Five Bay Area Cookbook Clubs

by Sarah Henry on January 24, 2011 · 12 comments

in bay area bites,food books

Fact: Bay Areans are a book-loving bunch. Fact: People here are huge food fans.

So is it any wonder, then, that this neck of the woods has a thriving cookbook club culture?

There are differences in how each group operates, but here’s what they all have in common: A desire to share good food and good books about food.

Omnivore Books on Food owner Celia Sack has a theory about the resurgent interest in breaking out the cookbook collection and making meals at home. “Every time there are major industrial advances, there is a push-back to older ways that are hands-on, and one way to achieve that is through food,” she notes, citing the Industrial Revolution from which the Arts & Crafts movement was born. “Today we have the Internet and smart phones to make virtual connections but spending time with family and friends making food is an easy way to make an actual connection.”

Sack recently launched a cookbook mail order club. Four times a year members receive a new, signed cookbook selected by Sack from the culinary titles that fill her shop. Begun as a gift-giving idea over the holidays, Sack says her list of sign-ups is running about half-and-half between people treating themselves to the latest from, say Madhur Jaffrey or Amanda Hesser, and those sending a gift to someone else. Membership costs $160 a year and can be customized (vegetarians can skip the meat tomes, for example.)

Each of the five cookbook clubs below has its own flavor. You’ll also find advice from a seasoned cookbook club organizer about how to start your own group.

Cooks’ Book Club — Berkeley

Three fixtures of Berkeley’s chi chi shopping strip on 4th Street — Books Inc., Cafe Rouge, and The Pasta Shop — have joined forces to create a monthly meet up mixing food, wine, and conversation. The club kicks off this Tuesday at 6 p.m. at Cafe Rouge with Rosetta Costantino‘s cookbook My Calabria : Rustic Family Cooking From Italy’s Undiscovered South. (Read an earlier Bay Area Bites post on My Calabria.)  Subsequent events will be held on the fourth Tuesday of the month, rotating through the three locations.

Costantino will read and share recipes, including stuffed pizza with chard and dill, salt baked sea bass, and cauliflower salad, all paired with Southern Italian vino. Books will be on sale, dishes and drinks sampled, ingredients made available, and discussion will no doubt follow. The event costs $20; admission prices may vary some for each program, depending on what food and wine is on offer.

Up next for the Cooks’ Book Club: Gordon Edgar, author of Cheesemonger: My Life on the Wedge, on February 22 at The Pasta Shop, followed by dessert diva Alice Medrich, author of the Chewy, Gooey, Crispy, Crunchy, Melt-In-Your-Mouth Cookies on March 22 at Cafe Rouge.

18 Reasons Food Lit Club — San Francisco

Heather Knape decided to convene a Food Lit Club at 18 Reasons just over a year ago when someone at her regular book group suggested she might want to pick some non-food books for the group to read. The life-long food and farm lover, who blogs about feeding her family at eating dirt, realized she needed a different club to dish about all things edible.

Members make a three-month commitment to the club, after which you can decide whether you want to continue or choose to give up your coveted spot to a newcomer.

Books can be bought from Omnivore Books (20 percent of profits go to fund the work of the nonprofit food group 18 Reasons) or you can bring your own. The group gathers on the third Sunday of the month from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. at 18 Reasons. It’s a B.Y.O. nibbles kind of deal, typically a rotating snack roster or potluck affair.

Each quarter the group reads something old, something new, and something local, so authors can come too.  This month the group discussed Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin. February’s pick is Fresh by Susanne Friedberg, followed by An Extravagant Hunger: The Passionate Years of M.F.K. Fisher by Anne Zimmerman, who will put in an appearance. Previous picks include Cheesemonger, The Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms by Nicolette Hahn Niman and Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food by Paul Greenberg.

Knape moderates the meet ups and sends out discussion questions in advance.

Williams-Sonoma Cookbook Club — Los Gatos, Monterey, Palo Alto, Pleasanton, Sacramento, San Francisco, and Walnut Creek

The high-end kitchen store Williams-Sonoma’s cookbook club offers cooking classes by in-house chefs showcasing recipes in a cookbook featured each month, often one of their own titles.

The classes cost $75, and include cooking tips and techniques, a three-course tasting menu, and the cookbook. Reservations are required and space is limited; class times vary by store location.

Last month the store featured Mad Hungry: Feeding Men and Boys by Lucinda Scala Quinn, next up is the Williams-Sonoma Weeknight Fresh + Fast by Kristine Kidd, the former food editor of Bon Appetit, followed in March by Williams-Sonoma Good Food to Share by Sara Kate Gillingham-Ryan, founder of the popular cooking site The Kitchn.

Library.101 — Anywhere and Everywhere

You don’t even have to leave home to connect with other cookbook lovers. Heidi Swanson‘s home-grown food blog 101 Cookbooks recently launched Library.101, where readers can connect in cyberspace with fellow food aficionados to review cookbooks, highlight their favorite dishes, and offer recipe tweaks based on their own kitchen experience.

