CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Many years ago, social activist and writer Harry Golden made a very simple observation:
No eating. No meeting.
In other words, if you want people to come together, think deeply and share thoughts, you'd better make sure there's food.
Today's book clubs could second the notion. Yes, the book is important. The mix of personalities is key. But with book club names like "Mostly We Just Eat" and "First, The Food," does anyone doubt what really pulls book clubs together?
"We're not so much a book club as a drinking club with a reading problem," jokes Stephen Celestini, a member of an all-male book club, The Well-Formed Heads (from a line in Walker Percy's "The Moviegoer"). The group has been meeting and eating in Raleigh, N.C., since 1997.
"We all expect to be fed, and we all expect better-than-average beverages," Celestini declares. "A case of Budweiser is not acceptable."
Molly Lundquist, founder of the national book-club site litlovers.com, was trying to estimate how many book clubs there are — pick a number, from 5,000 clubs to 10 million members—when she mentioned library-based book clubs. And then she cracked up.
"Why would anyone want to belong to a library club? There's no food and no wine!"
Yes, food is as integral to the book club scene as Oprah picks and Amazon orders. There are books about food, there is food in books that aren't about food, there are books set in countries that have interesting food.
Lundquist, who lives in Pittsburgh, includes a section of international menus on her website. The most popular, by far: Afghan food, for clubs reading "Three Cups of Tea," "The Kite Runner" or "A Thousand Splendid Suns."
There's even "The Book Club Cookbook," by Judy Gelman and Vicki Levy Krupp, which grew out of a website by the same name.
People find all kinds of ways to tie food themes to book club meetings. Charlotte's Mother-Daughter Book Club has been meeting for three years, with books appropriate for 9- to 11-year-old girls. Besides reading the book together and discussing it, the girls and their mothers do an activity tied to the book.
Last month, Kim Ewert of Charlotte, N.C., hosted the club on Aug. 29, the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. The girls read "Lost Among The Tears," Charlotte teenager Kathryn Byron's fictionalized story about storm refugees. Afterward, they set up a lemonade and beignet stand outside and raised $200 for Hurricane Katrina recovery.
"It was a lovely afternoon."
Rhonda Cramer of Stallings, N.C., just joined her book club a year ago. But she was quick to volunteer to host this month's meeting when she heard the book was going to be "In Defense of Food," by Michael Pollan. Cramer describes herself as a local-food fan who loves to cook Southern.
She started planning a couple of weeks in advance: deviled eggs from local farm eggs, toasted pecans from a grower in Norwood, the special roasted okra she learned from a farmer at the Matthews (N.C.) Community Farmers Market.
"I hated doing book reports (as a kid) because I loved to read but I hated talking about it." But once she joined a book club, she found it was different.
"I found that I really loved talking about it. When we're all sitting there, laughing and joking and drinking wine, we get off on other tangents. Just getting together, it reminds me of one of the things Michael Pollan mentions, that it's not just the food you eat, but the way you eat it. To cook it yourself, at home, and have family and friends.
"I've turned out to really love it. And I read books I never would have read at all."
Most people who belong to food-centric book clubs agree the food isn't just something to eat. It relaxes you, and eases the pressure of voicing your opinion.
"It makes it easier," says Cramer. "Like you're just chit-chatting over dinner. You're not on the spot so much."
Then again, maybe it replaces intellectual pressure with another kind of pressure.
Artist and writer Stacy Lynn Waddell of Chapel Hill, N.C., is a member of Mostly We Just Eat. She admits that there are such great cooks in her group, members are careful about when they sign up to host.
"The bar has been set so high that when it's your turn, you think long and hard about the food. You don't want to be the person that had a bad spread. The members are like, 'Oh, we like the fellowship,' and they do. But certain people, you don't want to follow."
Stephen Celestini says The Well-Formed Heads started out of envy:
"We were jealous because our wives were having book-club meetings. Most of us that decided to jump in said, 'It sounds like a good reason to get together and pretend to read a book and drink.' Lo and behold, we ended up enjoying doing the reading."
The members, who were mostly lawyers, also discovered that several of them really liked to cook. Pretty soon, elaborate meals were as much a part of the book club as the books.
Longtime member Don Reynolds served barbecued goat when they read Cormac McCarthy's "Blood Meridian" (characters in the book wander in the desert and have to eat whatever they can find). For this month's book, Vladimir Nabokov's "Pale Fire," he's grilling Russian-style pork kebabs, with the propane grill symbolizing the title.
