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The Book Club: Eating Between the Lines

By Alison Buckholtz
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, February 9, 2000; Page F08

I never cook, and I no longer make excuses about it. It's not a question of time or resources. Nor of teachers: my mother has been trying to entice me into the kitchen for most of my life. Boyfriends can't shame me into it--though one bought me a cookbook called "How to Boil an Egg"--and hunger, the most compelling of reasons to grab a frying pan, has never asserted itself strongly enough. Not cooking is not a question of principle; it's just not interesting for me.

Reading is. A night with friends is. I hardly could have anticipated when I joined a book group last year that the books we read would lead me directly to the kitchen. But literature makes you do things you would never otherwise try. When Julia Fayngold-Covey, Denise Cormaney, Maya Guerra, Ruth Almeida and I gather once a month for our potluck dinner, books in hand, ideas at the ready, it's the dishes we prepare as much as the concepts we discuss that reveal us to each other. For each of us, the book club has become sacred time, and our monthly meals charge the gatherings with a strange magic.

Five women, five dishes, five paperbacks: if cable TV's Lifetime hosted a Great Books show, we would be it. Of course, the fusion of women and food precedes us by centuries. And from the first appearance of novels, their most avid consumers have been women. For our mothers' generation, though, Tupperware parties and consciousness-raising sessions filled their free time as young women. Now, book clubs are all the rage. This institution makes a classically solitary pursuit social, transforms lone literary consumers into communities. And all five of us--either new to Washington or back after an extended absence--were starving for community.

The hunger for literature wasn't far behind. Although we each read plenty of fiction, we chose to explore nonfiction, the ideas that shape our worlds, yet never snake their way into cocktail party chatter. The food we brought to the table was supposed to be a backdrop. But month after month our contributions to the dinner unlocked the stories behind our contributions to the discussion. The night we discussed "The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do" by Judith Rich Harris, Maya made broccoli and rice. We gobbled it down while debating Rich's theory on peer influence. But Maya's culinary plot line proved just as relevant to the discussion. As we listened to stories of her South Texas upbringing, we literally got a taste of her childhood. One warm spring night we talked about "Memoirs from the Women's Prison" by Nawal el-Saadawi; when Julia served up a casserole on dishes she and her husband received after their marriage, we learned as much about contemporary wedding etiquette as we did about an Egyptian feminist's view of matrimony. And while Ruth's chocolate chip cookies bore no connection at all to the Holocaust-era memories of America's German population in "Tearing the Silence: Being German in America" by Ursula Hegi, we developed an appreciation for her baking method, timed to coincide exactly with the shower she took in between her two jobs.

Food cues us into each other's moods, too. One night Denise brought lemon cookies, just like those her mom used to make, because she was nostalgic for home. A few months later, we all noticed that Denise was picking at her food. She wasn't drinking wine, and when she discovered the tea was caffeinated she simply said, "I can't." Four pairs of eyes immediately focused on her, but Maya was the first to ask. Denise smiled and confirmed that she and her husband were expecting a baby.

We haven't seen an upswing of baby-name books since then, but we did tell Denise that our newest group member (he was born in January) is sure to be one of the most literate newborns in Washington. At least our smallest participant will be party to the chemistry that brings us together. No one outside our group seems to understand its draw, which is perhaps the best informal definition of a group that I've ever stumbled on.

Others have told us that a gathering such as ours--women approaching 30, with fulfilling jobs and full lives, who converge to discuss lexicography, contemporary Russia, factory technology at the U.S.-Mexican border, psychology and the fates of societies--could exist only in Washington. It's not always said kindly.

But even in the beginning, when we were strangers to Washington and each other, our conversations felt familiar. We sat around a dinner table stacked with food, just as we had done with our families when we were growing up, and it just seemed right. The intimacy over food, and our connection to what we made, was especially strong the night we discussed "Resurrection: The Struggle for a New Russia" by David Remnick. Julia originally suggested the book; she was born in Ukraine, immigrated to New Jersey in her early teens, and wanted to read about how her country has fared in the post-glasnost age. Since it was my turn to host, I proposed an all-Russian menu.

Julia was the first to volunteer dessert: Ukrainian poppy seed cake. Denise, who had been an exchange student in Moscow, remembered the salad with dill dressing she'd enjoyed at a friend's dacha and charged herself with reconstructing it. Maya embarked on a District-wide search for authentic vodka, and Ruth was determined to find Russian rye bread. The appetizer and entrees were up to me. My culinary ignorance was a formidable obstacle, as were Russian vegetarian recipes. But with a good Internet search engine and my mom's help, I made the unexplored world of the kitchen my own, ultimately producing eggplant caviar, stuffed cabbage and kasha varnishkes.

In between our analysis of Moscow's economy, parsing Remnick's interviews with politicians and coming to terms with Solzhenitsyn, Denise told stories about selling her Levi's to jeans-craving Muscovites. Julia remembered her family's old life in Kiev, when her most important childhood duty was to memorize Pushkin. We talked about immigration and navigating the space between two cultures: Maya's father is Mexican and Ruth's family were Portuguese Catholics who settled for generations in Goa, India, so the comparisons were rich. We jumped back to the book, focusing on a chapter about Moscow's new literary scene. In it, Remnick discusses the power of literature to transform a group of strangers into a gathering of friends, and the ability of the written word to create a separate sphere, safe from the travails of the outside world.

In between forkfuls of kasha and explosions of laughter, I looked around our cozy Russian table, and I knew exactly what he meant.

Alison Buckholtz is a Washington writer.

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© 2000 The Washington Post Company

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