10 Tips & Tricks for Starting a Cookbook Club
Before I started Blackbird Cookbooks, I have been a member and organizer of many cookbook, cocktail, book-clubs-that-were-really-monthly-dinner-parties, and plain-old cooking clubs and they have all been rewarding and wonderful experiences.
I can tell you from experience that it doesn't really take much time and effort to organize a cookbook club and keep it going for a long time. In fact (and this is seriously a humble brag) my longest membership has been sustained for 15 years and across a period of time when I didn't even live in North Carolina at all. What it does take is a willingness to participate and make connections, curiosity in the kitchen, and a little bit of organization.
1. Decide how many members might work best for your club
I've found groups of approximately 8 or 10 folks at a club meeting is an optimal number for chatting and dining, but some clubs I've been in have had as many as 25 folks, which made for quite the monthly cocktail party. I find that cookbook clubs with 6 members or more have a better variety of dishes, but clubs that prefer to cook dishes together can do really well with as few as 3 of 4 members.
It's important to also consider who you invite. This sounds more difficult than it is, as most folks start by inviting their immediate friendship groups and that's perfectly fine. But, as you invite or add more people, aim for a good mixture of extroversion, introversion, spicy, funny, and other colorful personalities. Be open to folks from other social groups, ages, backgrounds, and cooking skills.
2. When to meet
Clubs determine when to meet in a variety of ways (including using Doodle polls and other scheduling software), but I've found the most popular and easiest way to plan our when to meet is to establish a regular date each month and then keep it consistent over time.
One particular club I belonged to would reserve their January meeting as a "planning" meeting where we would revisit the meeting time for the next year and then choose our topics for the next 6-12 months. For us, the additional organization allowed the meeting date to accommodate our shifting schedules, avoid the additional mental overhead of figuring out the next month's focus, and allow folks to reserve/purchase books ahead of time.
3. Where to meet
As often as not, the number of club members will be limited by folks' abilities to accommodate them in the space available. For larger groups, you might have to get creative in how and where your club meets.
While an extreme example, when I helped organize a very popular North Carolina Chapter of a feminist-oriented vintage cocktail club in my 20s we had to reserve the clubhouse in my apartment complex because our tiny apartments couldn't fit our membership roster. (Be forewarned, cocktail clubs are incredibly popular.)
For the most part, folks can use this as an opportunity to host modern, casual dinner parties in their homes if they plan their membership numbers with space limitations in mind beforehand.
4. How will your club be organized/structured?
This can often be the hardest part! Are you interested in exploring a new cuisine or general theme each month, having everyone cook a recipe from the same cookbook, or get together and everyone cooks a fabulous meal?
One cookbook club I participated in had a really adventurous structure - members actually chose the next month's recipe assignment from a hat. The beauty of that strategy is that it can encourage members to cook dishes that perhaps they wouldn't have otherwise chosen to make or is a bit outside of their comfort zone. Another club preferred cooking within creative themes - in one meeting, we chose dishes from literature, with members making things like Maycomb County Ham (To Kill a Mockingbird), Eudora Welty's Delta Wedding Cake, or Green Eggs and Ham Quiche.
It's really up to you and the intent of your club, but my recommendation is to pick a general focus and use that consistently for at least a while so members know what to expect from month to month. Also, try to avoid books or dishes that require hard-to-source and/or overly pricey ingredients for your members. (unless that's actually the theme of your club). And if your group chooses to do the cooking together, check to ensure the time requirements of recipes ahead of time. Imagine getting together to cook a fabulous meal, then realizing that your main dish requires a 48 hour marinade.
Lastly, remember that you can change your focus at any time if it's not really working for the group.
5. Try to ensure good menu balance by planning ahead.
Each month, set up a Google Spreadsheet/evite for people where members can RVSP and declare which dish they are bringing. That encourages folks to sign-up to bring a good variety of appetizers, entrees, vegetables and desserts.
I also leave a notes area on the sheet for folks to note any allergies or dietary requirements so other members can either consider that in their dish or at the very least be able to communicate if their dish contains any specific ingredients.
6. Being a host is easier than you think.
I've found that cookbook clubs parties are some of the easiest parties to host. Most of the prep work is being shared by everyone and everyone is responsible for ensuring that everyone has a good time.
Hosting duties usually include providing plates, glassware, utensils, napkins, and the "baseline" drinks (water, soda, or iced tea for instance). Some groups prefer to keep things really casual and easy by using disposable dishware and utensils.
Most clubs I've participated in have shared the hosting duties, meaning I only had to host once or twice a year at most. And don't worry if you have 10 people coming but only 4 seats at your table - most folks can be flexible and find places to sit and still have a fabulous time. Members aren't there be dazzled by your studious attention to all things Martha Stewart, they just want to eat good good and meet other cool people.
Lastly, in one group I've been involved in, the host would also provide any hot entrée or baked dish that was expected to be hot when served, but that's not super common. In general members should assume that all offerings will be served at room temperature or cold.
7. Plan to invite a few more members over time.
In any case, club participation is usually pretty strong in the beginning, but over time not everyone will be able to attend every meeting date, so having a few extra friends of friends to join the roster every now and then helps ensure the group stays lively and engaged over the long run.
8. Use your cooking club experience to learn and try new things.
As a member, it helps to understand what you want out of joining a cookbook club? Learn new cooking methods, explore new flavors, meet cool people? Search for clubs that focus on those things. And if you can't find a club that offers that you want - start your own!
9. Involve your local cookbook store. (That's us!)
Bookstores love book clubs - and cookbook stores love cookbook and cooking clubs even more! When organizing on your themes, ask you local store for recommendations on books, topic lists, or inspiration. If your club is ordering a clew of new books each month, there's a good chance you can arrange a discount or free shipping each month.
At Blackbird Cookbooks, we offer concierge services for all types of Cookbook and Cooking Clubs, including inspiration, special member collections, discounts, and free/local delivery services. Contact us and see how we can help you and your club!
10. Be flexible and have fun.
I find most cookbook club experiences are better when folks are open and interested in exploring different dishes and cuisines and are willing to experiment and adjust a bit to find the vibe that everyone is looking for. So, I find it's great to get feedback from the those who are attending each meeting to understand what is working and then make adjustments. The conversation can be as easy as "Hey, how's this working for you all? Do we need to change anything or just keep doing what we're doing?" right before people start going home for the evening.
We hope you found this article helpful - if you have questions or need help, Email us here.