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The Tweak That Took Our Book Club To A Whole New Level

The question cut through our chatter like a knife: “Did anyone even read the book?”

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illustration of women at a book club carrying dessert trays
irene rinaldi
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The question cut through our chatter like a knife: “Did anyone even read the book?”

For nearly an hour, we’d been talking over each other while passing around nibbles and refilling wine glasses. A half dozen of my closest friends came together every month under the guise of book club. Should this one speak up about the “prom day” her kids’ preschool was organizing? Had that one gone through with her plan to buy a rental property? Was microblading really the remedy for skimpy eyebrows? Had anyone tried one of those suction vibrators that suddenly seemed all the rage? (“It looks like a little penguin wearing a bow tie!” one friend laughed bawdily.)

Though I’d initially signed up because I wanted a reason to read more, the truth is our monthly gatherings had become a salve for my sanity.  Stretched thin by the demands of two kids, a crazy work schedule, and a marriage that needed more attention that I cared to admit, I had come to depend on those three or four hours with friends like a life raft. Some months, it was my only night out where I wasn’t tasked with entertaining a client, corralling my kids, or trying to make the magic of date night justify the cost of a sitter. I could just … be.

But here’s the thing: I never found the time to finish the book — and neither did most of my book club comrades. And when someone steered the topic toward plot and symbolism, I noticed we’d mostly stare into our wine glasses or make a beeline for the bathroom. When the conversation finally turned back to life, it was like the room let out a collective sigh of relief.

Until that day, last fall, when Ashley followed her “did anyone even read” question with a new one: “Should we try something new?” We liked the gathering and gabbing part of book club, as well as, well, stuffing our faces. Book club had slowly become the place to savor those oil-cured olives and stinky cheeses that got side eye at our family dinner tables, and to unveil the braided challahs or delicate pavlovas that would largely go unappreciated at home.

I don’t remember exactly who suggested — probably jokingly — that we try a cookbook club instead, but I do remember the enthusiastic nodding that followed. And it turns out my friends were on to something: There are online cookbook clubs, in which people pace their own cooking and commenting throughout the month; library groups where patrons share dishes, potluck-style; and clubs where people gather to cook together from the same book, then divvy the spoils to eat later at home. (Though cooking club advocates Polly Conner and Rachel Tiemeyer, who wrote the book From Freezer to Table , point out that the cook-together concept is best capped at six people, or you’ll literally have too many cooks in the kitchen.)

It took us only two months to settle on the format that fit our group: We cook ahead of time (because by 9 p.m. I’d rather eat a raw onion than dice it), everyone can make whatever they want from the book (eight desserts? No complaints here!), and we pick the next cookbook before we leave for the night. And while it had seemed impossible to carve out six hours of solitude to read a novel, so far I’ve always been able to find enough time to pull together something for cookbook club: Smitten Kitchen’s halloumi roast with eggplant and zucchini while on a long conference call;  roasted pistachio ice cream from Jeni Britton Bauer’s cookbook while my kids “helped” by arm wrestling over the scraps; even making Indian paneer (from scratch!) from the “ butter-chicken lady’sInstant Pot cookbook while watching Survivor reruns.

“I think cookbook club helps keep me out of the chicken-tacos-pizza rut we’d gotten into,” my friend Liz said, when I asked why she kept showing up, month after month. “I get to taste-test, like, 10 recipes all at once, so I know what I want to make at home later.”

“And it means cooking things I wouldn’t try on my own,” broke in Amy. “Vegan ‘cauliflower’ wings?!” She pantomimed rolling her eyes, at the memory of our collective foray into a vegan cookbook.

“Those were good!” cried Ashley, swatting at her playfully with a couch cushion. And the conversation — and laughter — moved on.