Food for Thought: How an International Book Group Turned to Cooking and What the Readers Learned

By Ronnie Hess

I don’t know how it started, exactly. But surely in the beginning there was Cynthia. She thought a group of about six colleagues and friends, all of us women, might like to get together each month to discuss books with an international theme.

We were all in some way connected to global studies – through courses we’d taken in college, study and teaching abroad experiences, development work overseas, fundraising for non-profits with a “beyond our borders” outlook. It seemed logical enough. We said yes.

And so began our meetings the second Thursday of the month, immediately after the dinner hour. Perhaps we threw some drinks on the table and salted nuts just for noshing. But a few months later, when we all admitted it was hard to get home from the office, put food on the table for ourselves and our families, then rush across town for our discussion, we decided it was better to meet over dinner. Sandwiches were offered and a light dessert. I remember mine – small rolls with smoked turkey from the deli around the corner, plenty of mustard, small French pickles. Jugs of water. Bottles of white and red wine.

We loved the first books we chose. Azar Nafisi’s memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran, and Peter Hessler’s exploration of Chinese politics and culture in Oracle Bones. As time and tomes sped by, we progressed through an assortment of genres, including novels, short stories, biographies and histories. Our reading choices were thought-provoking and intellectually nourishing. Sometimes, we also gave ourselves a pass with fluff – short, easy-to-read stuff.

Our original meals had been the kind of “grub” to keep us satisfied both after a long day and then through our evening. Healthful and nutritious. We were all accomplished cooks and married to the idea of eating locally, with the seasons. But even so, we craved something juicier than what was actually bringing us together. Not raunchy literature, although Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan had its moments. No, something meaty, literally to sink our teeth into. Real food, not just food for thought. Someone suggested we choose dishes that mirrored the countries we were reading about. Could it have been after we had cooked our way through Chris Fair’s Cuisines of the Axis of Evil and Other Irritating States: A Dinner Party Approach to International Relations?

Was that when everything gelled, perhaps only too well?

Food began to dictate our book choices as much as, maybe even more than, favorable press reviews or our own concerns about regional balance. We asked ourselves whether the countries in question had dishes worth savoring. Were there recipes we liked more than others? We found that books about South and East Asia tended to dominate our readings. Soon, several course meals began appearing on the host’s table each month. Exotic recipes from China, Japan, India, Pakistan, the Middle East, herbs and spices, nuts, pomegranates and honey for dessert. But we didn’t foreswear more familiar concoctions from Europe and Latin America. Or any manner of comfort food, especially when winter months roared in.

We should have seen what was coming. Inevitably, the books became the back-pages to our “pull-out-all-the-stops” international dinners. Or, put another way, the readings became the lovely amuse-bouches or palate teasers before the main course. Julia Child’s memoir, My Life in France, was sweet but almost better to conceive of as a reprise of her first meal in Rouen in 1948, filets de sole and all. David Massie’s exhausting Catherine the Great was relieved by the tsarina’s cleansing champagne fish soup (inspired by Darra Goldstein’s À la Russe: A Cookbook of Russian Hospitality), along with beet salad and imperial molded dessert. For all her wealth and power, Catherine advocated eating light.

Menu planning became as important to us as reading. While we prepared for our monthly gatherings, as we pored over our texts, we circled the dishes our authors referred to, the foods that punctuated their pages – pappadoms in Katherine Russell’s Dreaming in Hindi, Salman Rushdie’s red bananas and goat’s milk in The Ground Beneath Her Feet.

It’s hard now to reconstruct completely our dinners ab ovo, from the moment of conception, for none of us kept lists. Nevertheless, it’s hard to forget the highlights. Extraordinary, the night we discussed Téa Obrecht’s The Tiger’s Wife over Cynthia’s steaming punjena paprika or Croatian stuffed green peppers, from a recipe found online.

More recently, we’ve raved about Liane’s chicken curry while considering Katherine Boo’s Behind All the Beautiful Forevers, as well as my ghouri, an Algerian almond cookie (the recipe from Joan Nathan’s Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France), over Anthony Shadid’s The Stone House. (Yes, Shadid’s book is set in Lebanon, but we broadened the menu to include all manner of Mediterranean food.)

All the while, almost without our realizing it, the meals took on a greater meaning for us. When a book was particularly upsetting, with its stories of war, famine, pestilence and disease halfway across the world, our food consoled us, made us happy we could celebrate our own good health and good luck. We had become closer, stronger friends, glad for the special connection that books and food had made possible.

Sometimes, now, we speak more about the food and ourselves than we do about the books, and it doesn’t matter. Importantly, we have chosen an international charity to support, our way of ensuring our fortunes have extended beyond the table to women who are less fortunate.

And the more confident we have become in our cooking, the more we have experimented with our cook-book relationship. Biologist Sean B. Carroll’s book, Amazing Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origin of Species recently led us to Mrs. Charles Darwin’s Recipe Book (by Dusha Bateson and Weslie Janeway) and a groaning board of Victorian dishes including cheese straws, lamb stew with turnips, gingerbread, poached apples and citron pudding. For, as we would say, “Why stint on dessert?”

A few months ago, for Lauren Redniss’ book Radioactive, about Marie and Pierre Curie, only the brazil nuts might have set off a Geiger counter. We regaled ourselves on dishes concocted on one of Marie’s trips to America – Mongol soup and fruit salad. Or was it one of the Nobel Prize banquets from 1905 or 1911? Who knew the Nobel Prize kept these kinds of lists?

Perhaps our greatest achievement was just a few weeks ago, after reading Ann K. Finkbeiner’s A Grand and Bold Thing: An Extraordinary New Map of the Universe Ushering In A New Era of Discovery. Surely a book about the cosmos required cosmic, out-of-the-world recipes, or culinary references to orbiting planets and astral dust clouds. We dined on Celestial Chicken, Mars Bars and Cherry Cloud, a frothy dessert of maraschino cherries and mini-marshmallows. What really took the cake, though, was Susan’s original, one-of-a-kind culinary telescope, all fruit and mirrors. We were lost, we were gone, on a spaceship traveling light years, coursing together to the farthest galaxies.


 

Ronnie Hess is the author of a culinary travel guide, Eat Smart in France (Ginkgo Press), and a poetry chapbook, Whole Cloth (Little Eagle Press). She lives in Madison, WI.

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