Q&A With Judy Gelman and Vicki Levy Krupp
Authors of The Book Club Cookbook
and creators of bookclubcookbook.com

1. How did you come up with the idea for The Book Club Cookbook?

We had each explored the connections between books and food in our own book clubs. We realized we were both intrigued by the idea of pairing books and food, which we had found to be a fun and interesting part of our own book club meetings. Descriptions of food seemed central to many of our favorite books — and food figured prominently in our book club experiences. Providing recipes to complement great books appealed to us. We thought it would appeal to book club members to have delicious, thematically appropriate recipes at their fingertips, and to be able to savor a book through more than just discussion.

As we started interviewing book clubs around the country, the book took shape. At first we were going to include recipes for appetizers, drinks and desserts, foods our own book clubs usually serve. But as we interviewed more book clubs, we learned about the different ways book clubs integrate food into their meetings. We spoke to clubs that serve full meals — often meals that echo the theme of the books they discuss. These groups are lively and engaged in finding ways to enhance their book discussions, and food is an integral part of their experience. We decided to include all kinds of food — appetizers, entrées, side dishes, desserts, drinks — in our cookbook and, most importantly, to include recipe and menu ideas from book clubs as well.

Later on, we decided to ask authors to contribute recipes and thoughts about food in their work. Readers tell us that learning why authors chose to incorporate certain foods into their work was one of their favorite parts of The Book Club Cookbook, and for the revised edition, we are thrilled to have so many additional wonderful author contributions.

2. How did you decide what books should be included?

For both editions we surveyed and interviewed book clubs across the country and chose the top books based on their feedback. We relied completely on these hundreds of responses from book clubs to guide our selections. We wanted to include both tried and true book club titles and newer authors. It was important to include a diversity of genres, as well authors of and books about different cultures.

Also, we did not choose books for their obvious gastronomic references. While this might have simplified the process of choosing recipes, we felt strongly that the best starting point for a good book club discussion—even where food is involved—is a provocative, highly recommended book.

3. What were some of your observations after getting in touch with members of book clubs around the country? Were any stereotypes dispelled? 

We’ve been communicating with book clubs since we wrote the first edition of our book, through our speaking events and even more so through our website, bookclubcookbook.com. Book clubs are still going strong. They have a powerful presence on the Internet and their use of technology (blogs, websites, etc.) makes it much easler for us to communicate with them than when we first began our research ten years ago.

Although book clubs have a strong interest in literary fiction we always find so many nonfiction titles among their favorites. Book clubs are often stereotyped as being focused exclusively on women’s fiction, but they enjoy memoir, current events, and history as well.

As we found with our first edition, book clubs continue to meet in a variety of locations beyond living rooms: they gather in book stores, churches, temples, workplaces, classrooms, and restaurants. There are book clubs that read only mysteries, classics, prizewinning books, or books on a specific theme, such as the environment or race relations.

Beyond food, groups often use costumes, music, props, and activities to bring their reading selections to life, or take field trips and even vacations related to the theme of the books they’ve read.

4. What was it like working with authors like Abraham Verghese (Cutting for Stone) and Annie Barrows (The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society)? 

Working with authors is a highlight of creating The Book Club Cookbook!

It’s exciting to read one of our book selections, come up with our own list of possible recipes to pair with the book – and then learn which recipes the author might choose.

For example, it was thrilling to learn from Emma Donoghue which birthday cake she imagines for her character Jack in her novel, Room.

Helen Simonson surprised us. We had imagined she might contribute an Indian recipe, as so many are mentioned in her novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, but instead she had Toad-in-the-Hole (a classic Yorkshire Pudding recipe) in mind.

Authors give us so much more than just recipes. Along with her recipe, Sara Gruen emphasized the important role food plays in Water for Elephants, which is set during the Depression, a time when many Americans did not have enough to eat.

5. Are you both book club members yourselves?

We have both participated in various book clubs over the years.

6. What has been your favorite book/recipe combination?

There are so many recipe/book combinations that we love! Sometimes a recipe has a great story behind it, such as the Peach Cobbler that Lalita Tademy paired with Cane River, a fictionalized account of her family’s slave history. The cobbler recipe (which is prepared by slaves in the plantation cookhouse at the start of the novel) originated with Tademy’s enslaved ancestors and was passed down by the women in the family. Other recipes highlight a pivotal scene or theme in the book. Often, readers have expressed curiosity about potato peel pies after reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, so we were thrilled when author Annie Barrows contributed recipes for Occupied and Non-Occupied Potato Peel Pies. Another favorite is Abraham Verghese’s recipe for Almaz’s Ethiopian Doro Wot (Chicken Curry), a taste of the Ethiopian culture so richly evoked in his novel Cutting for Stone.

7. Has there ever been a book that you loved but for which it was difficult to come up with a related recipe?

Yes! The characters in Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt experience hunger and deprivation, so selecting a recipe was not only difficult due to sparse food references, but also seemed inconsistent with the tone of the book. We finally settled on Irish soda bread, a staple of even the poorest Irish families. A book club member in Redlands, California, prepared the recipe we included when her group discussed Angela’s Ashes. We again turned to book club members for recipes to match with The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown – a story that moves at such a rapid clip that apparently there’s no time to eat! Our Rosemary Spaghetti recipe came from a Texas book club member who notes that Mary Magdalene and the symbol of the rose — hence, Rosemary — play key roles in the novel. A second recipe, Death by Chocolate, was contributed by a group that created dishes based on the novel’s mystery theme.

8. What advice would you give about how to start a successful book club?

We’ve learned from conversations with hundreds of book clubs that the most successful groups are those whose members agree on rules and expectations. It’s best to establish rules early on, when the group is first forming.

Some questions to consider: How will books be selected? How will the group balance book discussion and socializing at meetings? Will food be served? How will discussions be moderated, and will outside sources or people be brought in? What is the optimal size of the group?

Posing these (and other) questions as the group is forming ensures that all members understand the group’s priorities and their own responsibilities. After the rules are established… let the fun begin!

9. How do these recipes enhance discussion at book club meetings?

Serving foods related to a book can trigger discussion about character, plot line, theme, or even the author’s creative process. Author Elizabeth Strout contributed a recipe for Olive Kitteridge’s Grandmother’s Doughnuts, a favorite of her title character, and a food that sparks discussion about Olive: her desire for comfort food, her hefty weight, her family’s “straightforward” culinary life, as Strout characterizes it, and her fatigue with life that prompts her to grab snacks – like donuts – that give a quick boost. Honey appears frequently in The Secret Life of Bees, and author Sue Monk Kidd’s Honey Cake prompts conversation about the many symbolic meanings of honey throughout the novel. Clémence Cleave-Doyard, the chef wife of Chris Cleave, author of Little Bee, created a Fish Pie, a blending of ingredients from England and Nigeria, and the perfect jumping off point for a discussion of the cultural blending depicted in the novel.

10. What’s more fun – reading or eating?

That’s not a fair question. One is sustenance for the body and the other for the mind and soul.