Revival of the Ladies' Bridge Luncheon

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[Editor's Note: Maggy Simony was born in Brooklyn in 1920 and spent most of her life raising a family on Long Island. She's also lived in Southern California, San Francisco, New Hampshire, England and Berlin, just after WWII. When her husband died fairly young (age 54), she took up writing. Recently featured on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, Maggy is the author of three books, the latest, 'Bridge Table or What’s Trump Anyway?' published in 2009. Maggy is the mother of three, grandmother of six and today is her 92nd birthday. Happy Birthday, Maggy!]

I have two “bucket list” causes that keep me engaged and (so far) dementia-free.  One is political, but I’m not here to write about that. The other is to bring back the ladies-only bridge-lunch club of the 50s to the thriving social status it once had.


Bridge Players

Image: Dev Carr/Cultura via ZUMA Press.

 

BlogHer is the perfect place to make my pitch because it was you younger gals who helped kill your mom’s (and grandmother’s) bridge club. Yes, you did! Sociologists agree. College had been the place where young women learned to play bridge, if they hadn’t already learned to play from their mothers. It was a standard part of dorm and sorority life, almost a necessary social skill. Then came Betty Friedan and the feminist ‘revolution’ on campus that changed America forevermore.

By the 70s, the last thing young women wanted to do when they went off to college was admit they played bridge like mom. Or, as one student put it, bridge was just for “blue-haired” old ladies, politically incorrect for the young and relegated to the ash heap of campus history.

Their mothers and grandmothers (like me), however, never did give up on their decades-lasting bridge clubs. We went right on playing bridge - replacing club members who passed away or moved away - as if that campus revolution had never taken place.

As I say in my book: Bridge Table or What’s Trump Anyway?:

“The get-togethers moved to the evening as women went off to work in the 70s, only to move back to the daytime decades later when they could no longer drive at night. Ladies bridge lunch changed to dessert and coffee when they met after dinner, then diminished to ‘bring a sandwich and I’ll get dessert and coffee’ when--now much older, they returned to daytime bridge.”

Food played a crucial role of the traditional bridge event. For main dishes, you might have chicken salad, seafood quiche, cream-cheese frosted sandwich loaf and some kind of creamy chicken or seafood dish, such as Chicken à la King or Seafood Newburg.

It was common to serve these creamy dishes, or even the salad, with an edible “containment” to avoid a messy plate: toast points, patty shells, toasted bread boxes, oversized cream puffs and - by the 60s and 70s - filled crepes.

Salads were molded; once again, no drippy greens to present a messy luncheon plate. Desserts also took on that same Jell-O mold-shape. Sometimes, it was hard to tell the difference between a molded dessert and a molded salad. To quote my book: “Easy said Jell-O, if it’s a dessert, it gets a dab of whipped cream, if it’s a salad, a dab of mayonnaise.”

(Editor's Note: Check out TW's 'Retro Bridge Luncheons' post over in the Food section.)

Once the refrigerator replaced the icebox in the early 30s, ice cream also showed up on the dessert menu. There were also plenty of layer cakes and marshmallow desserts. Lunch menus would traditionally often offer two desserts, cake and something else.   

One cookbook of the 60s - Peggy Bracken’s The I Hate to Cook Book - liked a ladies lunch menu of what she called “oddments.” This involved an array of tea sandwiches, fruit, finger foods, candies and small cakes for dessert. And yes, you can still find Bridge Mix in the candy section of supermarkets.

The recipes, of course, evolved over the decades. Chicken Salad evolved from simple chicken, celery and mayonnaise in the 30s and 40s to adding fruit in the 50s and 60s. In the 70s, James Beard suggested Macadamia Chicken Salad for a ladies lunch when that delicious nut became fashionable.

From today’s busy, plugged-in viewpoint, the at-home ladies lunch may seem like a quaint artifact of yesteryear. But in her 1990 Details magazine article, "Let's Do Lunch: The history of a ladies' ritual", writer Jody Shields refers to the 1870s as "when the at-home lunch with guests first became a revolutionary social event for ladies."  

The women’s club movement had begun in the 1860s as a way of expanding the lives of women by allowing them to pursue cultural studies and take up worthy causes like women’s suffrage. It thereby made meetings a necessity and since women could not then meet in public restaurants, the at-home lunch provided that opportunity.

Doing the research for my book, it seemed as if nobody wanted the ladies bridge club to exist or survive. Serious bridge players (mostly men) looked upon our bridge game with contempt, they called it “kitchen bridge.”

In 1904, The New York Times wrote critically of the “mania” for bridge amongst New York City’s women despite “anathemas of the pulpit.” And as late as 1951, the Times ran a headline: “Women Fritterers Taken to Task.” It was the Episcopalian Churchwomen complaining about women playing bridge (fritterers all) instead of babysitting for younger women so that they could become politically active.

I gave a talk where one women in the audience told of her aged aunt who had played bridge for 20 years once a week while having to pretend she was at a sewing circle to keep peace in the family.

I’m not sure how the ladies bridge lunch started but here’s my theory: One day, one or more women’s club members wondered aloud, ‘Why can’t we meet just for fun and play whist (the ancestor of bridge) instead of always studying something?’

Revived for today’s world, it isn’t important that bridge luncheon occur during weekdays, given that most women work. Certainly, a bridge brunch on Saturday or Sunday would work just as well. Tell everybody to bring a dozen “oddments” and let the sharing begin. It’s the spirit of the thing, after all.

Or, as Maureen Dowd put it in a column, “Rescue Me, Please!” about work-weary boomer women:

“Wouldn’t it be pleasant to while away time playing bridge . . . and
 lunching with girlfriends . . .”

Bridge is a classic game with lineage back to the whist games of Jane Austen novels. You can take it up as a sociable stress-free game, or if you’re the competitive type, take it on as an inexhaustible challenge to your mind and stamina. Either way, you’ll not only get mental exercise but also acquire a circle of lifelong friendships - bridge friendships last! And 90-year+ bridge players are so common that scholars are studying them. 

Survival of the ladies-only bridge club has been a century-long stubborn survival. I say it deserves to thrive another hundred years.

Redouble!

~Maggy

Maggy Simony keeps the bridge revival momentum going at her site, Bridge Table Chronicles.

 

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