It was a simple concept, really. Holly Jennings, 48, a longtime writer and editor, wanted to combine her two great passions: books and food. “I’m actually not a club-oriented person, but I noticed that everyone has potlucks at traditional book clubs, so I thought why not focus on cookbooks instead?”
She did some research and found most people reuse the same three or four recipes from a few go-to cookbooks even though they have numerous titles on their shelves. After that she examined what people liked and didn’t like about traditional book clubs. She mixed the concepts together then recruited eight friends to form the Dowdy Corners Cookbook Club, named for the small town she lived in until recently. For almost two years they have gathered in kitchens and living rooms across Vermont every other month to eat and talk and share and eat some more.
“People always crave good food," Jennings says, "and they love to talk about it.”
(More: Like Mama's Meatloaf, Only Better)
Could cookbook clubs become the new hot dish in socializing? While the publishing industry has taken a punch, cookbooks continue to sell at a brisk pace. From 2009 to 2010, during the recession’s peak, the cookbook category grew by 4 percent while the overall print book industry dropped 4.5 percent, according to Nielsen BookScan. In 2011, cookbook sales increased by 8 percent.
Cookbook clubs are more interactive and playful than the read-and-discuss book club that can resemble a freshman English Lit class.
Eat, Drink and Discuss
Here is how the Dowdy Corners Cookbook Club works. Each member takes turns choosing a cookbook. That person selects three potential titles and the group votes on one. Everyone then reads the cookbook and selects recipes they want to try. (The number can vary from one to a dozen.) An e-mail is sent out several weeks in advance of the potluck to ask who is making what dishes to ensure no duplicates.
At the meeting, everyone samples the dishes and discusses them and the book. Topics range from stories behind the preparation to working with certain ingredients, along with personal reflections. Sometimes members are encouraged to add any history or trivia they learned from the book and they even share good drink pairings. Afterward, Jennings writes up a meeting summary — complete with the group's food pictures, insights and tips — and uploads it to the club’s website and Facebook page for all to enjoy. (This also helps absent members keep up with missed meetings.)
The feedback she has received from club members has been fruitful. “They like being around like-minded people — and it is never boring,” Jennings says. “There also is a strong educational component, which people tend to enjoy, especially if they want to expand their cooking skills or are simply in a rut in the kitchen.”
Cookbook clubs tend to be women-only, although that is not a hard rule, and the ages can cover several generations. The Dowdy Corner Cookbook Club has members who range in age from their 30s to 70s.
Cooking for Fun, Not Because You Have To
After years of getting meals on the table for their families, boomers can embrace cooking as a healthy, creative hobby. Cookbook clubs give them the opportunity to cook for enjoyment and explore new dishes and ingredients.
“I’m a lazy cook to begin with, but with the club I’ve begun to experiment with ingredients and cooking techniques I never would have dared try before with picky eaters in the house,” says Bev Morrow, 54, who leads a Denver-based club of 12 members. “It gets me out of my kitchen comfort zone.”
For a recent Asian-inspired book, she cooked with lemongrass for the first time and learned how to create various types of curries. She worked with dried cured meat for a Spanish-themed book.
The chosen cookbook can often serve up surprises too. Dowdy Corner once did a Thai selection with authentic but demanding recipes that allowed no shortcuts and little ingredient substitutions. “The member who suggested it thought everyone would hate it by the time we were done with it, but the food was fantastic,” Jennings says. “It turned out to be a big hit, mostly because it was something we would never have tried on our own. It pushed us to new levels as cooks.”
Other Ingredients, Besides Food
Cookbooks do not have to be only about the recipes. Most choices have themes tied to personal narratives or regional history or culture, so there are compelling stories behind the food. “It's often through reading the non-recipe text that we get a sense about the author, his or her cooking and food philosophy and insight into a new culture," says Jennings. "All that helps make for a more interesting discussion at the potlucks.”
Sometimes the chosen recipes also are a way for people to share something about themselves through the food. For instance, a Dowdy Corner Cookbook club member once chose The Food and Wine of Greece by Diane Kochilas. That particular member was Greek-American and in the process of writing her own food/travel memoir about Greece and her family. She was able to add a much deeper and intimate perspective to the gathering.
Another selection, Secrets of a Jewish Baker, was suggested by someone who has baked bread for 40-plus years. “Many people are bread-making phobic,” Jennings says. “The member who picked the baking book wanted not only to share her love of bread, but also to encourage our group to bake and to learn for themselves that bread baking is really quite doable. And that is exactly what happened.”
But cookbook clubs are, at their core, a means to engage and sharpen one’s social skills. Most clubs begin with a circle of friends, but often include acquaintances you otherwise would never have the chance to know better. “The club can be an entry point to developing new relationships,” Morrow says. “You may not randomly want to invite a person to dinner, but gathering around and sharing food is a great means to strike up conversations and foster a potential friendship. And everyone tends to look forward to them, too. When I see the date on my calendar, I think, ‘Wow, it’s girls night out.’”
Here is how to get your club cooking:
- Organize meetings for every other month at first, choosing the same day of the week and time for each get-together. Checking out recipes takes time and money, so this spreads out any burdens.
- Cookbooks can be pricey, but you don’t have to purchase every selection. You can check them out of the library or split the cost and share with another member.
- Ideally, the club should have six to 10 members, about the maximum number that most people can comfortably host for a dinner.
- Limit meetings to two to three hours. That's plenty of time to eat and talk.
- Rate each recipe — for example, using a four-star rating or a scale of 1 to 10. You might also want to break it down to individual categories, like ease of preparation, taste, etc. This way you can file recipes and track them for future use.
- If you are stumped for cookbook ideas go with a theme, such as Southern or seafood, or specific techniques, like crock-pot, barbecue and grilling.
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