their recipes — indeed, they had accumulated 126 years’ worth of documentation, including minute books, printed luncheon menus and historical photographs.

All of this became reference material in 2017 for Langel when she agreed to write the cookbook and release it through her publishing company, MM Bookworks, LLC. This is her second literary collaboration with photographer Larry Schwarm: In 2016 they produced another local favorite, “Wichita Artists in Their Studios.”

“We enjoyed the other book and so we said, let’s do this one — having no idea how much harder this was going to be…much, much harder,” Langel says.

Schwarm explains: “Food can taste amazing but not necessarily look attractive. We’d take tweezers and put the nuts in just exactly the right spots.”

The two transformed Langel’s enclosed sun porch into a photography studio, and Adriene Rathbun assisted with food styling on a number of the recipes. They shot the recipes the way the Thursday Afternoon Cooking Club had organized them: with an emphasis on complete menus. Langel would prep four or five dishes for luncheon menus with names like “Tastes of the Mediterranean,” “Hearty Fall Feast” and “Easy Elegance.”

“It’s not unlike a fashion shoot,” Schwarm says. “You’re concerned with a lot of different elements, but the thing that you’re trying to sell is the food.”

One crowd pleaser is the Wichita Cake, a delicacy dreamed up by Mrs. Campbell in 1892, the second year of the club. A spice cake baked in a bundt pan, it features raisins, cinnamon and nutmeg, drizzled with a powdered sugar glaze.

The room of eBay treasures

In addition to the food photography, Schwarm also shot a range of museum-worthy cooking gadgets that would have been featured in the QVC of their day.

“I just love eBay,” Langel says, and she spent a considerable amount of time trawling the online auction site for contraptions like the Dover Egg Beater, the Beaten Biscuit Machine and the Peerless Steam Cooker. Many a salesman made his monthly quota by demonstrating new kitchen technology to the Thursday Afternoon Cooking Club.

This cookbook has been a 100-percent-Wichita production, from the creation of the very first menu at that 1891 luncheon at Campbell Castle (which included “seven delicate and delicious courses”) to the writing and photography in 2017 — and even the design and printing in 2018.

Donlevy Lithograph printed the cookbook after Greteman Group crafted copy and photography into a luscious 231-page hardbound book. It can just as easily be perused as a slice of Wichita history over a cup of coffee, or laid out alongside semisweet chocolate and espresso powder to concoct a recipe such as Chambord Espresso Pots De Crème.

“I think we all fell in love with the cooking club,” says Sonia Greteman, president and creative director of the Greteman Group, “and we wanted to do right by these generations of women and tell their story.”

Barb Mohney, the current president of the Thursday Afternoon Cooking Club, is a third-generation club member: She is the great-granddaughter of Mrs. Campbell and granddaughter to Mrs. H.G. Norton. What would Mohney’s grandmother say if she could see the club now, with her granddaughter as leader, publishing this document of their shared history?

“Oh my goodness,” Mohney says. “She loved to cook herself. She was constantly experimenting with recipes. She was constantly dragging me into the kitchen, so I know she would be just delighted that I’m involved in this and enjoying it.”

“Thursday Afternoon Cooking Club”
MM Bookworks, LLC, 231 pages
Sondra Langel, author
Larry Schwarm, photographer

Book Launch Party
Sunday, Dec. 9, 4–6:30 p.m.
Wichita Country Club

Langel and Schwarm will also be appearing at Watermark Books on Thursday, Dec. 6 at 6 p.m.

“Thursday Afternoon Cooking Club” is out now on the shelves of Watermark Books, the Wichita Art Museum store, the Workroom, The First Place, Lucinda’s and Amazon, and is also available for purchase at thursdayafternooncookingclub.com.

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