It’s 2:00 am and the last of our guests–Hurricane, Mr. Coffee, Tequila Sunrise, and Electric Koolaid–have just left. I ease off my ridiculously sexy but shockingly painful maroon heels and pick up a couple of wine glasses on my way to the back of the house, to the room I’ve been studiously ignoring for the past two hours: my completely trashed kitchen. Every conceivable inch of counter space, breakfast table top, and cooking range (already pretty limited in our ca. 1945 cottage) now covered with pots, pans, plates, glasses of every size and use, empty wine bottles, and at this point semi-permanently-caked-on spills. I hobble numb-toed over to the range-top. Taking up a crusty wooden spoon, I poke dispiritedly at my formerly gorgeous red enameled cast iron Dutch oven. After three days of preparing a really spectacular (if I do say so, myself) cassoulet, the pot now sports an impenetrable crust like a creosote bathtub ring. It will probably take three days of soaking and a power tool of some sort to dislodge it all. If I hadn’t paid so damn much for the thing I’d be tempted to just toss it.
My two Labradors are still methodically nosing and slurping around the dining room, living room, and kitchen searching out every dropped crumb they can scavenge. I hear a nail-clattery scramble as both dogs discover a plate of paté and cheese left on the floor behind a houseplant by a guest. I suspect either Hurricane or Diet&Vodka. A crash and yelp follow. Apparently there was a wine glass back there, as well. They (the dogs, not my girlfriends) will no doubt hork up everything they consumed around dawn. On second thought, maybe the gals will, too.
My husband, who we’ll call The Macallan, sidles up behind me and wraps his arms back-to-front around my waist, adding a subtle hip nudge for good measure as if I hadn’t already noticed he was all over me like Hollandaise on Eggs Benedict. I flop my head back against his shoulder with an involuntary groan exhaled more out of exhaustion than affection. He nips my ear and whispers in his husky deep voice, “Remind me, again, why in the hell do we do this?”
“This,” of course, means entertaining The Supper Club, and all that that entails; “we,” meaning, really, “you, silly Bourbon Gal.”
Prologue: About eight years ago
Proudly representing transient Americans everywhere, The Macallan and I, along with our two toddler sons (Tim Collins and Sprite), moved to Salt Lake City from Arizona so that Mac could open up a new office for his firm. It would be our ninth move together in the twelve years we’d been hitched. Although we were leaving behind wonderful friends, family, and major-league baseball, we were excited to be back in the mountains, see four real seasons again, and have our kids grow up making snow forts. We’d lived in Utah in the mid-1990s for a winter when we were young ski bums working at Park City Ski Resort, and knew even in the face of dire warnings from our friends (“You’ll never get a decent latté again!,” “Edward Abbey wrote that there are more churches than liquor stores there,” and “There’s no Trader Joe’s closer than Vegas?!”) that it was a gorgeous place with friendly people and okay schools. We would have seven major ski resorts within a half-hour of our house, and there was a triple-A affiliate farm team to the Angels. And even though there were no Trader Joe’s at the time (one opened here eventually, in 2012), and the liquor laws still seemed, quite frankly, Byzantine (even for a gal from a dry Southern county), there were a couple of darling gourmet markets in our neighborhood, and a Whole Foods nearby. Lots of great restaurants had opened around the time of the 2002 Olympics, and the town seemed to have become a bit more sophisticated over the years. Salt Lake City’s mayor was a Democrat AND an environmentalist. Starbuck’s is frickin’ everywhere, if that’s what it came to. It all seemed imminently do-able.
But as any foodie will tell you–especially one with very young kids and their chicken-cheese-and-pasta palates at home–no amount of gourmet markets, reading food blogs, or Googling recipe porn on-line (thank you Saveur.com) makes up for wanting to create amazing food and share it with people who appreciate the effort. Of all my guys, Tim Collins is the most adventurous eater, and will try just about anything and enjoy most dishes. But he’s still a kid and is allergic to peanuts and pistachios to boot. The Macallan doesn’t drink wine (I know, what the hell?!) so I had no one to ooh and aah with over getting the perfect pairing of wine with chicken Vindaloo just right.
What I needed were some girlfriends. Even better, I needed to find some girlfriends who loved to eat, and might even approach the occasional carbohydrate. Bonus points if I could find some who also really enjoyed cooking, or even better, baking (which I do only under duress). Perhaps I could even find some fabulous chef friends. Or a distiller! My fantasies were spinning out of control, but what are fantasies for if not to dream big, right?
Spring, then summer went by, and I met some perfectly nice people around town, but making friends is slow going, even for a generally gregarious gal like me. I started stalking all of the know haunts of hip urban mothers (of which I am probably too old to be): the neighborhood library, the Children’s Museum, hiking trailheads, Anthropologie. I even found an adorable coffee house near an Italian deli and tattoo parlor; it seemed promising.
But I was lonely.
