Betty Teller, Amuse-Bouche: Voracious readers | Food


Now that life is opening up again, after the booster shots, I’m celebrating everything that marks a return to (almost) normal. I still wear my mask and exercise caution, but even with Omicron looming, I feel protected enough to push COVID back into the back of my head as I lead my life.

I’m not quite ready to hang out in a loud, crowded bar with drunk and screaming strangers (again, I haven’t really practiced this pre-COVID either) but I’ve eaten in restaurants, done more shopping in actual stores, planning airplane trips, and hosting people for inside tours. I am especially happy that most of my clubs and organizations have resumed their meetings.

The two that I missed the most during our suspended animation year were my book clubs. I belong to two, one for cookbooks and one for fiction. The two have been leaving for enough years to be filled with old friends. I didn’t realize how much I expected to see them regularly until suddenly we couldn’t meet. Now, I cherish every gathering.

A few weeks ago my longtime friend and former college roommate Beth came over for a week-long visit. When she arrived, she mentioned that she had to block some time the next day around noon for a long Facetime meeting. She called her book club in Santa Fe, which met in person but without her. Considering what I think of my bands, I totally got it, although I was curious how it would work. The one time a member called our group, she could barely be heard in the din of conversations.

People also read …

When Beth called the next day, I tried to give her some privacy, but couldn’t help but overhear part of the discussion. Apparently her group got together about half an hour early to eat soup (soup ?!), so she called after that. As you would expect with any meeting, the first 10 minutes were chatting and catching up. But then they got down to business.

And talked about the book. Nonstop. For over an hour. The facilitator led the discussion and asked relevant questions. Members have referenced other books by the author. They dissected each character.

What kind of cockamamie book club is this?

This is how my club (the fiction club) works. I think this is a valid model another book club should consider emulating.

We don’t have a set schedule, but it’s usually a Thursday night that we determined at the previous meeting, after spending too much time agreeing on the next book.

I know there are book clubs where the host selects the book, but we do it differently. We negotiate and try to come to a consensus, and then somehow randomly stop at a novel based on nobody vetoing it. (Participatory democracy at its messy best. Much like Congress.) The next hostess is the one who raised her hand and said she thought it might be her turn.

She does not choose the book, but in our club the hostess has a much more important role: she chooses the main course.

A week or two before the meeting, she sends an email reminding everyone of the date and location and telling us what she thinks she’s making for dinner. Then everyone responds, filling the menu. Our party is small – only seven members – so it only takes a few emails to pay for a few entrees, a salad, a side dish or two, bread and dessert. And, of course, wine. (Soup is not yet on the menu.)

We meet at the agreed time, we pour our first glass of wine, we nibble on aperitifs for a good 45 minutes and we talk about everything under the sun except books, catching up on everyone’s life. Then we move to the dining table, fill our plates, fill our glasses and continue the conversation.

Finally, someone remarks, “Shouldn’t we be discussing the book? At this point, those of us who have read it begin to analyze it for at least 10 minutes. Sometimes even longer. It’s always an interesting, meaningful (and thankfully short) discussion.

Then we have dessert and start negotiating the next book to read.

I’m sure there’s nothing wrong with a soup, a lunchtime meeting, and a seminary-worthy book dissection. Beth seems to like her group.

But for me, a good dinner, plentiful wine, old friends, lots to talk about, and just enough mental stimulation make the perfect book club meeting.

In my other book club, the cookbook club, it’s about testing the book and the recipes, which can often be complex, requiring a virtuoso effort. In contrast, in my usual fictional book club, we don’t expect our hostess to do contortions in the kitchen. Even the take out food is perfect, as are the simple recipes we have been making from college. Sometimes we wink at the book (say, pasta for a novel set in Italy), but more often than not it’s just what the host feels like serving.

For example, at our last meeting, the main course was a delicious meatloaf from the Browns Valley Market (which was so good I might never bother to make it from scratch again). To go with it, one of our members brought this rich corn pudding, made from her mother’s recipe, which in turn came from a community or synagogue cookbook whose origin I don’t know. .

For those of you who like the ease, this one is for you. It’s the simplicity itself, put together from pantry items – plus enough butter, sour cream, and eggs to make it amazingly good.

1 can whole-grain sweet corn, drained

1 can Jiffy Corn Muffin Mix

1 stick of butter (8 tbsp), melted

Aleppo pepper or chili flakes

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Butter a soufflé dish or 3 quart casserole dish.

In a medium bowl, lightly beat the eggs, then stir in the sour cream. Incorporate the corn cream then the whole corn kernels. Add the muffin mix and sugar and finally the melted butter. Mix until all the ingredients are well incorporated. Season with salt and pepper to taste. You might want to add Aleppo pepper or hot pepper flakes, or even chopped jalapeño pepper, to give it a little boost.

Pour into a soufflé dish or buttered casserole dish and bake for about 70 minutes, until golden on top. This may take more or less time, depending on the size of your pan.

Note: The original recipe called for 1/4 cup sugar, but I cut it out because the corn and cornbread mixture is already sweet. I also cut out an extra 1/2 cup of butter, as the original recipe looked like a heart attack on a plate. I haven’t missed them in my version, but feel free to add them back if you want.

Napa’s West Won Bread offers fresh bread, scones, cookies and other seasonal dishes.

Betty Teller likes to curl up with a good book, but enjoys dinner even more. Tell him what you read (or cook) at [email protected]

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