Over the weekend I went to a wonderful ladies’ luncheon; yes men were welcome and several attended. The theme was women in the 1930s, and the setting, a house designed by Julia Morgan, the architect who also designed Hearst Castle, was perfect. The sweeping drive was lined with vintage vehicles, attended by drivers dressed in plus fours or pin stripes and fedoras. There was a fashion show, of course, of authentic clothing from the era, and music and some dancing, and food made from recipes taken from Ladies Home Journal, circa 1930. As I talked with friends and sipped wine—we are in wine country, so of course there was wine—I thought about my mother and her friends and the luncheons they hosted for each other. What fun they had, and what work it took.
Mom and her friends would be classified as housewives, but the house is not where you find them on most days. They were the board of the PTA, scouts and Camp Fire, Little League, Equestrian Trails, and various Sunday schools. They sat on, and frequently chaired, town commissions, councils, advisories, and the school board. Their careers were family, town and church, and they probably spent as many hours meeting, planning, and acting as any nine-to-five worker would. Their compensation? Well-schooled, healthy children, I suppose. More than that, their big reward was the fellowship of other bright, active women marooned in outer suburbia.
They made occasions to celebrate and entertain. School teacher luncheons, baby showers, officer initiations, summer, fall, winter, spring, were among the occasions they feted. When it was Mom’s turn to host a luncheon, the entire family was set to work days ahead of time. The floors were waxed and polished, windows washed, lawn mowed, silver polished, guest towels, table cloths and luncheon napkins ironed, and nut cups filled. The nut cups were my favorite part. We mixed pastel pillow mints with salted Virginia peanuts and distributed them into little fluted paper cups that were set at each place, and usually taken home by guests to children who would expect them.
Mom would know who in her community had card table and chair sets, from whom to borrow a coffee urn or punch bowl, who had flowers in bloom, and who to call for hostess sets. Hostess sets were pressed glass plates that had a well for the little matching cup and sometimes a thumb hole like a painter’s palette so that the plate could be held onto at a buffet. They came in several patterns, and everyone knew whose set was whose so that they could be returned after the event. Husbands were deployed a day or two ahead of time to gather in the necessary equipment, and the evening after to return it all.
The meal would be elegant, and most of it would have been made the day before so that the kitchen was spotless when guests arrived and the hostess would look fresh and relaxed as if everything had been effortless, which of course it had not. The whole affair involved quite a bit of sleight of hand.
As for the food, the hostess played to her culinary strengths and her serving pieces. Mom had a lovely silver holder that fit 9”x13” Pyrex baking dishes, so whatever she served would be something that could be made in 9”x13” Pyrex baking dishes. The day before, she would make several pans of her entrée and stow them in the refrigerator until just before guests were due. She was famous for her pie, so deep dish chicken pie showed up regularly, as did pretty pecan tarts.
I loved Mom’s chicken pie, which we would eat for several days afterward. But I especially liked her custard sandwiches, that are a sort of non-fried version of a Monte Cristo. The preparation is easy, it’s make-ahead fare, and perfect for holiday brunch or lunch, so, with the holidays fast approaching, I’m sharing this one with you.
Fern’s Baked Custard Sandwiches
Assemble the night before serving
Note: The bread needs to be roughly square. Pullman loaves are best, but any sandwich loaf will do.
8 slices of good white sandwich bread
8 slices of wheat or rye sandwich bread
8 slices of Swiss cheese
8 thin slices of ham or turkey
2 cups milk
1 tsp. mustard powder
healthy pinch of cayenne or chipotle powder
1 stick butter, melted
Assemble sandwiches: slice of white bread, cheese, ham, slice of wheat or rye bread. Cut off crusts. Cut each in half. Place sandwich halves in 9”x13” Pyrex baking dish in rows, long edge down, so that white and dark bread alternate (e.g. don’t put 2 pieces of white bread next to each other). The finished dish will looked striped.
Beat together eggs, milk and seasonings, and pour evenly over the sandwiches. Don’t worry if all the liquid pools in the bottom. It will even out overnight as bread absorbs it.
Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight. 45 minutes before serving, heat oven to 4000. Melt butter. Uncover refrigerated dish and pour butter evenly over the top. Bake for 30 minutes or until custard is set and the top and bottom are golden. If it browns too fast, tent with aluminum foil.
Slice and serve with preserves on the side.