Food clubs celebrate shared appetites


A group of neighbors in Takoma Park meets every Tuesday for dinner and conversation. Clockwise from left, Joseph Klockner, Tyler Kelly, Norah Neale, Keith Kozloff, Robin Mize and Virginia Myers. (Joseph Victor Stefanchik/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

Membership has its rewards, the saying goes, which seems particularly apt for people who belong to, for lack of a more artful term, food clubs. We form tribes through common gustatory passions; if you like to eat or drink the same things I do, you must be okay.

Levels of organization vary. But it doesn’t matter how we come together, as long as we get to share a bite or a pint while we do so.

Around Washington, where “busy” is in the by-laws, many of us find the time every week to bond with others via the edible and potable. Neighbors still fulfill the demands of the dinner hour with a distribution of duties. Their suppers can be modest or they can be the result of a month’s planning, bound by a theme that’s expressed in multiple courses and strategic cocktails.

Interest in a single kind of foodstuff can build a small community, and so can mastery of the mechanism or garden plot — or sheer effort — that helps create it. We can immerse ourselves in a culture by literally filling up on its traditional fare.

The import of all this is easy to take for granted yet must not be overlooked. For ours is an age where academics and health advocates have to proselytize the family meal.

Enthusiasms shared by food club members interviewed for this story burn bright like the words of Wendell Berry: “Eating with the fullest pleasure is . . . perhaps the profoundest enactment of our connection with the world.”

THE MAW OF A WOOD-FIRED FORNO BRAVO emits a powerful siren song, especially when the oven’s interior temperature hovers around 900 degrees and the thing is situated near a backyard deck and a loaded cooler.

On this drippy Sunday afternoon in Oakton, it has pulled more than a dozen men up a driveway hill. They are toting bags with balls inside — dough balls they engineered with precision and are now fussing over with furrowed brows.

“It’s a tiny bit more humid than we’d like it to be,” says Dave Konstantin.

“My dough is just tight today. It was soft earlier, and now look at it,” frets another.

Konstantin is a lighting designer and the leader of DC Elite Pizza. The Arlington resident began selling the posh pizza oven kits part-time in 2007 and formed the club as a kind of informal support group: “I thought it would be nice for people to share pizzamaking tips, recipes, learn about new techniques.”

His e-mail list stands at 60. Folks who have come on this day own ovens, or might be on the verge of doing so — a few with wives and kids along. Here, they trade notes on sources for the necessary 00 flour. They compare peels (wood vs. metal with slats) and hydration percentages while they check out each other’s application of sauces (thin, uncooked) and toppings (Patrick Moffitt’s smoked mozzarella, lemon, basil and olive oil combo draws instant attention). Just about everybody swears by an almost-translucent, stretchy amoeba of Neapolitan-style dough that will puff and blister in under two minutes while remaining chewy and soft.

It takes Paul Fiorino’s ice-breaker, a simple margherita, to get things rolling. Soon the pizza cutter’s in heavy rotation — that is, after a few minutes of undisturbed rest for each pie so that toppings can settle. Chris and Ginger Butcher of Beltsville turn out a small beauty, with quail eggs and prosciutto. They are a seasoned pair who have fed an entire shift of Prince George’s County police officers from their own wood-fired pizza oven. Hosts Tim and Dot Artz offer a sourdough crust and homegrown, gold-standard arugula as a peppery complement. Konstantin has brought pizza boxes, knowing that not all of the 35 to 50 creations that come out of this Forno Bravo will be consumed onsite.

Standing, chewing, drinking . . . snippets of conversation contain increasing levels of pizza geekiness. Software executive Todd Zullo, a newcomer with a 1994 culinary degree from Johnson and Wales in Providence, R.I., has come to pick up pointers.

“There’s an alchemy to this,” the Vienna resident says. “It’s a repeatable process that appeals to technology people. There’s testing and experimenting. I bet most guys here are in some kind of software development.” His hunch is proven by an informal survey of the crowd.

Tech guys. This raises an issue of -isms. The DC Elite Pizza club’s all male. Why, Dave?

“We certainly don’t discriminate!” he says. “I’ve sold several ovens to women. But none of them have ever become active in the club. I really don’t know why, but I have noticed that in most situations women tend to keep their distance from a working pizza oven while men are drawn to it. Maybe something primal?”

