How to Have a Successful Cookbook Club (A.K.A. the Ultimate Potluck)
Want to throw easy, breezy dinner parties without breaking a sweat? Cookbook clubs are the answer.
What if, when you invited people to dinner, you wound up with an impeccable eight-course feast—for which you’d only prepared one of the dishes?
Behold, the glory of Cookbook Club. Its fans know it as a riff on potlucks that just keeps on giving. It brings people together you love, all testing out different recipes from one new or old book. You get to eat foods with a thematic center—perhaps Mexican, Israeli, Turkish, or Ethiopian food—and chat about the shortfalls and strengths of the book. Too few instructions? Too many? Do you suspect there was an error in one? Grouse and gripe and praise and let it all hang out.
Cookbook clubs are superior to potlucks, in my opinion, because you know what you’re getting; no one waltzes in with chips and salsa or bottled water, so everyone eats well. For several months a few years ago, my friends and I had a monthly cookbook club. We made pork in adobo, guacamole, and molé rojo from Truly Mexican for one gathering, and leek bread pudding and roast chicken from Ad Hoc at Home the next. We had a ton of fun, and I walked away with a few tips for starting your own:
1. Have your most organized friend be in charge.
Google docs and their ilk were made for cookbook clubs. Have your most Marie Kondo-esque be in charge of running one, with the home address, phone numbers, attendees, and what everyone will bring listed on it.
2. Keep cost in mind.
Do you each want to spend $10 per dish? $20? Who will bring booze, if you’re drinking? Spell out cost and how to keep things fair in advance of starting the club, so one person isn’t perpetually providing the fancy entrée while others make dips.
3. Rotate the host home.
Unless one of you just loves hosting (and cleaning, and wrangling the kids or partner), be considerate and change up the location every time.
4. The Internet is your friend.
As a writer, I hesitate to encourage you to not buy a book, but hey, you’re test-driving here! Lots of publishers nowadays post recipes in advance of publication or allow media outlets to publish them nowadays, so you can find a few samples, cook them, and then decide at cookbook club if the recipes are worth the cover charge of the book itself.
5. Pick recipes that you can deliver ready to serve.
Ideally you’re not waltzing into your host’s home requiring use of his oven for an hour, or all of her prep space. This isn’t always possible, but keep in mind that he’s still dealing with some host stress, so do as much in advance as you can.
6. Pick a book with cocktail recipes!
Our best picks had drink recipes, too. (If you’ve never made James Beard’s Champagne punch, know that it’s a real party starter!) Bringing a batched cocktail ensures that the host doesn’t have to cover alcohol herself, which is a nice way to split up expenses.
7. Be flexible.
You’ll find out pretty quickly if people can maintain a monthly or every-six-weeks agenda, so be patient! That dad with a new baby might have thought he could spend a weeknight away, but he might quickly find that he won’t be able to do so for six months or so. Swap another friend out in his stead, gracefully. He’ll come back after a year or two…or three!
My favorite thing about a cookbook club is that its members tend to be self-selecting—people who actually love to cook. No one will mind if you nerd out about recipe headnotes, substitute suggestions, or other pet peeves. You’re in the company of other passionate food people—making the meal that much tastier.
Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, Gourmet, and Epicurious. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @alexvanburen.