Readers cook up themed meals for book club

Tofu, green beans andaSan Francisco beer accompanied the reading of Mr. Penumbras 24-Hour Bookstore.
Tofu, green beans andaSan Francisco beer accompanied the reading of Mr. Penumbras 24-Hour Bookstore. (STEVENM. FALK / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 25, 2013

SOME BOOK CLUBS are serious affairs, intent on intellectual discourse and literary delving.

The one I belong to is not of that ilk.

Not that the friends and neighbors in my Belmont Hills club aren't smarty-pants material. It's just that our club is as much about feeding our souls and our bellies as it is about feeding our intellects. We're not really sure how it started, but most months, our meeting is a potluck inspired by something we are reading. Our discussion flows along with wine and herbal tea. Roasted vegetables and lovingly prepared comfort foods fuel our musings.

"Reading feeds the mind the same way food feeds the body in a delicious and enriching way," said Johanna Dunn, an avid reader with a fondness for vampires and the band Jane's Addiction. "Food also connects us to our history, creates new history and tightens friendships."

The dozen or so members of the group, women ranging in age from thirty-something to close to 70, all love to cook. One, artist Laura Cohn, is in another book club at which food takes a back seat to discussion. "My other club is more serious, and the women are all high-powered professionals," she said. "We just have snacks - fancy cheeses, olives, fruit and a few crackers."

While our food-centered focus isn't unique to book groups, we knew each other before the club started for the most part, so friendship is as much on the table as the roasted turkey with dressing that Sophie Socha made a few months back.

"Primarily, I think we all love each other a lot, and it's a rare treat to sit at a table and have an adult conversation," said Cohn. "It can be hard for busy moms to enjoy their meals when they are trying to get dinner on the table for their family."

The other thing my group likes to do is come up with a menu, or even just a few food items, that fit in with the theme of the book. Gumbo accompanied the New Orleans tome City of Refuge. Dishes mentioned in the Middle Eastern memoir Day of Honey, by Annia Ciezadlo, added spice to our discussion.

For February, we are reading the memoir The Tender Bar, J.R. Moehringer's story of growing up in his family's tavern. Our mission is to bring bar food and signature cocktails - though we're not organized enough to really coordinate a menu, which makes for fun surprises when we meet.

The January read was Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, a magical mystery set in San Francisco by Robin Sloan. Along with a good hour of pure discussion, there was a menu referencing the Bay area locale: clam chowder, fresh bread, Asian summer rolls, vegetarian chili and assorted odds and ends. The club rotates to a different dining room table each month, with Dunn, who went to school at the University of California, Berkeley, hosting the San Francisco-inspired spread.

To aspiring beekeeper, experienced rower and violin student Socha, the reason eating matters to our book club is simple: "Because food is love. This group genuinely likes each other. Lots of catching up. Lots of laughs. These women have a wild sense of irreverent humor."

Socha has been a member of more serious book clubs, and finds that lighter is better. "Why not laugh out loud? I like the books we pick because there is a variety and this club is not afraid to read nonfiction or children's stories, or young-adult tales. No stuffy folks here. Enough of the death and dying, war, aftermath of war, sick and serious and being politically correct."

Socha often cooks, but when she's on the run, her go-to contribution is a big bag of electric orange cheese curls. "They are memorable, and this group usually eats healthy stuff on a regular basis. So it's a complete treat to eat something hideous that tastes wonderful once a month or every six weeks. If we were all junk food eaters, I would probably have brought yogurt or wheatgrass just to shake things up," she said.

Massage therapist Heather Marg-Bracken agrees that grazing and conversation go hand in hand. "I think that sharing food, often homemade, is a gift we give each other - we give and receive it together, and it creates a warmth and connection that makes the discussion more open and fun."

Her friend and Philadelphia acupuncturist Cara Frank's book club is as much about eating as ours, but with a different approach. Frank explained, "whoever hosts makes the food, has the wine and cleans up. We don't do food themes because it's too much work, and none of us has the time or energy. We are all exhausted and just grateful to have a nice couple of hours together. "

In her club, there is one person who is a vegetarian but eats fish, and another who can't have gluten. Club meals reflect those parameters, Frank said.

"Last week, Emily made a frittata, lentils and a salad with baguettes on the side. I had last month's book club and made squash risotto and shrimp and salad. All of us love healthy, clean food, so the meals reflect that. So no themes, but we make an effort to eat well."

She added, "And we all really try to read the book."


Beth D'Addono has been writing about the Philadelphia and national restaurant scene for more than 17 years in local and national publications. Read more at unchainedtravel.com.

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