When journalist Shaun Chavis came to Birmingham from Boston to work as an editor at Health magazine, she hungered for a community of people who shared her tastes in food and books. Her job at Health was a great fit, but she wanted to recreate the long, lingering meals and discussions she had grown to love with classmates in Boston, where she earned a Master’s degree in gastronomy and a culinary degree.
When Chavis met Sean Kelly—a fellow foodie, food writer and well-connected Birmingham resident—she suggested a food-centric book club. Kelly “helped [her] put people to the idea.”
That was three years ago. Birmingham’s Foodie Book Club was been tearing through pages and clearing plates ever since. The group gathers monthly to eat, drink and discuss a book (except in December, when the club hosts a holiday party).
They’ve also hosted foodie movie nights, using the films as fodder for discussion.
“I try to mix up the tone of the books and cater seasonal changes,” Chavis says. Summer choices tend to be lighter or more visual. “We try to pick something homey and comforting in the fall,” she says. The group also reads intellectually challenging titles, especially in the fall and spring. “I try to mix it up to have fiction twice a year mixed with food ethics books,” Chavis says.
This variety is the perfect recipe for flavorful conversations. Though the group comes from a myriad of professions and backgrounds, they tend to think in similar ways about some key issues.
“We’re trying to eat healthily, locally, environmentally-conscious,” food writer and founding member Jason Horn says. “We have had some interesting discussions, vibrant and vital debates about food in the real world.”
If the summer heat keeps you out of the kitchen, turn off the oven and turn the pages of one of these recommended reads from Foodie Book Club members.
Trail of Crumbs by Birmingham author Kim Sunée “We read it the month after it came out. We were the first book club that she got to speak to. That was one of our best attended meetings.”
Heat by Bill Buford “[Buford] decided to learn how to cook by putting himself in Mario Batali’s kitchen, where he gets treated as badly as anybody else: chopping carrots and getting yelled at. It’s so funny, so well-written. It was so vibrant, that it struck a nerve with a lot of people. Sean read that book and decided he wanted to raise and kill his own pigs, which he named Lunch and Dinner.”
The Sweet Life of Paris by David Lebovitz “You’d think it’d be ooh-la-la and baguettes and chocolate croissants, but he gives you the real nittygritty of Paris in a funny way and with recipes at the end of every chapter.”
Sex, Death and Oysters by Robb Walsh “He used to be food writer at the Houston Press before he quit to open his own restaurant. In this book, he goes around the world looking for oys ters.
In light of what’s happening in the Gulf, it’s interesting to read about what’s in jeopardy now.”
The Fortune Cookie Chronicles by Jennifer Lee “It was written by a New York Times writer and traces the origin of the fortune cookie, finding its roots not remotely close to China but in either America or Japan. It tracks the development of the fake American Chinese culture.”
The Perfect Fruit by Birmingham author Chip Brantley “This is the story of the pluot and the plant science that created it. It’s a really fun and interesting read.”
The Debt to Pleasure by John Lanchester “This one was more like a classic novel, so it added a different twist to our meeting.”
Soul Kitchen by Poppy Z. Brite “This was one of my favorite discussions. We all talked about what our personal soul foods were, which is a neat conversation to have with anyone, no matter how well you know them!”
Omnivore’s Dilemna by Michael Pollan “An important food book,” according to Horn.
Chavis agrees and says that Pollan’s books have been good discussion starters. “Everybody has an opinion and people tend to be very passionate about them,” she says. “This was one of the most lively discussions.”
Billionaire’s Vinegar by Benjamin Wallace “It’s about the world of rare wine auctions, and the scandal of where fake bottles of really expensive wines came on the market,” Horn says. “It’s really a mystery story of a shady business.” The club’s discussion was enhanced by the experience of a club member who worked in the wine business in the middle of the ordeal. “It was the biggest meeting,” Chavis recalls. “Everybody was glued to everything she said.”
Save the Deli by David Sax “He does a nice job of showing the cultural idiosyncrasies of Jewish food culture in America,” Chavis says. “It’s really weird. A lot of people who aren’t orthodox Jews or don’t practice on a regular basis feel like they can go to a Jewish deli and reconnect with their faith.” According to Horn, “I grew up in Jewish delis, and It’s really a tour through the culture, kind of like visiting relatives.”
Find a complete list of books read by the club at www.foodiebookclub.wordpress.com.
Cory Bordonaro writes about food and other topics for Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.