Dishin' Divas: Cookbook club celebrates food and fellowship

January 18, 2012 10:46:00 AM

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


There are some things that are just better shared. A delicious meal is one of them, at least for the eight members of the Dishin' Divas Cookbook Club. These Columbus women are on a culinary quest to cook their way through some of America's favorite cookbooks.  


The Divas -- Toni Caldwell, Linda Kay Downing, Lillajo Ford, Faye Hodges, Kathy Howell, Gay Orr, Lynda Rood and Ann Sparkman -- gather monthly to enjoy food, fellowship and fine dining ambiance.  


As it launches its third year, the club has selected The Junior League of Memphis' "Heart & Soul" to cook from every month. They recently wrapped up an exploration of the prolific "Barefoot Contessa" Ina Garten and several of her cookbooks. The first luncheon of 2012 was Jan. 11, at the home of Linda Kay Downing. 


"The hostess does the entrée each month," explained Howell. "Every member is responsible for bringing another part of the meal, prepared exactly according to the recipes in our designated cookbook." 


Each monthly menu includes a special beverage, appetizer, salad, soup, side dish, entrée, dessert, wine and bread. Once the hostess chooses her main dish from the book and notifies everyone (usually by email), members select their recipes. 


The January repast consisted of a champagne cocktail called "poinsettia," smoked catfish paté, Armenian lemon soup, salad with Rinaldo's Italian dressing, prune and apricot stuffed pork roast, Boursin potato gratin, cheesy French bread and a decadent dessert -- "death-to-the-diet" brownies. 


Every dish is critiqued during the luncheon. The talented cooks discuss tweaks they would propose and rate expense and effort versus results on an evaluation sheet. 


It's a lively way to discover new ingredients and dishes, all in the company of others who share a love of cooking. 


"I've tested and tried new foods that I normally would never have tasted," noted Howell, who moved to Columbus six years ago from Dallas, Texas. 


Lynda Rood said, "For people who like to try new things, it's a wonderful way to try seven or eight things at one time without having to do it all yourself." 


Even for very experienced cooks, working through the various cookbooks can been eye-opening. 


"Some of the things I did nearly 40 years ago that took nearly all day to do, Ina Garten has trimmed down so you don't have to go through all those hoops," Rood pointed out. 


From time to time, a recipe will call for an ingredient that isn't readily available.  


"Kroger has been very cooperative, ordering for us," said Caldwell. "Or as different ones go out of town, we'll stop at stores like Whole Foods to pick up what we need." 




Puttin' on the ritz 


Cookbook clubs have become increasingly popular in recent years in the Golden Triangle. But one thing the Dishin' Divas do that some may not is "put on the whole nine yards." 


Linens, fine china and centerpieces are the order of the day when this group dines. In a world that only seems to get faster-paced, the Divas treat themselves to a special experience, and hostesses enjoy being able to use their fine dinnerware.  


"We do it up like a five-star restaurant," said Howell. 


For avid cooks like Ann Sparkman -- who is probably not the only member with a "meat and potatoes" type husband -- the chance to explore unique recipes broadens culinary horizons and expands the palate. She, for instance, discovered she enjoyed fennel through a club recipe.  


Another benefit, Howell said, is self-assurance. "It's given me the confidence to entertain more," she said.  




Get one together 


Organizing a club is simple. All it takes is pulling together a well-matched group and deciding on theme and structure. Members may want to theme a club around specific cookbooks, exotic cuisines or vegetarian recipes. 


Some clubs meet monthly, like the Divas. Others meet every other month. Some meet at noon; some prefer evening. 


The Divas hold a planning meeting for the next year each November, finalizing hostess schedules and deciding on the next cookbook. Their December gathering is a gala event, with husbands invited. 


Potluck? Planned menu? Buffet and plastic plates, or gleaming china? All these questions can be determined with a casual organizational meeting or two. 


However a club is structured, the primary ingredient for success will be the members.  


"You just have to have a compatible group," Rood stated. The Dishin' Divas have that part covered. 


"I just love seeing the other women; I enjoy every one of them," said Caldwell. "It's just such a pleasure to go." One indicator of that is member Faye Hodges, who has moved to Corinth but returns for the regular luncheons. 


Rood echoed the sentiments, saying, "Yes, it's so much fun; it really is." 


And that "grand fellowship with the girls," as Howell described it, is worth celebrating year-round. 






Makes 12 servings 




1 1/4 cups dried apricots 


5 to 8 pitted prunes, snipped 


2 teaspoons finely shredded orange peel 


1 1/2 cups hot water 


3 tablespoons apricot brandy 


1 4-to-5-pound boneless pork center cut loin roast 


1 teaspoon salt 


1 teaspoon coarsely cracked pepper 


1/2 teaspoon ground ginger 


1/4 teaspoon dried mustard 


1/4 teaspoon ground red pepper 


2 tablespoons water 


1 tablespoon all-purpose flour 


1 tablespoon sugar 


Purple basil sprigs 




(Source: "Heart & Soul," The Junior League of Memphis Inc.) 






Makes 6-8 side-dish servings 




6 cups chicken broth 


5 tablespoons long grain rice 


Salt to taste 


3 eggs 


1/2 cup fresh lemon juice 


Snipped parsley 




(Source: "Heart & Soul," The Junior League of Memphis Inc.) 






Makes 48 




4 squares (4 ounces) unsweetened chocolate 


1 cup butter or margarine 


2 cups sugar 


1 cup all-purpose flour 


4 beaten eggs 


2 teaspoons coffee liqueur, brandy or vanilla 


1 cup semisweet chocolate pieces 


1 cup chopped nuts 




(Source: "Heart & Soul," The Junior League of Memphis Inc.)

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.