Why Cookbook Clubs Should Be the New Way We Entertain

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A multicourse meal that's not all on you. [Photographs: Tara Austen Weaver]

At 2 p.m. on Sunday we arrive, each carrying a bowl or platter. We gather around the table, excited to see Ann's roasted chanterelles set alongside Rachel's sweet potatoes with lime and cojita, Laura's braised pork next to Lillian's smoky eggplant pureé. Nazila stashes two fruit cobblers in the kitchen; they join Kairu's chocolate cake to be served for dessert. The table fills up with dishes until there is no space to spare, a patchwork of colors and flavors. Finally, when everyone has a drink in hand, the meeting is called to order and we begin.

The idea behind Cookbook Club is a simple one—a group of friends all make recipes from the same book and gather to share the results, a crowdsourced feast. But there's a bit of magic to Cookbook Club that I didn't anticipate when I attended my first meeting, walking into an unfamiliar house clutching a bowl of pumpkin seed dip from Diana Kennedy's The Essential Cuisines of Mexico.

I knew only the member who'd invited me, but I was welcomed warmly and soon joined friendly strangers discussing the merits of the book as we began to serve ourselves from a long table of dishes. Conversation swirled as I looked down at my plate, which held small portions of more than a dozen dishes—vibrant ceviche, a tangy-sweet salad of crisp jicama, freshly fried tortilla chips, and painstakingly prepared pan dulce. If nothing else, Cookbook Club was delicious, but I had no idea what an impact it would have on my life.

On a practical level, this sort of cooking club provides an obvious return on investment: you spend an hour making one dish and you get to taste many. Also, in a group of avid and aspiring cooks there is usually someone willing—eager, even—to try the complicated recipes I would never choose myself. That Diana Kennedy pan dulce took 48 hours to make. I enjoyed it even more because I'd never have the patience to make it myself.

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There are always surprises: recipes I don't feel drawn to on the page that end up being my favorite. I'd never been a big fan of celery, but a simple salad of tart green apples and celery at a summer meeting turned into something I now make every year. The unexpected pairing made me appreciate a vegetable I had always treated with disdain (another member reports a newfound appreciation for eggplant; we keep trying to coax a third into liking beets, but so far she's not budging).

One meeting, on a rainy day in March, we took on Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking—a book I'd always found intimidating (so much technique! so much butter!)—and gathered to enjoy our reward of rich pâté de campagne, deeply-flavored boeuf bourguignon, and a light and airy soufflé aux épinards. As we sipped Champagne and Venessa lit a match to flambé the tarte aux cerises she made for dessert, I thought that Julia would be proud of us. None of us are professional cooks. We like food, we're a little adventurous, but most of all, we're willing to try.

Cookbook Club has taken me many places I might not have gone on my own. A recent foray into Vietnamese bánh mì set me off on a pickle-making bender, stocking my fridge with lemongrass-infused snow peas and jars of sweet and crunchy brined carrot and daikon. A Persian cookbook took me to the aisles of a Mediterranean market, fragrant with spices, in search of barberries for a rice pilaf. And for a gathering devoted to Cuban cuisine I overcame a lifelong fear of deep-frying and challenged myself to make black bean fritters. When they emerged from the hot oil, light and crunchy, I raised my tongs in triumph. Knowing that other members are trying similarly unfamiliar recipes in kitchens across town makes me bolder.

Cookbook Club encourages us all to go beyond our comfort zone, because support and problem solving are built into the structure of the group. An email thread often develops a week or two ahead of our meeting: Does anyone know where to get sorghum syrup? Who has a bottle of rosewater and wouldn't mind sharing? Where can I find fresh curry leaves? Having company makes the unfamiliar feel more accessible. If we fail, we fail together.

And there have been surprisingly few failures. In the four years I've been a member, only one cookbook—an early-career attempt by an author now widely admired—proved to be entirely disappointing, but the stories still told of that unfortunate day are funny enough to almost redeem the experience; one mention of the awful jellied "Orange Dream" dessert is enough to make us all dissolve into laughter. Sometimes failures bond a group together even more than successes do.

But most books do prove successful. We've spent afternoons enjoying the musky flavors of Burmese tea leaf salad and coconut curried noodles, a cheesy Tex-Mex feast full of queso and crunch, and a rainy November day devoted to warming Indian curries, naan, and mango lassis. I don't mean to brag, but the collective output of the group rivals—and sometimes eclipses—local restaurant fare. I'm often astonished at how good this food is that we make in our own kitchens. When gathered all together it's impressive—and inspiring.

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One summer, when produce was at its peak, we cooked from Chez Panisse Fruit and Vegetables and awarded "smug points" for extreme or over-the-top effort (first place was a tie between the member who made her own bread and cultured butter and the member who grew the zucchini blossoms she then stuffed). There may be a dish here or there that doesn't pan out, but there's always plenty to make up for it. Nobody goes hungry at Cookbook Club.

Instead, we enjoy—not only the food, but an afternoon spent connecting with friends and getting to know new members. We'd all like to entertain more, but the idea of making a multi-course meal can seem impossible on weekends that are far too short. Cookbook Club sets the stakes low: make one dish, don't break the bank, don't try to impress anyone with elaborate table decorations, and everyone takes their serving dishes home to wash. You can use paper plates; we won't judge you.