THERE ARE 931,651 MEETUP MEMBERS worldwide who gather to celebrate food and drink, placing that interest category in the top third of the Internet-based service’s groups that help people get together in a non-virtual way. But Kristine Sherwood wasn’t interested in adding thousands of friends to her Facebook page. The 33-year-old marketing director cooked up HoCo Ladies for Food and Wine in January after she moved from Baltimore to Columbia.

“I just wanted to start a group that combined some of my passions [and] trying out unique recipes,” she says. “And I figured there had to be women in the area that felt the same way.”

She was right. The HoCo Ladies’ roster has grown to 56, composed mostly of single women in their 30s. One member decides on a theme — Argentine, Italian, Cinco de Mayo — and hosts the monthly event. The others bring dishes, fixings and wine, sharing recipes they usually find on the Web. Cooking tips are traded over laden plates; because the dinners are held on weeknights after work, the women tend not to cook together. If, say, the occasion calls for margaritas more than cabernet sauvignon, the corkscrews can stay in the drawer.

Next up: wine and pie night, in June. “It came up in a conversation at our last meetup,” Sherwood says, anticipating a headscratching response. “A number of the girls that really like pies thought we’d have savory and sweet ones, paired with wines. I’m not really sure what people are going to make.”

ADMITTEDLY, THE TUESDAY NIGHT DINNERS shared by three particular families in Takoma Park are more about staying connected than what’s on the table.

“Our kids grew up together,” says Virginia Myers, a freelance arts writer for Bethesda magazine who runs the Takoma Park newsletter. “They all had a lot of friends. There used to be a lot of last-minute group meals, and then they all went off to college.”

Myers remembers that at some point last fall, somebody said, “ ‘Gosh, I’m having dinner at home by myself. And you are. . . .’ My initial idea was to host at my house and whoever was around could come. My friends, who are smarter than me, figured we ought to take turns.”

So the neighbors who live within blocks of each other tote salad, dessert and a bottle of wine or two, while the host makes the main dish. That’s often something easy like stew or soup, not built to impress — although the group’s still talking about the tamales made by Norah Neale’s husband, Keith Kozloff, while his wife was traveling in the south of France. Robin Mize’s chili with quinoa is a group favorite. Gluten-free and vegan needs are easily met.

They know each other well enough to overlook minimal attempts at tidying up.

The families communicate by e-mail, with Monday as the cut-off day for announcing who’s bringing what. At dinner, the conversation often includes updates about the kids, but it doesn’t center on them. Myers says their children weren’t surprised that “we stayed in touch.”

“I feel very lucky to have this community of people,” she says. “It sounds silly, but we have created a family.”

LONG BEFORE THE Abruzzo and Molise Heritage Society of Washington became official (read: linked with national Italian cultural efforts) in 2002, some of its members made wine. They learned the craft as the young sons of Italians who came to America. For them, it’s now a solitary process with crushing machines set up in home garages and jugs lined along the walls of cool basements. The group pools its buying power to order in bulk grapes that come from California or from wholesalers in Baltimore and Philadelphia.

Winemaking remains a point of pride for 73-year-old Dominico Santini of North Potomac, who has been a barber in Bethesda for 52 years.

“I make the wine in my house,” he says. “Red, white. Just for the family.”

How good is Santini’s wine ?

“Everybody I know makes wine, and they think it’s best. I say mine’s pretty good,” he says. The homemade wines contain 12 or 13 percent alcohol; Santini is partial to a mellow blend of cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir grapes.

Once a year for the past decade or so, though, Santini carries a few of his bottles to the District’s Holy Rosary Italian Catholic Church, where he and fellow longtime parishioners put on a tasting of some two dozen bottles.

“We used to have a judge, but now we just have fun,” says society treasurer Joseph Novello, an electrical engineer who lives in Hyattsville.

Fun, and fundraising. The wine tasting is featured at an organized luncheon, with ticket proceeds going to the heritage society’s college scholarship fund. Novello has augmented the effort the past few years by slow-roasting a porchetta that parishioners have pronounced “better than what they get in Rome,” he says, proud of his effort that combines a secret recipe from a friend, a 2008 Washington Post Food section recipe and one from a cookbook called “Food and Memories of Abruzzo: Italy’s Pastoral Land,” by Anna Teresa Callen (Hungry Minds, 1998): “It’s a nice meal, with the wine after. Sort of unique. It’s not lasagna.”

