Features

Supper Clubs

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By Amy Giezentanner

Human beings are a social lot. We love to belong, to make connections and surround ourselves with people who get us. Whether it be in church, on a baseball team, with the local P.E.O. or all of the above (and what an interesting person THAT would be), we want to spend time and fit in with people who understand and share our interests. It helps us stake a place in the world we inhabit. It gives us a sense of security and purpose in a world of uncertainties.

Today’s shaky economy has people across the globe cutting back and looking for ways to save. Even foodies, notorious for splurging on gourmet foods and eating out, are searching for ways to cutback on the spending without sacrificing flavor, satiety and time with friends.

Enter the social supper club. They’re popping up in droves all over the country. They’ve actually been around for decades, but they seem to be more popular now than ever before. There’s a common belief in foodie circles that the United States has experienced an awakening food awareness that began slowly with the likes of Julia Child and James Beard, and expanded with the advent and popularity of food shows.

That awareness appears to be maturing in a generation of food-savvy folks intent upon sharing the joy of food no matter what the economy. These same people are the ones who get the gourmet supper clubs rolling. They’re the people whose obsession for flavor and love of social living melds into a sublime excuse to get together regularly for fun with food and friends.

The nature and mechanics of supper clubs are pretty varied, as are the personalities involved and the methods for starting them. Some clubs begin as the natural result of friends who get together for dinner, have a great night, and decide to make it a regular thing. Others start with a few mutual friends and expand by inviting “wild cards” into the mix — those who work to get invited back as permanent members. While still other clubs get their start among total strangers who respond to the like-minded call to eat.

I’m fortunate to belong to a club that’s a hybrid of sorts. It started over dinner at the house of Ann and Scott Brandt, some very social foodies from Siloam Springs.

“My husband is a social animal and loves to eat-so supper club for him is a great combination,” Ann said. “We belonged to one highly organized large club in Iowa and missed the concept here, so we decided to try and get one going. We were informed that this chef was moving to Siloam and we had talked with another couple about getting this started. So the two couples each invited someone they thought would be interested and had this chef prepare a meal for our first time.” The idea of a supper club took wings from there.

The rest, as they say, is this particular club’s history. The chef, who happened to be me, was invited to sit down and eat with the group. I was surprised at first, but felt right at home, as if I’d known my new friends for years, so when they invited me into the club I happily hopped on board. That brought our new group to seven. One more couple and we’d be good to go.

The addition of Abby and Joe Barnett at the next dinner rounded out the group. We now had a combination of ages ranging from mid-20s to early 50s, a smattering of professions from a broad spectrum of careers, and a mixture of interests and reasons for joining.

“We have been wanting the opportunity to meet more couples in the community,” Abby said. “This is a fun opportunity for us to meet new people and build on those friendships. We enjoy socializing, eating and drinking together.” Our food-centric club provided the perfect opportunity.

Joseph Brajcki is the man behind the plan of another club. His group, which now consists of 12 people, began as a book club back in the day. He wanted a way to socialize so he invited a group of friends into his home for regular meetings and discussions on pre-determined books.

“I’ve been here for eight years and pretty much knew everyone already by the time the book club formed, but over time the membership changed and we met like-minded people and friendships formed,” Brajcki said. “And the book club thing sort of petered out.”

But as the old saying goes, when one door closes another always opens, and such is the way his supper club formed.

“I have an aunt who’s a great entertainer and she sparked my interest in entertaining around food.” So when the book club was still active, Brajcki served food that he’d gear towards something to do with the book to be discussed. That idea had a strong enough appeal that it survived the demise of the book club. His acumen in the kitchen provided the backdrop for a budding group of friendships to form.

So which came first, the food or the friendships? And what really holds a supper club together? Is it a fascination with food? Is it our inherent need to belong? Or could the two factors feed off of each other? The answer, it seems, depends on who you ask.

Pam and David Pierson are the glue people that brought the last pieces of our Siloam Springs club together, and it’s all because they enjoy the camaraderie. “We love the social aspects, the bonding and relationship building. The memory making,” Pam said. “We love the wide variety of ages, life experiences, personalities. We knew everyone, but not everyone else knew everyone.” Now, thanks to the Pierson’s foresight, it feels like everyone has known each other for years.