We have become more discerning in our judgement of cookbooks, however. Famous authors are sometimes sloppy recipe writers ("Did anyone test these recipes?" was a common refrain at a recent meeting). Some books prove too fussy for broad adoption (Pok Pok, we love you, but we don't always have time for you). But for every disappointment there are others that become new favorites. Fuschia Dunlop's Every Grain of Rice now rules my kitchen. Every time I use it I am astounded, all over again, at how a good cookbook can serve as both passport and education; I never imagined I would be producing restaurant-level Chinese food in my own home.

A few years into the evolution of our club, we've settled on a structure that works for us: we meet every other month and trade off hosting. Our July meeting is a picnic, September is reserved for a book that does justice to late summer produce (this year was Hugh Acheson's The Broad Fork). And in January, to counteract the post-holiday slump and winter gloom, we throw an evening cocktail soirée where we all dress up and meet in the party room of one member's condo highrise. Overlooking the glittering city, we sip drinks and nibble on fancy hors d'oeuvres and, by gathering together, the bleak first month of the year feels much more bearable.

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And that may be the biggest payoff of Cookbook Club—over all these months of meeting and eating together, we've become friends. Offshoots of the club have sprung up: the annual apple-picking trip, a Christmas cookie exchange, a drop-in coffee date on Saturday mornings. When someone gets sick, other members offer to bring soup. A fiction book club has been formed among some members, another smaller group goes camping together, and two international trips have been planned. Somehow, through months of cooking out of the same books, we've become a community.

One September meeting (devoted to Ottolenghi's Plenty) we gathered at a long table in a member's grassy backyard. I looked across the plates filled with caramelized garlic tart, saffron-tinted cauliflower, and smoky frittata and was struck by all we had gone through over the past few years—lost jobs, flooded basements, the passing of grandparents, and out-of-state moves. Babies have been born (and meals delivered), marriages have ended, and new relationships begun. Through it all, we keep showing up, covered dishes in hand. We may have come to share food, but we've ended up sharing our lives as well.

There will be failed recipes, and cookbooks that cause us to rant and curse, but there will also be laughter and commiseration and advice on where to buy the best Sichuan chili bean paste. And when life gets too hectic, we skip the cooking and bring drinks instead—the member who shows up with Champagne is always warmly welcomed.

It started off being about the cookbook, but it's turned into something so much more.

The Nitty-Gritty: How to Organize and Plan Your Club

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Our group is about 20 members strong, which means that most of our gatherings include 12 or 15 people, but you don't need that many cooks to form a club. To get a good variety of dishes, though, you'll want to aim for at least six attendees at each gathering.

For smaller groups, it can be handy to use a Doodle poll to figure out which date works best without a flurry of emails. Our group eventually grew weary of trying to accommodate so many schedules and just picked the third Sunday of the month, which has worked well for us.

It's helpful to have one or two facilitators to remind people of the meeting date and to encourage signups (the host for that month could also take on those duties). We have a shared Google spreadsheet for book suggestions and pick our next title in person before leaving the meeting. We try for books that are available through the library system, so people can borrow if they don't want to buy.

Once a date and cookbook are chosen, we organize via another shared Google spreadsheet, with members signing up for the dish they want to make ahead of time. This allows us to track how many people are coming and to try for balance—as many vegetables as desserts.

Cooking Dos and Don'ts

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We never double the recipe—most people will take just a small portion, and there are more than enough dishes to fill a plate. We do pay attention to dietary restrictions, however, and try to have enough gluten-free or vegetarian options for members who don't eat everything. Do a little survey before the meeting and add a column on the spreadsheet to reflect restrictions. We've learned who the cilantro and dill haters are and keep these herbs on the side when used as a garnish.

Most food is served at room temperature. Sometimes the host will volunteer to cook a dish that would be better served out of the oven (anything with melty cheese), and occasionally a member will ask to heat up their contribution, but that's rare. We all bring serving utensils for our dishes and take them home to wash.

Hosting Duties

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Hosting a large group like the Cookbook Club may seem daunting, but really it's not. Everyone takes responsibility for the success of the meetings and, without having do all the cooking and serving, the host gets to relax and enjoy the gathering, too. In a larger group, hosting only happens every other year or so, anyway. Our group is decidedly casual—people just want to hang out and chat and eat; it's not a competition to see who can make a tablescape worthy of Pinterest.

In our group, the host provides dishes and silverware (paper plates and compostable forks are fine, just make sure they're sturdy). The host also stocks up on drinks, though often a member will bring a beverage from the designated cookbook as well.

The biggest concern most people have is where everyone will sit. In our group we rarely fit around a table (and the table is usually covered with serving dishes). But people figure it out—they perch on the arms of chairs or sit on the floor. Lack of chairs never kept anyone from having a good time.

Think of hosting Cookbook Club as collaborative entertaining; it's not all on you. If you're running late and the drinks aren't set out, the first person to arrive can jump in and help. Also, you set the rules as a group—how about a "don't stress over stacks of books and kid toys in the corner" rule? And if you don't have the space, or the idea of hosting terrifies you, it's okay to take a pass; we have some members who just aren't up to it, and in our group that's fine. The point of Cookbook Club is to enjoy yourself. Make it easy, make it fun; we're here to judge the cookbooks, not each other.