Cooking up new friendships
August 2012 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Judy Asman
Photos by Dave Anderson
Clubs help build camaraderie and culinary skills.
More online: Recipes
Before moving to Southern California from the East Coast in 2009, Jennifer Connolly had a close group of friends from college who indulged her passion for cooking by being her taste testers.
Culinary groups like the Santa Monica Young Women's Cooking Club are gaining in popularity across the state. Their recent potluck on the beach featured recipes including prosciutto wrapped asparagus, stuffed mushrooms and chicken zucchini wraps—all from the pages and website of California Bountiful.
"I love to cook, but now I live alone," Connolly said. "I wanted to meet some young professional women that I could enjoy hanging out with—and who could help me eat all this food!"
A friend back east suggested she try using Meetup.com, a social media site that connects people with similar interests in the same geographical region. So she launched the Santa Monica Young Women's Cooking Club to combine the two things she enjoys most: cooking and spending time with friends.
"I couldn't believe how many signed up without any advertising or outreach on my part," Connolly said. "It's been really successful. We have 400 members now."
Connolly unknowingly tapped into a trend that's a new twist on old-fashioned potlucks. Her group is just one of many cooking clubs that have sprung up throughout California. Some, like the Santa Monica club, choose a particular book or magazine from which to prepare recipes at their monthly meetings. At a recent gathering at a park overlooking the Santa Monica Beach, the women shared dishes prepared from California Bountiful.
"The magazine was a great fit for our members," Connolly said. "Most of them are health-conscious and have a real appreciation for using fresh, seasonal produce grown in California."
Social media sites like Meetup and Facebook have become popular tools for organizers to help establish a group and attract new members. While each club is unique, all of them inspire members to improve their skills in the kitchen while making new friends.
Just north of Santa Monica, Debra Crawford started leading the Valencia Cooking Club after a previous organizer left. At the time, it was a gourmet cooking club. But after researching the group, Crawford found that a lot of members were beginning cooks or had only limited culinary skills. Believing that "everyone can learn to cook," Crawford turned the group into a "cook, eat, have fun" theme that would be accessible to cooks of all levels.
"I think I had 40 members sign up the first month," she said.
Culinary Addicts in Walnut Creek, east of San Francisco, got started when Mike Wilson figured it would be a fun way to take advantage of the spacious kitchen in his backyard cottage, alongside a rich vegetable, fruit and herb garden he shares with a neighbor. Together with friend Jackie Kirschner, Wilson welcomes Culinary Addicts members to the garden, where they can harvest bags of produce, savor fresh-picked collard greens and kale as side dishes to their fried chicken competition, or take home cucumber, tomato, Thai basil, lettuce and kale seedlings to plant.
"We always want fresh and local, and you can't do much better than your backyard or next door," Wilson said.
Crawford said she feels the same way. Inspired by her late father, who enjoyed gardening, she grows tomatoes, peppers, carrots, greens, herbs and "anything else that will stand up to a container." Crawford learned how to cook at an early age—at her mother's side and through participation in 4-H—and recalls the importance of cooking at home.
"Fast-food places weren't on every corner. Going out to eat was a treat," she said.
Today, Crawford brings that same fresh and practical mind-set to her club.
"With a decently stocked pantry, some fresh produce and a little imagination, everyone can learn how to prepare healthy meals and stay within a budget," she said.
A favorite activity of Crawford's club is the Mystery Dinner, where everyone brings a protein, a fruit and a vegetable. Members pile their ingredients on the table and then collaborate on a four-course menu.
"It's a lot of fun and we've had some fabulous meals," she said.
Some cooking club activities also help their members save money. The Santa Monica group hosts Healthy Lunch Bunch events, where participants bring containers of lunches and dinners they've made to trade with others. This way, members enjoy "quality time together and eat delicious food, but we also get to go home with individually packaged meals to take to work for lunch during the week," Connolly said.
Jennifer Connolly, ninth from the left in dark blue, launched the Santa Monica club to combine the two things she enjoys most: cooking and spending time with friends. Cooking magazines and books provide the menu inspiration for monthly meetings.
With more people cooking as a hobby, cooking clubs provide members an opportunity to pursue their passion with like-minded individuals. As Santa Monica's Marina Ivlev, a personal chef and food blogger, put it: "I enjoy sharing food with everyone because I believe that eating together is one of the best ways to make and keep friends."
Want to start your own cooking club?
Here are tips from those who are doing it and making it work:
Share the load.
Hold events that minimize your workload. Debra Crawford likes the Valencia Cooking Club Mystery Dinners because members bring their own ingredients. "I don't have to shop for or prep anything," she said.
Jennifer Connolly of the Santa Monica Young Women's Cooking Club recommends hosting most of your events at public places such as parks so "you don't get stuck with all of the cleanup."
Keep your dues low.
Connolly asks for annual membership dues of $5, which "makes it financially possible for me to purchase the paper plates, cups and silverware that we need for each event," she said.
Plan for the season.
If you decide to include garden-fresh food in your club, plan your crop in advance. As Mike Wilson reminds himself when it comes to his edible garden, "Had I known we were going to do something like (host cooking club events) last spring, I would've planted differently."
Use social media to plan your events.
You can find the three clubs mentioned and many more on www.Meetup.com, where organizers can share details and invite others, and members can sign up and note the dishes they're bringing. After the event, all members can post photos.
Barbara Arciero and Trina Wood contributed to this story.