Each time we get together is a chance to celebrate each other’s strengths. “We decide dates together,” Pam said. “The hostess usually decides the main course and others volunteer what they’d like to bring to complement the main course. We all bring a bottle of wine.”

Some supper clubs cook together after they arrive at the hostess’ house. “Cooking together is fun,” says Ann Brandt, “but takes more of a time commitment, which none of us seem to have any extra of, so just assigning works well.”

It’s a sad reality because this would be a fun group to play with in the kitchen, but there’s just no time in our fast-paced lives.

“It is nice to have everyone bring something they have made,” Ann said, “Now days it seems like for events or pot lucks, people often just stop by the store and get something convenient and pre-made. Hate to see good cooking go by the wayside.” So we rely on each other to bring occasion-appropriate fare.

Brajcki understands. His club’s been operating long enough that he knows who to approach for different types of food. I asked him how his club operates.

“I guess you could call it gourmet,” he said. “It’s really driven by my taste. I wanted to experiment with things, so I’d have other people bring the wine and I’d do the cooking myself. Over time, I’ve learned everyone’s strengths and know who to ask to take care of making things. It’s sort of collaborative now. There are no specific rules about the food.”

We have no specific rules in our group, either, and the rules we do have are subject to change with good reason. We do make our food from scratch, as befitting a gourmet club, and we try to schedule dinners so that everyone can attend. When that’s not possible, though, no one feels left out.

I had to miss our May meal due to a family obligation. A week later, several of my supper club friends honored me with an evening out at Greenhouse Grille. None of us had eaten there before, but at the end of the evening we’d all vowed to come back. The food was delicious, the server was knowledgeable, and the laughter was infectious — a winning combination that inspires clubbers to perpetuate the joy of sharing month after month.

Brajcki’s group has been together long enough that they’ve developed themed dinners and even a tradition or two. Their first themed event, a fig dinner, came about because one of the members had some fig products they wanted to experiment with. So, armed with the assignment and culinary curiosity, they each entered their kitchens and created dishes revolving around the fruit. The result? A delectable multi-course meal that was such a hit they decided to build a tradition around it. Each year now those in the group who can make the trek, travel to Camden for a weekend of fig-picking and friendship. Those who can’t wait patiently in Northwest Arkansas and gladly re-join the group in their next event.

I thoroughly enjoy spending time with my dinner group. I look forward to our time together each month and relish the interaction. They’ve become a valued, supportive group and it’s an honor to be included; I’ve grown to think of them as true friends. I have to admit, though, that my initial motivation for seeking and joining a supper club was the food. My fascination with gourmet food and obsession with finding that next great meal always drives me toward delicious opportunity. But now that I’m in one, and I’ve grown to know the other members, I never quite know which element I enjoy the most at each dinner: the thing someone said that made me laugh hysterically, or the delicious new dish I couldn’t keep my hands out of. It’s such a happy dilemma.

So what do you do if you like these minor conundrums and want to join a supper club, but you don’t know anyone else who does? Start networking. You might be surprised at how many people would jump on board if they only knew you were interested. Talk it up. Ask your friends to ask their friends. Create a Facebook page for the purpose or simply pose the question on your current profile page. Social networking tools abound to help you form clubs with friends or friends-of-friends, though caution and common sense are advised if you choose to use them.

What if you’re adventuresome and willing to jump into the food fray with a whole new set of people? Well, there are resources for you, too. Northwest Arkansas has several tools for getting more involved in the food world, such as OzarkSlowFood.org and foodfile.com. Each of these sites is a useful educational tool to get you connected to food events, food information, restaurant openings and possibly even help you find a supper club of your very own.

Cooking Light magazine has an online site with a whole section devoted to clubbers who either want to begin a new program in their area, join a program or expand one they already have. It contains a bulletin board broken down into regions for ease of use. You might have to do a little research, or wait for feedback and connections to develop in each of these cases, but the end-goal is worth the effort.

I’m so glad to be a member of my Siloam Springs supper club. I always return home from our dinners feeling full and happy. And while I sometimes wonder in a which-came-first-the-chicken-or-the-egg sort of way what the main draw is — the food or the people — I know it doesn’t really matter. All that matters is the friendships that are developing and the food we’re sharing in the process of forming our community. It’s a worthwhile stake in a world of uncertainties.

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