Sonoma County cookbook clubs take a bite out of loneliness
On a warm night in late June, the courtyard behind Miracle Plum market in Santa Rosa’s Railroad Square has been set up with a long table and chairs and twinkling lights overhead.
Inside the shop, about 25 members of the Miracle Plum Cookbook Club are chatting around a table filled with the dips, salads and breads they’ve made straight from Yasmin Khan’s “Zaitoun: Recipes and Stories from the Palestianian Kitchen.”
The aromatic, Middle Eastern ingredients intertwine like threads of a rich, cultural tapestry — velvety eggplant and hummus sit next to garlicky lamb meatballs, crisp potatoes with chiles adjoin a platter of chicken with sumac, and a chickpea and bulgur salad nestles next to a basket of warm flatbread.
It’s the third meeting of the cookbook club, which launched in January 2019 with 22 members and has since grown to more than 100. The club is the brainchild of Sallie Miller and Gwen Gunheim, co-owners of Miracle Plum, whose goal with the club — and the market — is create a close-knit community of like-minded foodies.
“What’s so cool is that it’s made up of people who are as curious about food as we are, and we’re just sitting around talking,” Miller said. “It’s literally bringing people together around food.”
“Cooking together or sharing food is a great way to learn about someone else,” Gunheim said. “It bridges generations, and it’s a really beautiful and safe way to interact with each other.”
Members from near and far
The club, which meets every two to three months, consists mostly of locals who shop at the store as well as folks who drive up from the greater Bay Area.
“We love coming to Sonoma, and we like to explore,” said Jennifer Hwa of San Francisco, who attended the meeting with her husband, Kenneth Price. “I wouldn’t have known about this cookbook without this club.”
“Plus, you come here,” Price said. “And you get to taste all the other dishes.”
Although Hwa read about the cookbook club online, most of its members are recruited when they stop by the market to shop for bread, wine, spices, olive oil and cookware.
“We keep our current cookbook pick next to the register,” Miller said. “They can join by getting on our mailing list and purchasing the book. We write the meeting date on a slip of paper and slip it inside the book.”
Although you don’t need to buy the cookbook from Miracle Plum — you can simply check it out of the library or borrow it from a friend — the shop offers a 10% discount to club members as an incentive.
Miller and Gunheim refrain from telling people what to cook for the meeting, which puzzles some but delights others. Miraculously, it all seems to work out, with surprisingly few duplicated dishes at each meeting.
One of the common problems, however, is a general lack of confidence in the kitchen. People will buy the book, Miller said, but then don’t show up because they feel intimidated about making and presenting a dish themselves.
“We tell them, ‘Bring what you can,’ ” she said. “If you can only bring a bowl of hummus, that’s fine. Once we sell the book and instill the confidence, the whole point is that you come to share in your community.”