I am a “joiner” and a “planner.” I can’t resist joining social clubs and spending time with like-minded people – and planning activities for those groups.
In high school it was the Cercle Francais, where as President, my primary duty was ensuring the purchase of enough brie and nutella for the annual Fromage Party. Seriously. This was my primary duty. In college, I did a tour as Social Chair for my sorority – date parties, mixers with fraternities, and “sisters only” events – all my pleasure to plan. Law school brought with it responsibilities as Committee Chair for Programming, culminating with Committee Chair for Graduation Weekend, planning numerous picnics in the law school courtyard, complete with Virginia barbeque set to a musical backdrop of bluegrass bands.
And those were just my roles that had titles.
So when I first moved to Washington DC in 2003, I was velocitized for planning, like when you get off a highway on to a side street and don’t realize you are still going 70 miles per hour. I no longer had ready-made social groups like the opportunities constantly presented in school, but I craved them, so I sought them out. Among other group activities, I joined a book club that had been started a few years before by some of my new “DC friends.” However, over the course of a year or so, I found that I was not the type to always like the latest “book club book” that makes the rounds.
But loved hosting, and noticed that there were a few other women in the group who did too.
Some time shortly thereafter, fellow book-club-member/DC-group-joiner/partner-in-crime JBM and I were chatting during book club. What if we had a “book club” where hosting was only about … hosting? Cooking, to be precise. It would be like book club but without the “distraction” of the book and the monthly time commitment to read it. Did we have enough friends who would want to cook ONCE EVERY MONTH? It seemed like a lot. But we decided to look in to it.
We had an interest in really learning how to cook, and we wanted to create a safe space to do so. At the time, everyone we knew was single, and either lived alone or cooked only for themselves, even if they had a roommate. As a result, we had no idea if what we were making was good, or even edible in anyone else’s eyes. What if I had always been overcooking the broccoli in my standard chicken stir-fry? What if people liked flavors other than garlic? Even those of us who had a good dish or two up our sleeves rarely planned and executed whole meals by ourselves for a group. What were good side dishes to serve, and how do you time a meal so all dishes were complete and hot (or cold) at the same time? We had a lot of questions, and we wanted answers.
In 2005, there was very little available on the internet for “cooking clubs” or “dinner clubs.” We didn’t want a wine pairing club – that seemed too niched, with not enough cooking, although there was plenty of information available online. We wanted something more structured than a potluck, but less structured (and less expensive) than cooking classes.
JBM and I culled through our contact lists, looking for people who we recalled expressing an interest in cooking, no matter their skill. The people who sat with us at book club and asked the hostess if she made the hummus herself, and if so, how. Our parameters included people who would eat everything (or at least try it), and who would be able to commit to an ongoing monthly club.
We knew that the structure would eventually relax itself, so we started out with pretty delineated rules. From our first organizational email from September 2005:
We’re looking for people who have a serious interest in cooking and trying new dishes and recipes — but not necessarily serious cooks. This will be a learn-as-we-go process. Since neither one of us has ever been in a cooking club before we’re not sure exactly how it will work but these are our general ideas:
- First of all, size is limited, since most of our kitchens can’t accommodate lots of people. We’re thinking 6 members would be an ideal size, and we need people who can consistently attend.
- We will meet about every 6 weeks at someone’s house, rotating hosts, probably on Sunday nights.
- Each meeting will have a different theme, with the theme and menu chosen by the host. (Creative themes will be encouraged!)
- Everyone will be responsible for a different course each meeting, rotating duties. And we won’t necessarily have the same courses each meeting. For example, we may have soup and no salad one meeting, and 2 appetizers the next or whatever the theme calls for.
- Cost will be evenly split among members, we’re thinking any given meal wouldn’t exceed $15-20 each.
- If you have food allergies or significant preferences (i.e. you don’t eat red meat), we will work with it, but try to be adventuresome if you can!
We received a nice response, about six to eight “regular” members, and a few “alternates” who said they couldn’t commit every month but would like to fill in if someone couldn’t make it. We now shoot to meet monthly, but with holidays and summer schedules, it ends up being about nine or ten meetings per year. Except for the “cost” bullet, where we had started out with the idea of averaging the cost of every meal by member, things honestly have not changed that much. Regarding costs – it just tends to work itself out over the course of months, and if people want to steer away from expensive ingredients, it’s not that hard to do.
So the way we do it now is like a structured, formal potluck.
- Hostesses rotate monthly; some years we plan the schedule in advance, switching months when someone can’t host for one reason or another, and other years we just play it by ear.
- The hostess will pick a date (Sunday evenings work best for our group), generally checking with everyone on which date works for the most people.
- One to two weeks before the Cooking Club meeting date, the hostess will email out a menu to all the members.
- The menu is organized around a theme. Some people relish in thinking of creative themes, others like their old standbys or just want to get through the stack of recipes they have had building up.
- The menu usually consists of various courses – appetizers, soup, salad, mains, desserts, sometimes drinks.
- Sometimes the email will include links to online recipes, others will have a PDF of scanned recipes, and recently some members have chosen to pin recipes on Pinterest, sharing the board with the group.
- Each club member “responds to all” with the dish she will make, but the hostess more often than not will make the main course.
- Unless a recipe requires cooking on-the-spot (like fresh seafood – which does not lend itself to cooking, transporting for half an hour, and reheating), dishes are made in advance and brought with.
- As we eat the meal and catch up on the latest
world eventsgossip, we make a point to talk about each dish.
- What are the ingredients and where were they found in the grocery store?
- Did the cook follow the recipe or deviate?
- What were the fun parts or challenges?
- When would this dish be best to serve? Is it something that would be good to give a helpful guest to assist with before a party? Or to prep the night before a big event where you don’t want to be cooking the next day?
That’s pretty much how we do it! We have thrown in a few variances, like a food tour, cooking class, or outing to a food mecca of sorts. I still laugh thinking about the first time we brought in food from a new restaurant downstairs from my apartment we had all wanted to try – bringing in food from a restaurant was so novel to us as a group! But mostly, we cook, and we learn. There have been some standout dishes, and funny cooking stories along the way, but I honestly can’t recall any dish that has been a total failure.
Stay tuned for more on Cooking Club, and let me know if you have any questions if you are thinking about starting up your own club! Happy eating!