Cookbook clubs cooking up good time for library patrons
“No food or beverages allowed,” that cardinal rule of libraries, doesn't always apply these days.
In recent years, tasting events sponsored by cookbook clubs have become popular at libraries around the area.
At the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh Squirrel Hill branch, adult services librarian Maria Taylor says their club “was born out of the interest of the folks who use the library. We definitely have food lovers, and our cookbooks get checked out a lot.
“Most of our successful programming comes from ideas from our patrons.”
Their group meets quarterly, drawing “couples, singles, people from different cultures and ages,” Taylor says. Attendance is capped at 15 per meeting, and sessions are always full.
“That tells me maybe we need to be doing more of this,” she says.
Other Pittsburgh area libraries with cookbook clubs include Oakmont Carnegie Library, Whitehall Public Library and Shaler North Hills Library. In Westmoreland County, the Norwin and Ligonier Valley libraries have clubs.
The idea seems to have been passed from one to another.
“I got the idea from Green Tree (which no longer has a club) in 2010,” says Robin Almendinger, who does adult programming at Oakmont. “I ran with their concept and it's worked for us.”
In turn, Ligonier Valley library director Janet Hudson says she heard about the Oakmont group from one of its board members.
“I went to other library websites looking for program ideas, and saw that some were doing something similar,” says Diana Faulk, director of Norwin Public Library in Irwin.
“That's one thing about libraries,” Hudson says, “we share.”
Most sessions follow a similar format: A library staffer or club organizer will pick a cookbook from the library's collection and members will pick a recipe to prepare for the next meeting.
Often, the book is displayed near the circulation desk and participants mark the recipes they have chosen with a sticky note to avoid duplication.
The meeting begins with a tasting session, followed by a discussion of the food, the book and the individual recipes, including ease of preparation and finding ingredients.
Things work a bit differently in Squirrel Hill, Taylor says. There, a staff member places several cookbooks on hold for club members, who can check them out to try recipes at home.
“Then they come to talk about what they tried and how it worked,” she says.
For the meeting, Taylor prepares a couple of featured recipes for sampling. When the theme was non-dairy recipes, she made coconut whipped cream and non-dairy chocolate milkshakes.
“We ... have seen much more interest in these groups over the past five years,” says Judy Gelman, who, with Vicki Levy Krupp, wrote “The Book Club Cookbook” and created bookclubcookbook.com.
“We think a renewed interest in cooking — and cooking within a community around a common interest — fueled the initial surge in cookbooks clubs. Libraries, book stores, meet-up groups and other organizations have sponsored cookbook clubs around certain topics, increasing awareness of these groups,” Gelman says. “They provide a chance to try a number of recipes from a book, participate in a community event and explore a book in more depth, test cooking skills, sort through cooking challenges.
“Members tell us they try many recipes — and cookbooks — that they might have never explored on their own,” she adds.
“It's one of my favorite groups,” Faulk says about the Norwin Nibblers, who meet on the third Wednesday of the month.
“When we started, a lot of our people were not what they called cooks, but they wanted to learn about food and try new things,” she says. “We get people from their early 20s to their mid-80s.”
The various groups have tried cookbook staples from Betty Crocker and Pillsbury, along with ethnic and vegetarian cuisines and recipes from celebrity chefs.
“One of the hardest ones we did was a Martha Stewart book,” says Krista Brown, adult programming coordinator at Norwin. “A lot of the recipes were time-consuming or the ingredients were obscure. You had to buy a $10 bottle of something when you only needed a teaspoon.”
The Oakmont group encountered an unexpected result when they chose an Irish cookbook for a St. Patrick's Day gathering.
“Believe me, it was hard to find one of those in the system, and then we ended up with a lot of potato dishes,” Almendinger says. “In general, we pick (a cookbook) that's very general, something broad that includes everything from appetizers to desserts.”
While most discussions focus on the process of making the food and the end result, the group at Whitehall Public Library often takes it a step further.
“It's best when discussions become less about the food and more about what that food means to the person,” says adult services coordinator Brandon Taper in a post on bookclubcookbook.com. “How does preparing a meal affect your day differently from nuking a small box inside a larger box? How does the tactile process of cooking reveal itself in your life outside of the kitchen? ... Can food mean more than sustenance? Can it be art?”
“We go the whole nine yards,” Taper says. “We rate the cookbooks, talk about why the ingredients matter. Sometimes we'll chose a far-out theme. I don't think we've encountered any fear yet in trying new things.”
One memorable challenge was Katie Shelly's “Picture Cook,” in which drawings substitute for written instructions.
For some groups, the format has grown to activities and friendships beyond what Almendinger calls a “programmed potluck.”
At Whitehall, Taper has paired cuisines with movies, such as the obvious Greek with “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and Asian and French with “The Hundred-Foot Journey.”
The Ligonier group has taken a bus trip to Pittsburgh's fresh-food mecca, the Strip District, and has a Christmas cookie exchange. Though the club is currently on hiatus, Hudson says she is considering trying to organize an eating club for periodic visits to local restaurants.
“I've been pleasantly surprised at how close our group has become,” Taper says. “But then, who doesn't like food?”