The club has come to love the food so much that they have an annual beach retreat where food plays an even bigger role.
"We don't go play golf, we don't go to strip clubs. We camp at the house and we make food and drink and eat for four solid days," Celestini says.
The beach meeting also led them in a new direction. They learned they were too distracted to focus on a book that weekend. So now, each member writes something that is shared with the group. Writing ranges from poetry to journal entries. One member is doing a chapter a year for a detective novel.
"Some of the stuff that has come out of that has been really, really good."
The club has weathered divorces and a few members have gone and been replaced by others. Their wives' book clubs have come and gone.
But food and the love of the written word have held The Heads together, says Celestini.
"We're kind of our own little therapy support group."
BOOKS THAT INSPIRE GOOD EATING
Looking for book-club picks that lend themselves to food? Here are some recent popular picks:
"Julie and Julia," by Julie Powell, combined with "My Life in France," by Julia Child. Child discovers French food, and Powell discovers Child.
"Eat, Pray, Love," by Elizabeth Gilbert. The menu could be Italian, Indian, Indonesian—or all three.
"Trail of Crumbs," by Kim Sunee. Her memoir about being a South Korean orphan adopted by a New Orleans family who eventually lands in France includes mouthwatering descriptions of meals in Provence.
"The School of Essential Ingredients," by Erica Bauermeister. The fictional tale is centered on the students who find meaning and solace during cooking classes with a restaurateur.
"The Help," by Kathryn Stockett. The controversial novel about relationships between black domestics and their white employers in Mississippi is a natural to discuss with Southern food.
"Food of Love," or "The Wedding Officer," by Anthony Capella. The first is a rhapsody of food in Rome, the second is set in Naples. Either one should be served up with Italian food.
"Francesca's Kitchen," by Peter Pezzilli. The story about an Italian-American family centers on the kitchen.
"A Thousand Days in Venice," by Marlene de Blasi. The memoir of an American who marries and moves to Venice ends up as an exploration of the food of Tuscany and Umbria.
From Rhonda Cramer of Stallings, N.C., who got the recipe from Big Oak Natural Farms at the Matthews Community Farmers Market. This is fantastic even for okra haters: There's no slime, and the slices get as crispy as potato chips.
- 1/2 to 1 pound okra pods, as fresh as possible
- 1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 teaspoon salt, preferably coarse sea salt
SLICE each pod lengthwise, from stem to tip end. Toss with the olive oil and salt. Spread in a single layer in a wide, shallow pan, such as a roasting pan.
PLACE in a 375-degree oven and roast about 20 minutes, until the okra slices are very dark and getting crispy. Remove from pan with a wide, flat spatula and spread on a serving plate. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Yield: 3 to 6 servings.
'TRY THE PORK' KEBABS
From Don Reynolds of Raleigh. For Vladimir Nabokov's "Pale Fire," Reynolds adapted Russian beef kebabs from Steven Raichlen's "Barbecue Bible." Russian for Nabokov, of course, and pork for a moment in the book when the vegan narrator is urged to "try the pork."
- 6 large white onions, divided
- 18 cloves garlic, pressed or minced
- 6 bay leaves
- 4 1/2 teaspoons each salt and black pepper
- 1 1/2 cups dry red wine
- 3/4 cup red wine vinegar
- 9 tablespoons olive oil
- 5 pounds pork tenderloin, cut in bite-size cubes
- 3 green bell peppers, cored, seeded and cut in chunks
- Hot, cooked egg noodles
GRATE 3 onions and combine with garlic, bay leaves, salt, pepper, wine, vinegar and olive oil in a large bowl or resealable freezer bag. Add the pork cubes and refrigerate 4 to 8 hours.
CUT the remaining 3 onions into chunks. Thread the pork, onions and green bell peppers on skewers, alternating pieces. Grill until browned in spots. Serve over cooked egg noodles with red Russian-style slaw.
Yield: 10 to 12 servings.
RED RUSSIAN-STYLE SLAW
From Don Reynolds of Raleigh, adapted from "Grilling for Life," by Bobby Flay.
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 thinly sliced red onions
- 2 heads cabbage, thinly sliced
- 2 beets, diced or grated
- 1/2 cup coarsely chopped parsley
- 4 tablespoons grated horseradish
- 1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 1/2 teaspoon each salt and pepper
HEAT the olive oil in a skillet and briefly saute the onions and cabbage. Mix with the remaining ingredients and toss to mix well.
Yield: 10 to 12 servings.