A couple of standout reviewers have emerged on Swanson’s site, which draws an enthusiastic, healthy cooking crowd with culinary smarts. It’s early days, but Swanson says cookbooks published long ago could experience a revival with a new generation of cooks through her forum, which attracts participants from as far away as Australia and Amsterdam. “I love seeing the interaction between members,” says Swanson. “You see friendships emerging and people helping each other, often from opposite ends of the globe.”

Cook/Book Club — Napa

Started five years ago by Napa Valley Register food writer Betty Teller, the Cook/Book Club has a pretty impressive professional pedigree, with just a few civilians in the mix. We’re talking cookbook author Janet Fletcher, pastry chef Annie Baker, chefs, foragers, Slow Food folks, wine guys — even a registered dietician who works with The Biggest Loser TV show. The group meets every two months to dine and dish. Everyone picks a recipe from the featured cookbook to make and during the dinner each person describes what they made, and offer their thoughts on the recipe and the book in general. The conversation flows. One hard and fast rule: No recipe tweaking. Tough for veteran chefs.

Local authors whose books have been featured by group members have even joined the festivities, including Joyce Goldstein (Italian Slow and Savory), Flo Braker (Baking for All Occasions), Joey Altman (Without Reservations), and Cindy Pawlcyn (Big Small Plates). “As the group has evolved –and no one has dropped out — this has become a truly great dinner party with phenomenal food and excellent company, that has its basis as a book club,” explains Teller. “We have our theoretical discussion questions which we largely ignore.”

Teller’s group isn’t taking on any new members. She encourages people to start their own.

Her advice for beginning cookbook club organizers:

  • Invite a mix of people who don’t all know each other well to keep things interesting.
  • Include singles and marrieds but think long and hard about couples, which can change group dynamics.
  • Find people equally interested in cooking, and if you’re going to cook too, with fairly similar culinary skills.
  • Seek out folks with similar edible interests — whether omnivores, vegetarians, vegans, gluten-free.
  • Consider size: About 15 is a good number, so if people miss a meeting there’s still a critical mass.
  • Give it time to grow. It can take a few meetings for things to gel and people to commit to coming.
  • Keep track of who hosts, what books are chosen, and create a calendar for the year for planning purposes.

[This post originally appeared on KQED's Bay Area Bites.]

You might also like:

Alice Medrich’s Sweet Life
Photographer Sara Remington on Shooting Food
Adventures of an Urban Farm Gal
Mollie Katzen: Get Cooking Author Dishes
11 Food-Related Goals for 2011

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Tori RItchie January 26, 2011 at 5:04 pm

Sarah, Great post! I have been part of a cookbook club in the city for years. We are 5 trained chefs, cooking teachers, authors…and a selection of friends who love to cook, too. We pick a title, each cook a different dish, then critique at the party. Years ago I wrote a piece in the Chronicle about another group of cookbook clubbers It’s just the best way to bring a group of friends together and I encourage anyone and everyone who likes to cook to start a club of their own.


Sarah Henry January 27, 2011 at 11:04 pm

Hi Tori, Thanks for adding your own experience here. And, natch, I read your story (and tried to contact the folks you profiled, who still meet, methinks, but I didn’t hear back before my deadline).

Maybe I should get my own group together…


Melanie Haiken January 26, 2011 at 7:42 pm

I love this idea; it would be fun to talk cookbooks with food lovers and chefs, though for me a “beginner’s group” would feel most comfortable. I’d also love to find a recipe exchange group where people experiment with a new recipe, then bring the dish to the group and explain how it was made.


Sarah Henry January 27, 2011 at 11:06 pm

I think it’s smart, Melanie, to seek out cooks you feel like are a good match for your own skill set.


Stephanie January 27, 2011 at 2:59 pm

Hi Melanie,
My friend Stephanie and I (also Stephanie) have a blog called The Chefanies and we are interested in starting a club. We are based in SF. Would you be interested? I emailed you as well.

Thanks for the great post!
Stephanie´s last [type] ..Gimme Them Grains – Farro Salad with Cauliflower and Prosciutto


Sarah Henry January 27, 2011 at 11:07 pm

Hi Stephanie, thanks for stopping by — and taking the next step by starting your own cookbook club and reaching out to others. Good luck to you and keep us posted.


NoPotCooking February 4, 2011 at 5:25 am

Oh! A cookbook club! How I woud love to have one in my area!
NoPotCooking´s last [type] ..Chicken Tagine


Sarah Henry February 8, 2011 at 1:17 pm

Just start your own, NPC. Why not?


tori February 8, 2011 at 1:20 pm

Yes, NPC, just pick a book, call some friends and dive in. It is so worth it.


Lan May 31, 2011 at 10:49 am

thank you for this great article; I was searching for a book club to join in Berkeley. Do you know how I can sign up?

thank you!


Sarah Henry May 31, 2011 at 11:43 am

Hi Lan, Nice to see you here and good luck finding a group that meets your needs.

Books Inc., on 4th Street, can give you the scoop on their Cooks’ Book Club, just click on the link and contact them that way.


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