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When cooking club members design their own menus, the Julia-Child wannabes can get as high-falutin' or as lowbrow as they like.

"One of our lunches was from 'The French Laundry Cookbook,'" said Nancy Richards of Santa Rosa, a member of the Friends of Epicurus. "For Maine, we went overboard and had imported lobster, haddock and pink shrimp."

But for the past 22 years, the 13-member club also has dished up simple fare like soup and salad, Cracker Jacks and hot dogs, and al fresco favorites for "Martha's (Stewart) Perfect Prison Picnic."

Along with lunches and laughter, members enjoy a variety of culinary activities, including cooking classes, field trips and even week-long vacations to destinations around the globe.

"Every few years, we travel somewhere together," said Joanne Enemark of Santa Rosa, one of the travel planners for Friends of Epicurus. "We've gone to Oaxaca, Santa Fe, New Orleans, Puerto Vallarta and Portland, Maine. In March, we're going to Charleston and Savannah."

While adventure is great, the main ingredient for the success of these clubs appears to be a shared passion for venturing into the kitchen.

"I love the trips and the women, but it's mostly about the food," Enemark said. "I like to learn about new ingredients and techniques."

Michelle Brown of Windsor started her own cooking group five years ago, bringing together a "hodge-podge" of people from her Wine Country circle of friends.

"One of the ladies graduated from Le Cordon Bleu (cooking school), and some didn't even know how to cook," she said. "You have to like food and want to eventually cook something."

Friends of Epicurus, which was founded by Kathie Murphy of Santa Rosa, meets September through May, on the second Thursday of the month.

In September, the group always schedules a picnic, and in October, they visit a farm or a business, such as the Healdsburg Shed. For Christmas, they throw a potluck Christmas party.

For each lunch, the group holds a lottery and draws names to see who will cook together. Each trio of chefs decides on a theme and a menu and sends out paper invitations.

"The hostess is always one of the cooks, and she buys the wine," Epicurus member Blanche Kaiser of Santa Rosa said. "Everything is always homemade, even the mayonnaise."

Friends of Epicurus demands a sizable time commitment. Members spend 6 to 8 hours shopping and prepping, plus an additional three hours cooking on the day of the luncheon.

"You really have to enjoy cooking, because it's a lot of work," Kaiser said. "Some people see the amount of cooking required, and they really can't do it."

Murphy serves as the treasurer of the group, collecting $40 in yearly dues to cover luxury items like lobster. In addition, each member pays $25 per lunch.

"We all like to eat and drink everything," Murphy said. "And even though we're pretty good cooks, we'll always learn things from each other."

Brown's cooking group meets on the second or third Friday of the month, from 6 to 8 p.m., and also takes the summer off.

A month in advance, Brown brings a sign-up list for the next dinner, including one cocktail, two appetizers, a salad, a soup, a vegetable, a side dish, a main dish, and a dessert. The hostess is responsible for decor and for setting the table, and everyone helps with the dishes.

"Some people go all out, and others don't," Brown said. "But nobody really cares."

After socializing over appetizers and cocktails, the group sits down and eats dinner in stages, allowing each cook to talk about the triumphs -#8212; and failures -#8212; of their dish.

"Sometimes they are great, and sometimes they are horrible," Brown said. "One Thanksgiving, I unthawed the turkey, and it was rotten."

Seeing experienced cooks cope with disaster has made the newbies in the group, such as Kim Leuenberger of Windsor, more confident about making mistakes.

"They call her Betty Crocker, because she can't cook," Brown said. "Now, she just goes for it, and it doesn't matter."

While the group doesn't have many rules, Brown does draw a line at store-bought dishes.

"Some people run late ... but I don't let them buy anything," she said. "If you sign up for chicken, do NOT bring a rotisserie from Costco."

You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com.