On the Side: "Sherbet! Never sorbet."

Change comes slowly to bridge club buffet

Toward noon one day last week, the ladies bridge club gathered, as it has regularly for years, in the ballroom of the Philadelphia Cricket Club for a buffet lunch preceding the championship round.

The cricket club, by its accounting, is America's oldest country club, having been established in Chestnut Hill in 1854. And if much has changed since - the status of women immeasurably, for one thing - certain other things, as they must, remain the same.

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The buffet table was something of a last redoubt in this regard, lined with a tureen of tomato soup and bowls of chicken and egg salad and green salad and a vegetable-noodle dish, rolls, and (for a dash of edginess?) shrimp quesadillas, quartered and slathered with a melted orange cheese.

As a finale, though, there was, and ever will be if the women of the bridge club have their say, a curious dessert involving one scoop each of Bassetts coffee ice cream and, traditionally, raspberry sherbet. ("Sherbet! Never sorbet," volunteered one member. "I ran into sorbet in a hotel in Chicago between courses; it's not a dessert. It's to cleanse the palate.")

Anne Jenkins, who has been coming to the club since 1945, noted that the pairing was "at every deb ball in the '40s." She can see it in her mind's eye - the lace doily beneath the squat silver (or silver-plate) sherbet cup: She sketches one with a flourish in the notebook of a guest.

To some, the combination is a jaunty step beyond vanilla, a natural result of the particular affinity of the colors, just as chocolate ice cream was always served with orange sherbet.

The more whimsical explanation is that the coffee ice cream and raspberry sherbet echo the even older custom of serving coffee and fresh raspberries as refreshment at events across the Philadelphia social circuit.

The women of the club tend to be in their 70s now, and 80s, and a handful are even older. They remember dance classes beneath the barrel-vaulted ceiling here off Willow Grove Avenue - boys lined up on one side, girls on the other; the astonishment of encountering so many restaurants on an outing to Boston ("We didn't eat out much. We had cooks"); the food terrain and trimmer profiles before McDonald's ("We had the drugstore and banana splits, not the fast food!").

This is how the other half lived - and lives, though sterling silver on the table is rarer ("We've skinned things down. You don't have to polish anymore"). Rules were observed: You were always to refold your napkin when leaving the table for good ("So it didn't look like havoc"). "We always put panties on the lamb chops."

The women confessed, many of them, to an arm's-length relationship with food preparation, most of their meals emerging from tucked-away home kitchens, often from the hands of Irish cooks. ("We gave them Thursday afternoons and Sunday afternoons off. That's when we went out to eat.")

After a hiatus, the game of cricket has returned to the spacious greens that stretch outside the windows of the ballroom. It was rowdy English textile workers who first brought the game to Philadelphia, drinking and betting and brawling with opposing teams on Saturday nights.

The city's gentlemen co-opted it, consigning it to exclusive clubs, adding it to their rowing and fox hunting and golf, the pastimes of the British elite.

At the time of the club's founding, in 1854, as the club's history recounts, women could not vote, or serve on juries, and could not sign contracts or own property in their own names. (On the other hand, three million of the nation's 23 million inhabitants were enslaved, their status ordained in the U.S. Constitution.)

In the 1940s, even, said member Mary Anne Mackin, "women were very much secondary." Which has made the passage of time a bit bittersweet: The older women, whose star had risen so markedly, are feeling a tad eclipsed.

Younger members have their own ideas about food, about putting in a fitness room, maybe spa facilities: "They want all this newness," said one of the older heads. "But the tradition here is oldness."

On the buffet table, two five-gallon tubs of ice cream appeared. One of Bassetts coffee. And one of, well, it was Bassetts raspberry sorbet, not sherbet.

Bassetts, which is nearly as old as the club, doesn't make raspberry sherbet anymore.

Not that anyone here feels compelled to acknowledge it.


Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.