Many communities are built around sharing a meal. The idea of breaking bread with your friends and family on holidays and to commemorate or celebrate major life events is deeply woven into our culture. Sometimes that just means dropping off a hot dish at the home of neighbor who has had a birth or a death in the family. Other occasions may call for caterers or a reservation at a fancy restaurant. Or perhaps it’s just about a small group of co-workers who meet in the break room every morning to share coffee before the day gets busy. Whatever the occasion, the sharing of food is often more important than the food that’s shared.
But not always.
If you belong to a gourmet cooking club, the food you make is almost as important as the friends you make. Jean and Rob Bundt, Barbara and Jon Scoll, Jean Witson and Carol and Michael Berde have been cooking together for 14 years and, as much as they enjoy one another’s company, the menus are important, too.
The idea started with Jean Bundt and Barbara Scoll. They were thinking about trying to get a group of like-minded gourmets together to share a meal. When they realized they both wanted to try the same thing, they joined forces. They each invited a few other friends, and their first dinner was put into the planning stages.
“In the beginning the rule was that two or three people planned the meal,” Witson says. “It was always one person from the household that was hosting and then at least one other person.” Those people figured out the menu, bought all the ingredients and then made copies of the recipes for everyone.
The group call themselves a cooking club rather than a dinner club because, unlike many similar groups, they don’t cook separately and then bring the food together. They cook together in each other’s kitchens as a group.
Their first meal was an Italian menu. In the early years, they chose an international cuisine as the theme for each dinner. They leaned heavily on French and Italian at first, but after a few years, they narrowed their focus to regional cuisines and then began using cookbooks or well-known chefs as themes. The other guiding principle was to step outside the ordinary.
“One of the goals in the early years was to set ourselves cooking tasks beyond the everyday,” Jon Scoll says. He also knows that he was one of the club members with the most to learn. Everyone agrees that he is now an excellent cook. Over the years, skills have improved and recipes have been refined. Michael Berde, who is described by the group as being “the Commander of the Meat” taught everyone new knife skills, for example. And just like everything else in life, technology has impacted the club.
“We would print or copy the recipes [from cookbooks] and have them on the counter for everyone in the kitchen who was working on that dish,” Carol Berde says. “They’d all end up being very dirty. And we wanted to save one or two to try again. Now we can just find them online [after] and email them around to everyone.”
The biggest change the club has weathered was as unexpected as it was sad. John and Sharon Baumgartner were two of the original club members. They both passed away in 2014 within just a few months of each other. For a group that has become like family, it was a deeply felt loss.
When asked if they would ever consider taking on any new members, Jean Bundt is quick to say no. “We’ve been together so long, we’ve gone through the highs and the lows with each other. I can say that we all love each other … at this point I think we’d just be annoying to a new member.”
Even though you can’t join their club, you can start one of your own. That’s what Witson’s daughter Kim and her wife Anna have done in Madison. Growing up watching how important the club was for her mother and her friends, Kim wanted to take the idea into the next generation.
The club is so important to these friends that whenever any of them moved or renovated, they took the entire group into consideration. When the Scolls built a new house, Barbara put the kitchen at the top of her list. “I told the architect in the first meeting that we had to accommodate the cooking group,” she says.One of the things that seems to make this such a happy group is their attitude about cooking as a process, not just the end result. Carol Berde says that in each meal there would always be something that didn’t turn out just right—flan being the most notable and consistent failure—but they don’t let the less-than-perfect dishes ruin the occasion. “We just soldier on,” Carol says. They enjoy cooking together—the meal is almost a bonus.
The group put together a menu of some of their most successful dishes, called Reprise: Favorites from Cooking Groups Past (and Several Corners of the World). It’s dated December 26, 2009, and notes that the dinner took place at Mike and Carol’s.
The menu starts with sesame rice crackers with fig jam and bleu cheese (Minnesota) and lists that as “A Witson original” first served in 2009. It continues on to Thai soup (Thailand) from 2004. The entrée is pepper-crusted beef tenderloin with horseradish sauce (U.S.) from a Southern-themed menu with no year noted. There’s a pasta—bucatini with cauliflower from a Sicilian-themed dinner in 2009 and a fennel, orange and arugula salad from Italy. The year and dinner theme for the salad have been forgotten. The menu ends with chocolate financier cake (Paris) from a 1960s-themed French dinner in 2006. They have graciously agreed to share that recipe. (See Digital Edition, Page 35)
When most of the members gathered recently to reminisce about the history of their gourmet cooking club, they laughed and finished each other’s sentences and agreed on most things, but gently corrected a fellow cook’s memory here and there. They will continue to meet and cook and enjoy one another’s company for as long as they can … and no more flan!