When journalist Jane Cunningham Croly was denied admission to the all male New York Press Club dinner honoring Charles Dickens, she organized her first power lunch for women only. The date was April 20, 1868. The place was Delmonico’s Restaurant on Fourteenth Street in New York City. This Jane Croly Luncheon marked the first official meeting of her newly established Sorosis Club. It was also one of the first times women were served in a public restaurant unaccompanied by men.
Restaurants as we know them today emerged in the United States in the 1820s and ‘30s. The early restaurants either banned or discouraged women without a male escort from their main dining areas. Management provided special rooms for women sometimes called Ladies Ordinaries. After the Civil War, Ice-cream Saloons were opened beside department stores and dry goods emporia.
Special areas for women often had separate side entrances. (That’s correct. Women entered through side doors.) Even the food they were served was different. It was lighter and sweeter. Women were welcome to dine in restaurants–but only in the company of men.
When refused admission to the Dickens Dinner, the group of female journalists led by Croly enlisted the support of Horace Greeley, the powerful editor of the Tribune. The Dickens Dinner committee finally relented only three days before the dinner. According to Paul Freedman, author of Ten Restaurants That Changed America, it was too late. Plans for the Jane Croly Luncheon were already underway.
In response to the tardy response from the Dickens Dinner Committee, Croly and her cohorts formed the all female Sorosis club. Appropriately, Sorosis is a fleshy fruit such as pineapple or mulberry that derives from the ovaries of several flowers. It derives from the Latin word soror or sister.
The club was initially organized in New York City on March 1868, just two days after the Dickens Dinner. Among its 12 founding members were children’s author Josephine Pollard and popular columnist, Fanny Fern. Sorosis was incorporated in January 1869. They had 83 members in the first year.
Croy described the work of Sorosis as “municipal housekeeping.” The goal was to apply to civic challenges the same problem solving principals and organization that intelligent women applied to housekeeping in the 19th century. Croly and other Sorosis members also hoped that the club would inspire “womanly self-respect and self-knowledge.”
Sorosis brought together delegates from more than 60 women’s clubs in 1890 to form the General Federation of Women’s Clubs. Their mission to help local clubs organize more effectively and to encourage them to work together on lobbying efforts for social reforms in areas of health, education, conservation, and government reforms.
Delmonico’s reputation as a fine restaurant was known across the United States and in Europe. It had become a gathering place for New York society and visiting dignitaries. Like other leading restaurants in New York, Delmonico’s did not serve women unless escorted by men. For Delmonico’s to make a stand about women patrons arriving without male escorts was revolutionary. The Jane Croly Luncheon at Delmonico’s was the club’s first victory—and it was a big one.
Opened in 1837, Delmonico’s was also first to:
-use the French word “restaurant”
-offer an extensive menu. The prevailing custom at the time at taverns and inns was for patrons to eat whatever the cook prepared that day.
-use table clothes
– offer a separate wine list. At the time it held the largest private wine cellar in New York City.
-feature a celebrity chef. French-born Charles Ranhofer, was known as one of the best chefs in the country. He invented many still-popular dishes including: Lobster Newberg, Baked Alaska, Eggs Benedict and the Delmonico Steak. He popularized the avocado hen known as the “alligator pear” and named dishes after famous people of the day such as Veal Pie a la Dickens and Sarah potatoes, for actress Sarah Bernhardt. Ranhofer collected all of his recipes and published them in his 1894 cookbook, a thousand-page tome called The Epicurean.
Delmonico’s also was first to employ a female cashier.
The women of Sorosis were treated with such respect that they made the famous eatery the location of their monthly meetings.
Jane Cunningham Croly was already a nationally recognized editor and widely published journalist when she applied for a ticket to the New York Press Club dinner honoring Charles Dickens in March 1868. In 1855, she joined the staff of the New York Tribune and soon became one of the first women in the United States to write a syndicated column under the name Jenny June.
In 1860 she wrote for the New York World. She also wrote and edited several publications as well as her own books. She later took a position as professor of journalism and literature at Rutgers University, becoming the first American woman to teach news writing.
While the New York Press Club excluded accomplished female journalists of their day from the Dickens Dinner, it later offered the Nellie Bly award beginning in 1978. The Nellie Bly Cub Reporter Award, given to reporters with less than three years of experience. Past recipients have included investigative journalists Mina Kimes.
From April 23-27 and dinner only on April 28, Delmonico’s is celebrating this historic moment with a special menu created by female chef, Gabrielle Hamilton. She is a James Beard Award-winning chef and owner of Prune.
Hamilton designed an a la carte menu based on popular dishes of the year 1868. The menu features beef bouillon with jellied consommé fortified with Madeira served hot and cold ($15), trout roe and shaved radish on a pumpernickel crouton with brown butter ($18) and malakoff (a cheese fritter) on a cornichons-parsley salad ($19).
The main course includes soft shell crab with asparagus and sauce Américaine ($38); a second entree is still being finalized. The dessert is brûléed rice pudding with strawberry meringue.
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