What starting a cookbook club taught me
Starting a cookbook club in 2019 turned out to be the creative food-related outlet I didn’t know that I needed. And it all started with something I read online.
In 2015, a food writer named Tara Austen Weaver wrote an essay called “Why Cookbook Clubs Should Be the New Way We Entertain,” on the website Serious Eats about her experiences in a cookbook club.
She wrote that her cookbook club is a “crowd-sourced feast,” where friends all cook dishes from a cookbook and share them potluck-style at a meeting. They drink, eat and discuss cooking. But it’s more than that: it’s a boundary-pushing endeavor in which people discover a new love of foods they thought they disliked and others are inspired to try new things between meetings.
For Weaver, it was a pickle-making frenzy. For me, inspired by my own cookbook club, it was a summer of pan-fried squashes from the farmers market in all shapes, sizes and flavors.
See, that essay was one that gained traction in late 2018. It was shared and discussed and marveled over. Weaver’s words really hit me. I needed a cookbook club in my life. So after reading it and seeing something that I so desired — a strong connection over food — I shared it too, saying that a cookbook club sounded like just the kind of book club I would like to join.
I figured a few friends from my food writing community would agree and we’d wistfully tell each other how much we wished we lived closer. And, yes, that happened. But the response was so much more robust than that.
It turns out there were many people in my local friend community who also loved food and cookbooks and the idea of gathering over a shared, crowd-sourced meal. The response was huge and next thing I knew, I was forming a Facebook group and planning our first meeting as the Curious Cooks Cookbook Club.
So, on a snowy Sunday afternoon last March, I laid out wine glasses, bottles of wine and other drinks and followed the directions to make Persian Rice from “Salt Fat Acid Heat” by Samin Nosrat — our first selection. It felt nervy to invite this group of women over — women who I didn’t know well at all — for this crazy book club idea. But they came, bringing Shaved Carrot Salad with Ginger and Lime, Kufte Kebabs and Persian Herb Yogurt and Ginger Cake with Orange Blossom Scented Cream.
Sometimes when you really want something to work out, you run the danger of it not living up to expectations. But that wasn’t the case. Not at all. Sitting in my living room with plates full of food, I found a comfortable camaraderie with those women.
We talked about the book and cooking from it. And we talked about the challenges we experienced — like the difficulty of sourcing some ingredients here in the Bangor area. They also checked out my packed shelves of cookbooks and we chose another book.
At our second meeting, we cooked together, making dumplings from a book called “Gyoza” by Paradise Yamamoto. I can’t remember the last time I had so much fun stumbling through a recipe.
Since then, we’ve dug into vegetable dishes from “Saladish” by Ilene Rosen, comforting dishes from “The Best Comfort Food on the Planet” by Kerry Altiero, baked from the vintage “The Fannie Farmer Baking Book” and lunched on dishes from “Season” by Nik Sharma. We’re now planning a summer food trip and looking forward to our seventh meeting.
After each meeting, I’ve found a little something that’s crept into my cooking. It wasn’t just squash last summer, but cooking methods, flavors — whole dishes. Curious Cooks has inspired me in ways I never imagined it could.
Our cookbook club has been more than cooking together, eating together or getting to know like-minded people. This is a group facing the same cooking challenges I have. Here in central Maine, we don’t have the same accessibility to ingredients that you’d find in Boston or Connecticut or even in Portland. And that’s okay — generally — because we just adapt, using brown lentils instead of black or finding a suitable sugar to substitute for a specific one.
All good things start somewhere. For my cookbook club, it was the act of sharing an essay that spoke to me. But for it to become what it has was about the people who came together. And they, like finding the right ingredients, have made for the perfect recipe.