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Book club meetings feed body and mind

In a famous episode of Seinfeld, George Costanza brings a pastrami sandwich to bed, along with his girlfriend. "Food and sex; those are my two passions," he explains to Jerry. "It's only natural to combine them." These days members of book clubs who are passionate about books are doing the same thing. Well, without the sex. They're combining literary discussions with food inspired by the book they've read. While most clubs have some type of refreshments, others go the extra mile and meticulously match cuisines with contents. We've even heard of punitive book clubs where the steadfast rule is: If you don't read the book, you have to make the food. That's one way to make sure people are prepared.

Some books provide obvious ideas such as Kate Jacob's Comfort Food (Putnam, 2008) about a TV cooking show host obsessed with birthday cake. (See accompanying story and luscious coconut cake recipe.) Other books don't provide such clear direction.

Kristin Henderson's post-9/11 memoir Driving by Moonlight (Seal Press, 2003) is about a cross-country trip she makes with her German shepherd after her husband is shipped off to Afghanistan with the Marines. The author struggles with her Quaker heritage and the call to war, concluding that "the world needs both Quakers and Marines. So does my marriage. And within myself, so do I." Whew. What does a book club have for dinner after something like that?

"We had the author," Amanda Moonitz of Tampa says. "One of our book group members e-mailed Kristin, who was in Florida at the time, and she came and joined us for dinner. After she wrote her next book, While They're at War, she was coming to Inkwood Books in Tampa on her book tour, and she joined us for dinner again. We now have our own author."

One book club in Tampa takes its cooking as seriously as its reading. The last chapter of The Glass Castle, a memoir by Jeannette Walls, inspired a complete Thanksgiving dinner at a recent gathering.

"My husband Joe, who loves to cook, essentially replicated the menu, right down to the homemade apple pie," said Judy Davis McCormick, who hosted the meeting at her home in Tampa. "I even had the perfect squash casserole made from my mom's recipe. Everyone wanted the recipe for that."

The menu also included turkey, sausage dressing, mustard creamed onions gratinee, and cranberries with pecans.

Because the book mentions geodes, a type of hollow rock, McCormick decorated the dining table with pots of crystals surrounded by smooth river stones.

That may have been more elaborate than usual, but almost all of the meetings of this group, which has no name, include memorable food.

The perfect setting, the perfect servings

• When McCormick's group read Audrey Hepburn's Neck by Alan Brown, members ate Japanese foods mentioned in the book, including sushi, yakitori (skewered chicken), edamame (soybeans in the pod), red bean paste buns, gyoza dumplings (with pork and cabbage filling), green tea tiramisu and, of course, sake.

• When they read A Painted House by John Grisham, which is set on a farm in Arkansas in 1952, McCormick and another member, Nancy Savage, served Southern cuisine including black-eyed pea cakes, turnip greens, cheese grits, sweet potato casserole, corn bread, chocolate foolers (fold-overs) and chess pie (a custard pie that takes cornmeal instead of flour).

"We're both from Arkansas, so we used the recipes we grew up with," McCormick says. "We can't remember serving any meat, so we must have done 'poor Southern.' They were the original vegetarians."

•And when they read Our Founding Mothers by Cokie Roberts, McCormick and her husband turned to The Williamsburg Cookbook for inspiration, creating a menu that included cheddar cheese and olive balls, meat patties in crust, Virginia ham biscuits, sweet potato muffins and Williamsburg pecan bars.

"I love Colonial Williamsburg," McCormick says. "My husband and I have visited there several times, and this gave me an excuse to cook some of my favorite foods from there."

All the meals included one other essential ingredient: wine.

"We always have an unlimited supply of wine," McCormick says. "My husband calls us a wine club that reads books."

Some meals remain simple and austere. When the group read The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom, a novel whose main character was a maintenance man at Ruby Point Amusement Park, they had cotton candy, corn dogs, popcorn and other amusement park food.

Creative combos served your way

All of this sounds like a pretty good idea to the people here at Taste, so every month we're going to name a book that seems to be popular with area book clubs and suggest a recipe or two to go with it. (See first column, top right.)

Some will be loose associations — a Middle Eastern dish like baba ghanouj to go with The Kite Runner, perhaps, or an African peanut stew to go with China Achebe's classic, Things Fall Apart.

Whatever the combo, the goal will always be the same: to enhance the discussion of the book with food worth talking about.

We'll also keep in mind that not everyone has the time or inclination to cook from scratch. Our suggestions will include takeout ideas, too.

Who knows? Someday we might even get an opportunity to suggest a pastrami sandwich.

Tom Valeo is a freelance writer based in St. Petersburg.

Book-food pairings

The members of book clubs generally take turns hosting the meetings, and some members go all out to prepare exciting food suggested by the book under discussion. Here are some of the more memorable pairings from Tampa book clubs.

Authenticity by Deirdre Madden (Graywolf Press, 2005) is set in Dublin, so one book club's members prepared Irish food, including beef stew with stout, Irish soda bread, smoked salmon appetizers and a layered chocolate cake explicitly described in the novel. Instead of wine they drank Smithwick's Ale, Guinness Stout, Irish coffee and tea.

Where God Was Born by Bruce Feiler (Amazon Remainders Account, 2005) is an exploration of the land where Christianity, Islam and Judaism originated, so members ordered Mideastern fare including falafel with tahini sauce, hummus, pita and baklava, from Byblos Cafe at 2832 S MacDill Ave. in Tampa.

Like Water For Chocolate by Laura Esquivel (Anchor, 1995) is subtitled ''A Novel in Monthly Installments with Recipes, Romances, and Home Remedies.'' Cathy Louis, the member who prepared the meal, consulted other cookbooks as well as a friend from Mexico to fill out recipes provided in the book for chicken mole, guacamole, a traditional Mexican cinnamon cookie and, of course, hot chocolate made with water rather than milk. "I tried to come as close as I could to authentic recipes," Louis says. She also decorated the table with Mexican candlesticks and pottery.

Shark Dialogues by Kiana Davenport (Plume, 1995) is set in Hawaii, so members of the Inquiring Minds Book Club had scallops with snow peas, cocktails containing rum and pineapple, balsamic rice with raisins and nuts, and ice cream with toasted coconut and pineapple. "Each member was presented with a fresh orchid lei," recalled Melissa Spring, the founder of the club.

A Place Called Canterbury (Viking, 2008), a memoir about the experiences of the author's aging mother in Canterbury Towers, a retirement community in Tampa, was written by Spring's brother, former St. Petersburg Times and New York Times reporter Dudley Clendinen. So when members of the Inquiring Minds read it, they nibbled on hors d'oeuvres mentioned in the book. Each member received a "glamour bib," also described in the book.

Waiting for Snow in Havana by Carlos Eire (Free Press, 2006) was paired by the Inquiring Minds with chicken and yellow rice and Cuban bread. The hostess, Tamarah Balbontin, made place cards containing an old picture of her parents, who were from Cuba.

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant (St. Martins Press, 1997) provides a fictional account of what goes on in the tent where women gather in Arab cultures. Since Cathy Turton lived in the Middle East for several years, she decided to prepare a traditional Bedouin meal consisting of a platter of rice with lemon chicken and tomato-stuffed squash. And all the members had to eat with their hands. Turton also had the members try on her habaya, the full-body covering that leaves only the wearer's eyes visible. "You feel separated from the group when you wear it," Turton said, "but you also feel a sense of privacy."

Book club meetings feed body and mind 07/22/08 [Last modified: Thursday, July 24, 2008 7:50am]
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