They call it summer reading, but if you’re like me, you don’t need a season to open a book. Some credit Oprah with starting the phenomenon, but, according to Rachel Jacobsohn, author of “The Reading Group Handbook,” there are approximately 500,000 book clubs in the United States, double the number since 1994. And those that combine great books with great dining come away doubly nourished by sharing ideas as they break bread together.
Enter “The Book Club Cookbook” (Penguin, $15.95), which pairs 100 popular book club selections with the recipes they inspire. Authors Judy Gelman and Vicki Levy Krupp sent thousands of surveys to book clubs across the nation to find out what they are reading and how they dine, and the response was overwhelming.
“When we started hearing the same book titles over and over from many different clubs, we knew those titles would make our list,” said Krupp. “We also tried to balance the list by genre. We included fiction, non-fiction, history, memoir, even short stories. We included books highly recommended by African-American book clubs not found on other lists. Some L.A. Asian professionals read only books with Asian themes. Women of the West in Boulder, Colorado, read only books with an American Western woman protagonist or author.”
The books are arranged alphabetically, and each section includes a brief synopsis – just enough to whet your appetite but not give away the story – a profile of a book club reading that book, and a recipe to pair with the selection: Greek Rice Pudding and Tzatziki for “Middlesex,” Death by Chocolate for “The Da Vinci Code,” Honey Cake for “The Secret Life of Bees.” In many cases the book’s author contributes a recipe or comment.
“The most elaborate and elegant dinner we heard about was served by The Dallas Gourmet Book Club for their discussion of ‘Personal History’ by Katherine Graham,” noted Gelman. “It included champagne, wine, and Caviar Pie. The group even printed a menu to look like headline news in The Washington Post.”
The oldest club Gelman and Krupp found, the Wednesday Club of Fort Smith, Arkansas, has been meeting for 106 years! “It started as a literary society dedicated to self-improvement of the members,” said Krupp. “Just recently the women decided to stop referring to each other as ‘Mrs.’ and to start using first names. They read only nonfiction and serve dessert and coffee or tea with silver and linen napkins.”
The cookbook’s web site (www.bookclubcookbook.com) is an invaluable resource for readers. Want to speak personally to an author to ask those burning questions that only the author could answer? The “Invite an Author” page enables you to contact such luminaries as Chris Bohjalian, Jackie Mitchard and Kathryn Harrison for a phone discussion during your meeting. And sign up for their newsletter “Book Bytes” for reading suggestions and coordinating menu ideas. You’ll get monthly invitations to enter drawings for free books as well.
The book club I belong to meets every month for dinner and discussion, with the menu inspired by the book we have read. I have to admit that on more than one occasion we have selected a book based on the cuisine involved. Our group has certainly had our thirty minutes of fame: fifteen when Cooking Pleasures magazine visited and featured us in their February 2004 issue, and another fifteen when we landed in “The Book Club Cookbook” with a recipe for Chicken Biryani, which we enjoyed while discussing A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. I even included a version of the recipe in my family cookbook, “Cooking Jewish.”
My cousin, Marylyn Lamstein, belongs to a book club that has been meeting for 13 years. “We usually have a light brunch, but every June we invite the husbands for a full-blown lunch. It’s always at my house because I have the room for it, and I never make the same thing twice.”
Last month the menu included Green Bean and Beet Salad, Three-Cheese Baked Penne with Broccoli, Mushroom Rollups Florentine with Béchamel Sauce and Asparagus Mushroom Pudding, an intriguing savory take on the classic bread pudding (recipe below). Marylyn also made a Chocolate Turtle Pie for dessert.
“I do allow the others to bring desserts too,” she noted. “One man makes baklava – that’s his admission ticket!”
The yearly event used to be a potluck, but now that her children are grown with families of their own, they’ve taken over the family entertaining and Marylyn doesn’t get to do it as much as she used to. “I used to do the Jewish holidays, Mother’s Day, etc.,” she said, “but now most of the holidays have been taken away from me, so I love doing the June book club lunch.”
When it comes to finding new recipes, Marylyn is never at a loss, because her son and daughter-in-law are acclaimed New York kosher caterers. “I baby-sit for them on weekends when they’re working,” she said, “and after the kids go to sleep I like to look through their vast collection of recipes.”
Jonathan and Jill Lamstein (more about them in a future column) own and operate three catering companies. “Josh’s Place (www.joshsplace.com) does low-key parties at home or at a synagogue,” Marylyn told me. “Above and Beyond does high-end charity events as well as weddings and bar mitzvahs, and their new operation is Flavors, which caters to reform and conservative synagogues.”
Judy Bart Kancigor is the author of “Cooking Jewish: 532 Great Recipes from the Rabinowitz Family” and can be found on the web at www.cookingjewish.com.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.