Sonoma County cookbook clubs take a bite out of loneliness

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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.”

Joni Davis, a pastry chef at Jackson’s Bar and Oven just up the street, joined the club because she enjoys meeting other people who share her “obsessive level of passion for food.”

“Any excuse to get another cookbook is welcome because I love cookbooks,” she said. “And it’s lovely to relax and enjoy other people who love making food as much as I do.”

Aura-Lee Salmeron of Sebastopol said she bought the first two cookbooks but was only able to attend her first meeting in June.

“They choose really great cookbooks ... and I like to experiment,” she said. “Plus, we get to eat together, and I get to meet new people.”

Salmeron also feels good about the club’s request for a small donation at each meeting — $5 to $20 — that goes to a charity of the cookbook author’s choice.

Deborah Pulido of Santa Rosa, who confessed that she isn’t naturally drawn to the kitchen, said she joined the club because it’s unique and she hopes to learn how to cook without a recipe.

“You don’t have to read the cookbook, you just make something,” she said. “If I could just open up the pantry and fridge and just make something, that’s what I imagine I could get out of this.”

Cookbook love runs deep

Both Miller and Gunheim trace their food fascination back to an early exposure to cookbooks.

Gundheim, who comes from a family of chefs and nutritionists, said she was drawn at an early age to “Joy of Cooking” by Irma S. Rombauer.

“It was always kicking around the house, and it was the first book I read in bed,” she said. “I’m not a recipe follower, but it was inspirational.”

When her grandmother would visit from Hawaii, Miller said she would sleep in her room and leave a big stack of National Enquirer newspapers by their beds.

“My dad busted me for reading them, so she switched to cookbooks,” Miller said. “I would fall asleep with her talking about what she was reading.”

Miller originally launched the cookbook club in October 2017, but when the fires arrived first, the meeting was canceled. She grew up in Wikiup, where her mother’s home narrowly escaped the flames.

The two entrepreneurs — both born and raised in Santa Rosa — opened Miracle Plum in August of 2018, and they have always carried a handful of cookbooks along with a half dozen indie food and wine magazines, such as Cherry Bombe, Toothache, Put A Egg On It and Above Sea Level.

“We’ve always had a curated selection of books and are looking for new and exciting ones,” Miller said.

After Gunheim chimes in with a few ideas, Miller makes the final decision on what cookbook the club will read. For the first meeting in January, Miller chose “Dining In: Highly Cookable Recipes” by Alison Roman, a witty food writer for the New York Times and Bon Appetit magazine.

“It was very easy to use, and the recipes are approachable and really well-written,” Miller said. “It was like a friend reaching across the table and talking to you.”

Because it was winter, the dinner was held inside the shop, but the table was vibrant, from the citrus salmon to the carrot and beet sides. Dessert was an homage to Roman’s grandmother — store-bought sorbet inside a hollowed-out orange — and a Lemon Shaker Pie.

For the second meeting in April, Miller chose a more conceptual book, the New York Times bestseller “Salt Fat Acid Heat” by Samin Nosrat, which was made into a Netflix original documentary and won several major awards from the James Beard Foundation and IACP. The book teaches the fundamentals of cooking by taking a deep dive into the four elements that create flavor and balance.

Although she was stumped for the third pick, Miller finally chose Yasmin Kahn’s “Zaitoun,” which is about Palestinian food and culture and written by an author whose first book, “The Saffron Tales,” explored her Persian grandmother’s cuisine.

“I really admire Yasmin Kahn and appreciate the light she is trying to shed,” Miller said. “She worked as an activist in human rights.”

The flavors of the world also will figure prominently in the club’s upcoming cookbook, “We Are La Cocina: Recipes in Pursuit of the American Dream,” inspired by the well-known incubator for female food entrepreneurs in San Francisco.

The book features the stories and recipes of more than 40 women who have passed through the program and gone on to create their own restaurant or food product. The meeting will be held at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 15 at Miracle Plum.

“They have launched some women who would have had a challenging time otherwise,” Miller said. “We’re hoping the book will turn people on to some really cool restaurants in Berkeley, Oakland and the city.”

You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.

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