The Dinner Club

– noun
1.  the art or science of good eating.
2.  a style of cooking or eating.

I am one of six women in a Dinner Club which has been delightfully charming me for the past eight years.  Our first dinner was held on Saturday, September 15, 2001.  That’s right.  The week of 9-11.  That reason alone should be compelling enough to keep up the Dinner Club tradition, but it is also the fullfillment it brings my heart and the unity of the group.  I would snatch up the credit if I could, but it was actually my girlfriend Tracy who came up with the idea and at the time, I needed an organized group to fill up the time in my life.  Without pause, I agreed to join. 

It is important to know a few things about Dinner Clubs.  I will give you the rules of engagement and I will toss in some scraps of dinner club ettiquette.  If you are already a part of a Dinner Club, then most of this will be familiar to you.  If you are about to embark on the Dinner Club journey or curious about how to begin, read on.

It was always “Dinner Club”.  No other fancy name, although a few were tossed around at the beginning, but it has and will always be just “Dinner Club” or DC for short.  Any dinner can be planned.  DC is like a symphony of several finely orchestrated components that come together creating a harmonious and very tasty evening.  With strong execution and a high performing team, it can result in an amazing experience.  But remember, it isn’t always perfect and you’ll have to be flexible and adapt to change quickly if you want to succeed.  You will start off wanting it to be Martha Stewart and when you fail, you have to remember that even she has a whole team of experts behind her.  And don’t be one of those people that starts off with grandiose ideas because I can tell you right now, that if you are one of those people, your dinner club won’t last because it will become too much work and your friends will get weary of the time and expense it takes to keep it up.

Bacon Wrapped Scallops in a Buerre Blanc Sauce by Tracy S.

My Experience and A Few Scraps

Plan ahead.  Pick people who will show up.  Sounds simple, but it is very important.  Half my DC doesn’t even like to cook all that much, but they love the socialization the group affords them.  They play their parts well, like professionals, but what brings them back isn’t the food, but the friendships they have built and strengthened along the way.  Also, know that their reasons for being there will change.  I started at a time when I was at a real low point in my life.  I needed them. That role has changed for all of us at one point or another throughout the years.  What I found out is that we all needed each other along the way and DC became a commitment, an investment of friendship and a support system.  We’ve made it through cancer, pregnancies, births, deaths, divorce, childcare, the single life, the married life, and everywhere in between. We became family. And just like allowing your uncle a place to sleep on your couch after the party, you just don’t let down your family.

Getting Started.  The set up goes like this.  Six people, six parts to play.  The host(ess) always has the entree or the main course.  The remaining five people draw one of the following cards:  appetizer, side dish, salad, beverage and dessert.  Don’t go trying to add people because it will disrupt the natural balance of the group.  I have heard of DCs in the upwards of 8 to 10 people and the more people you add, the more difficult it becomes.  People have the best of intentions, but keep it at a nice tight number for the best results.  We meet once a month and during the dinner conversation, we discuss what is next theme and who is hosting so we have a plan set for the next month.

Research and History. At first, we started off with theme dinners.  Cajun, Italian, Mexican, Morraccan, Indian, Thailand, Native American, Norweigan and Swedish to name a few.  These are fun because they’re challenging and you have to prepare by doing some some research.  For me, I usually use the internet and the cooking section of the library.  Bookstores and magazines are also great inspirators for ideas.  The expectation is that you first notify the hostess of the title of your dish ahead of time so they can create the menu.  Second, you show up at DC with your dish (or the ingredients to make it there), six copies of the recipe and recipe’s history or nutritional content.  Throughout the years, this practice morphed into sharing food preparation styles and artistic expression. 
To keep track of the recipes and menus throughout the year, I have compiled and organized all the recipes of past DCs in a very large notebook which I refer to several times a year.  This notebook also holds the information from cooking classes that I have taken and it delights me to reread them and the funny little notes I wrote in the margins.  Further, I started collecting cookbooks.  I love it when I can find one that is signed by the chef.

Expense:  DC can be expensive.  Whether you are purchasing a crown roast or beef tenderloin, or serveware for your dish, you can start spending some money.  It is always good to shop around and even better, get to know your local butcher.  I am often calling my local butcher for ideas on the best cuts of meat and what is on sale around the holidays.  When you get to know them and you respect them, they will treat you right.  Further, I am constantly amazed by how much I use that one plate I bought to serve the lettuce wraps or the springform pan for cheesecakes.  I remember buying six vintage glass sundae cups.  I drew the dessert card for the Morraccan theme and I ended up making a couscous pudding which I thought was disgusting and was very disappointed to learn that that the Morroccans don’t really eat dessert and certainly didn’t eat chocolate for dessert.  The dessert was terrible, but it sure looked great in those cups!  I’m sure the Morroccans have a lovely culture and are a very healthy society, but I don’t think I will be going there any time soon and if I do, you can bet that I will be bringing chocolate with me. 

Molten Chocolate Upside Down Cakes with Raspberry Sauce by Stephanie H.

Food Allergies or Preferences:  Remember, you are all sharing the responsibility for the meal, so don’t think the whole meal is on your shoulders.  Further, it is important to know your dinner guests allergies to foods or preferences.  For example, I know that one of us prefers white wine over red and if I ever get too concerned about the beverage, a couple choice red wine selections and a bottle of Grey Goose will do the trick.  I also know that others don’t appreciate seafood quite like I do.  So it is important to learn the palette of your guests, but be able to push them beyond their comfort limits.

Make enough, Bring enough, Eat enough.  Don’t be offended or annoyed by people who are late, people spilling food, or messes on your brand new table cloth.  Do be offended and annoyed by hair in the food, lazy preparation and dropouts.  Bring enough beverage for everyone to have a few and make enough food for each DC member.  Don’t complain about the menu or how someone prepared it.  Everyone is learning and everyone wants to have a good time.  We actually lost a member of the panel and that created quite a stir.  When you lose a member, there are ten more dying to be chosen for the coveted spot.  Choose someone who wants to be there and get buy in from the other DC members prior to inviting someone in to your group.  It is amazing how much attention this group gets and everyone seems to be talking about it days afterward.  Surprisingly, the people talking about it, aren’t even in the DC! 

Scraps & Memories: The most memorable DCs for me (and it’s debatable whether they were just really good or just really odd) was the Native American buffalo roast and the corresponding salad with real edible flowers, the crepes that Tina made, the cajun shrimp, the chocolate cake, the chocolate cheesecake, just about anything that was made out of a pork product and the mulled cider at Christmas. Most importantly, you will remember certain themes by what you made, but the best parts were sharing what you prepared and trying foods from different cultures. We moved on from theme dinners to restaurant selection and back to theme dinners.  I enjoy the Fall season into Christmas, so I usually get the month of October to host.  We also moved from drawing the dinner components to a rotating list, to volunteer, and then back again. There is one thing that never changes and that is our Christmas DC and gift exchange in December at the Icon Grill in downtown Seattle.  A repeatable menu favorite is the peppermint icecream sundae with a sugar cone filled with warm hot fudge with it’s pointed end buried in the icecream until lifted and swirled over the top, and the Christmas cookies with the do-it-yourself frosting, sprinkles, and toppings always follows the unfailingly delicious dinner.

I hope you have found some useful tips here for starting or continuing your own Dinner Club.  I would love to hear your experiences and ideas.

Pictures from Trisha’s Dinner Club – October 2009


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