Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Della Lutes and the Peculiar Institution of the Box Social

I just read The Country Kitchen by Della T. Lutes thanks to the recommendation of the intrepid Bonnie Slotnick, to whom all praises are due. Lutes’s food-centered memoir of growing up on a frontier farm in the years following the Civil war has some details in common with the Little House books by Lutes’s contemporary, the extraordinary Laura Ingalls Wilder (fried apples ‘n’ onions turns up in both, as does salt-rising bread). There are also many differences, the first being that while Lutes’s book is in the first person (the main characters are “my mother” and “my father” rather than “Pa” and “Ma”), Lutes herself is barely present. Young Delly, like her readers, is a silent observer of the battles between Miry, her skilled, sensible, ingenious mother, and her father, Lije, whose discernment and fierce devotion to flavor drive the book and make him the hero, infuriating, unfair, and plum out of his mind as he may be.

In one episode, Delly and her folks attend a box social at their church. This is a party in which a girl prepares a box lunch or supper for two, and then the fellas bid for the chance to eat the meal in the company of the gal who made it, the money collected in the auction benefiting the church. I was familiar with the concept of a box social only from the play Oklahoma, and had naively imagined that this creepy custom existed exclusively within the universe of that creepy musical. Another detail I had not guessed, and would not have dreamed in a million years, is that married women contributed boxes (and themselves) to the social as well (I suppose the church would not make nearly as much money relying on the single girls alone), and then ate the picnics with the successful bidders. The whole community, it seems, was participating in church-sponsored wife-swapping. I can’t imagine Ma and Pa going in for that. Our Della recalls:

In general, however, the women took great pains with their boxes. There was excitement at the thought of a chance partner. The girls did n’t like it so well because they wanted to choose whom they ‘d eat with. But with the older women almost anyone would be—well, different.

Lutes, Della T. The Country Kitchen. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1936.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I need to find me a copy of this book.It sounds terrific.

I recall this custom from some other reading done a long time ago-maybe as a child-I can't pinpoint it. Even at the time it seemed scary to me...not only the fact that a woman's company was purchased by the highest bidder,whether she liked him or not, but also the element of competition.It seemed as if it was a matter of great import there whether one's supper was bid up high- and whether more men bid.

Was there perhaps something in the movie "Gone With the Wind", where Rhett caused a scandal by bidding outrageous sums for Scarlett's boxed lunch? Am I making this up?

6:46 AM  
Blogger mzn said...

I haven't read it, but W.P. Kinsella, the Canadian author of Shoeless Joe, about the baseball player, has a novel called Box Socials, also about baseball. I recall that an old friend really liked it, but more than that I can't say.

3:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

the auction in gone with the wind is about dancing and the women are outraged because the freshly widowed scarlett is accepting. i have also read this boxsocial event somewhere. dont know where ?

4:30 PM  
Blogger zoe p. said...

very odd. i've never heard of this. pa and ma would so be that couple at the Ice Storm key party who just go home with each other. The very idea!

i bet they all went back to their more conventional partners with relief - knowing your options is always interesting but not always enticing. not to mention the fate of this or that home cooking. it seems like a very practical way to handle/contain/dispell a little wanderlust.

obviously the way its gendered means the men do the choosing, but i imagine it would be exciting to share a meal with a new man and see if his table manners and conversation were any more appealing, or if he were appreciative enough of your labor. and if you're whole gender identity were based on "the quickest way to a man's heart is through his stomach" the thought of pleasing a new man might be fun too.

gentle nudge, i hope all of you pioneer eaters/readers read that thing about the donner party in the new yorker . . .

11:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

From: Mennonite Foods and Folkways from Southern Russia,by Norma Jost Voth:
Dan Jost describes a similar event among Mennonite immigrants in Kansas-"Cake Walks"-in the first decades of the 20th c. His sisters participated. The young women baked cakes and wrapped them in "beautiful boxes." Young men who won cakes got to walk or march around to music with the girl who baked them,(Was calling this "dancing" somehow not okay?) and then they would eat the cake together (All of it?)This was regarded as both a money-making and "beau catching" scheme, per Mr. Jost.

12:53 PM  

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