My oldest son started preschool in September. We joined the grooviest parent-run co-op preschool we could find, which was of course located at the Unitarian Church. I recognized a few of the moms from the library, trailhead, and coffee shop. I started making friends. Several of these friends proved to be talented and creative cooks. Quite a few families were serious gardeners, some had backyard chickens, and I met some amazing canners and home-preservers. But a disconcerting number of them were vegans, and most seemed to be obsessed with whole grains and the presence of high-fructose corn syrup in, well, everything.
One day the following Spring, I got an e-mail from Hurricane, one of the groovy co-op moms whom I then considered maybe not a best friend, but a genial acquaintance. She thought it would be fun to start a couples Supper Club, meeting once a month and centered on a theme, like a regional cuisine or specific ingredient or technique. She’d invited the best cooks she knew who were also, quote, “fun” to join the group. I was seriously flattered to be included on her short list. The ground rules we eventually came up with were pretty basic: each of seven couples would take turns hosting the group, picking the theme, and sending out an Evite. In everyone’s response to the Evite, they would reply with what course or dish they would be bringing so that each dinner would be complete from appetizers to dessert. Members would cook from scratch, share their recipes, and contribute a bottle or two for the bar. I distinctly remember Hurricane’s admonishment, “there will be no salad from a bag!” I immediately replied in the affirmative, “We are in!” I thought to myself, Finally! These might be my people. They might even like me back.
The Unusual Suspects
Although a few of us in the Supper Club have taken a cooking class or two, none of us are professionally trained chefs, or for that matter expert mixologists. I spent a few years during college working in restaurants both in the front and back of the house, and serving (and in a pinch mixing up) my share of cocktails on both sides of a busy bar. But I have to say, as someone who has gleefully slapped down my husband’s Amex platinum at some of the finest restaurants in the country (and a tiny bit of west Europe), some of the best meals I’ve had have in the past few years have been shared with my Supper Club friends in our own homes. Like the comfort foods of my childhood, the food prepared and laughed over with great company remains forefront in my mind, and on the muscle memory of my taste buds.
As the years have gone by, some couples, like Hurricane’s sister Pinot Noir and brother-in-law Merlot, have faded from the group. Others, like Tequila Sunrise and her hubby Electric Koolaid, came for one dinner five years ago, joined us for four years, then eventually dropped back out. Hurricane and Mr. Coffee got divorced. What started out as a group of wide socioeconomic diversity and age (some with kids, some not), has devolved into a party wherein discussions of clogged milk ducts, sleep schedules, and chronic activity over-scheduling are depressingly common. We’ve collectively decided that new parents have a pass on the “no salad from a bag” dictum, and are welcome to bring dessert from the corner bakery if desperate, but I personally think this only flies for 12 months after baby’s arrival. I cling to the hope that as all of our kids go into school full-time, we will get back to the days of being hip, worldly foodies with enough energy to make Top Chef-inspired creations worthy of the pages of Food & Wine magazine, but I adore these folks enough to be happy just to see them every month.
Each host has invited another couple or two to various parties, but our core has remained the same for almost five years. We’re architects and physicians, housekeepers and writers, former Mormon missionaries and “pole fitness” fanatics; real estate moguls, car salesmen, recovering archaeologists, and stay-at-home parents. Teetotalers and vinophiles; people who live to eat, and people who eat to live. In addition to Hurricane, the regulars sidling up to the table include Cosmopolitan and her hubby Fat Tire Ale; Sauvignon Blanc and Heineken; and my husband and I. He’s The Macallan. Sometimes I’m Mint Julep, sometimes I’m Hot Toddy, but mostly I’m just a Bourbon Gal.
We’ve had drop-ins from my girlfriends Pink Lady and Dirty Martini, and their husbands Grape Nehi and Rolling Rock. I look forward to my buddy Manhattan’s sporadic but wonderful additions to the party; he slays me with his mad baking skills. Manhattan’s partner Pimm’s Cup doesn’t cook, but he makes a killer cocktail. Recent guests Michelada and French 75 show some real potential as permanent members, and give us a small chance at ethnic diversity. Prosecco and Planter’s Punch just had twins, but Prosecco is still churning out desserts that will make you swoon. Bourbon & Brown sugar ice cream with bourbon blondies? Baked Alaska? Oh, Prosecco, you had me at bourbon anything. My neighbors Diet&Vodka and Butterbeer always bring something interesting, if not made from scratch; Butterbeer’s creative infused cocktails more than make up for Diet&Vodka’s attempts at cooking (Love ya, girlfriend! Hope your audition on America’s Worst Cook goes well!)
In any case, recipes created by specific members get their full acknowledgement and credit in this blog, and when possible, I’ve included their sources and inspiration. Most, however, are my own creations or my adaptations of compiled menus we’ve eaten over the years. We’ve done Greek, Italian, Mid-Century, and Halloween themes a couple of times, for example, so I’ve had some really amazing menus to pull from. Other favorites were ingredient-oriented parties based around citrus, gluten-free, and “aphrodisiac” recipes. Any errors or omissions are my own, and I’ve changed the names of the innocent by-standers here to protect their identities. Who am I kidding? None of us are so innocent in this group of food hooligans. Not that it would be that hard to figure out who these folks are; they are, after all, the best home cooks in Salt Lake County that Hurricane knows who are also, ahem, “fun.”