This year’s wine tasting will be held Dec. 1 at the church’s social hall, 595 Third St. NW.

I REALLY LOVE FOOD, BUT I didn’t know how to cook,” is the way Stella Ip begins the story of her mostly monthly club.

As the dutiful daughter of Shirley Ip, a great cook and former restaurateur, Stella grew up in a household where feasts were prepared for her Chinese family’s large gatherings. She prepped and chopped under her mother’s watchful eye, unaware of how imprinted those skills were.

Then about four years ago, Ip had an idea. To get to know better the women who were in her tennis and book club groups, she invited a subset of them over for dinner. It gave the single Ellicott City resident and corporate marketing manager a reason to log significant kitchen time. After a year of hosting, Ip asked the others to take turns.

“If there’s a theme, everybody does a lot of research” to find the right recipes,” she says. Ip likes the diversity of her food club, citing Indian, Ukrainian, South African, Cherokee-African American, Iraqi heritages. Invites are often extended to family and friends.

The core group’s now at 14, men and women in their forties and fifties. They’ve put on Passover Seders, a sushi-and-sake tasting, a crab feast and a rich cassoulet that prompted everyone “to chip in for really good wine.”

“I knew Stella through tennis,” says Norma Kriger of Baltimore, who introduced the club to bobotie (boh-BOO-tee), a curried meat-and-fruit dish served in her native South Africa. It was the main dish at the dinner she hosted; Kriger helped the others shape a menu that included pickled fish; rice studded with coconut, raisins, onion and tomato; mock crawfish pate; and melktert (milk tart). Even when a dish doesn’t quite turn out — say, a recipe for which the cook did not convert Celsius oven temperatures to Farenheit — the effort’s appreciated just the same.

Now Ip says she’s cooking more on her own, experimenting to reduce salt and sugar content. She’s taken raw-food classes and even grows her own sprouts.

“It’s been really interesting,” she says. “I don’t eat out as much as I used to. I didn’t realize how much I knew till I started cooking.”

“DOES ANYONE HAVE a small amount of parsley? I only need a couple of tablespoons.”

“Can someone reach up into my kitchen cupboard and bring down a large pot. It’s too heavy for me.”

Six weeks of e-mails like this, then it’s showtime.

It’s not that the Cooking Club of Van Ness North Cooperative is into slow cooking. They are District residents in their 60s and 70s, men and women in the same building who appreciate the give-and-take as much as the spoon-and-serve.

“It’s a well organized club,” says member Judy Geller. The club was founded about three years ago by DJ Young. She just wanted everybody to enjoy fun dishes they might not eat at home anymore.

Themes are big: Summer Soups and Salads, Julia Child’s recipes. “Downton Abbey” inspired some members to dress up in flapper finery — perhaps in anticipation of Season 3. (For that dinner, Geller made a side dish of cauliflower and dates that had people going back for seconds. Turns out, she used to run a cooking school for 8- to 10-year-olds in the 1970s.) “Mad Men: Dishes from the ’60s” is under consideration.

People have become known for their specialties. “Molly Schuchat has earned her stripes as the ‘Soup Queen,’ ” Geller says, borscht and pea soup among the “all-time faves.” Family recipes are dusted off. Most of the cooking takes place in their separate apartments, with finishing touches applied in the building’s party-room kitchen.

The camaraderie is genuine, but a little friendly competition is not unheard of. “When Germany and the Low Countries was the theme, Henry Ernsthall and Margarite Beck-Rex had a face-off as to who would bring their coveted sauerbraten dish,” Geller reports earnestly. “Margarite won because she was the first to announce her contribution.” So Ernsthall settled on sausage and sauerkraut.

bonnie.benwick@washpost.com

Are you in a food club? Share the details in the comments below and during our Free Range chat online at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.

Bonnie S. Benwick has the job most envied among cocktail-party conversations. If they only knew ... Cook with her each week at Dinner in Minutes: washingtonpost.com/recipes.
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