With so much emphasis today placed on what we eat, it’s easy to overlook the body of research indicating the importance of how we eat.
It’s been shown that the act of sitting down with others at a table for a meal – instead of, say, in front of a TV screen – is beneficial, not just for the individual, but for the community as well. Communal dining seems to create interpersonal bonds that strengthen the ties between friends and family.
A longstanding group here in Napa is an example of the benefits of breaking bread together. Initially an ad hoc dinner club, the group has gone from complete strangers to a virtual family while hosting each other monthly for almost forty years.
They call themselves “The Gourmet Group” and began dining together regularly after they all relocated to Napa in the 1970s. In each case, they came here mainly because of a spouse’s job change.
The six women who started the group all met when they joined the local chapter of the American Association of University Women, a national and international organization that has worked to promote equality and women’s rights since 1881 through advocacy, education, philanthropy and research. The local branch awards a $1,000 scholarship every year to each of the county high schools.
As new AAUW members, they decided to get to know each other by gathering for dinner. The year was 1979. Pat Hitchcock, now 65, was a new mother and brought her infant with her to the first get-together.
The “gourmet” in the title was more of an aspiration than a description. None of the women or their husbands were gourmet cooks. Hitchcock recalls how nerve-racking her first hosting was:
“They cut me some slack because I had a new baby, so in the (hosting) rotation I was sixth. So, we go to everybody else’s house for dinner and then it’s our turn. That’s when I nearly killed it. What was I thinking?”
She didn’t have 12 sets of china, or place settings or wine glasses and borrowed everything from her neighbor. And she lived in a small house, so they sat outside. Fortunately, the weather cooperated.
In the beginning, with no Internet, finding recipes was a matter of going to the library, rummaging through cookbooks, and making photocopies.
Cooking styles and recipes have changed and are much healthier, with more fresh ingredients, the women say.
“I can’t recall getting a recipe where it said add a can of this or that,” said Hitchcock. “It’s been an encouragement to start with real ingredients, fresh ingredients. I can’t even recall seeing a recipe with Bisquick, which was heavy, a big deal in my mother’s cooking.”
They have withstood mini disasters such as a June bug attack, a drenching soup spill, and a table collapse. Over the years, their gustative efforts have become more adventurous, sometimes ending in failure.
“I tried making barfi, an Indian desert,” said Hitchcock. The dense, milk-based sweet confectionary didn’t turn out well. “It was bad. It didn’t work.”
Other dessert duds included charlotte russe cake and dubostorte.
Mary Kay Kaltreider, 78, said she once attempted a dish called “turkey mole” that her friends dubbed “Mary Kay’s folly.”
Despite the occasional failure, they’ve never had to send out for pizza.
“There’s always so much food,” said Hitchcock.
And that goes double for wine. In the beginning, each couple would bring two bottles and over the space of five hours all would usually be emptied. They drink less now, they say.
And despite the failures, they haven’t lost their spirit of adventure.
“We’re not afraid to try anything,” Kaltreider said.
“One thing we don’t do, which some clubs used to do, is keep track of what everybody spends,” said Carol Waggener, 81, who remained in the group after she and her husband moved to Green Valley.
“It all comes out in the wash,” said Kaltreider.
The dinners often have a theme, sometimes aided by the calendar, and often with a cosmopolitan culinary twist. The March gathering fell on St. Patrick’s Day, so the entrée was corned beef and cabbage, but with roasted garlic, a distinctly un-Irish ingredient.
The group also travels together now, going skiing, whale watching and hiking. They regularly travel to Mendocino each January and to other Northern California spots.
“We went to Carmel and stayed at a bed and breakfast,” said Barbara Thompson, 72, the only Napa native in the group. “We’ve become family.”
They’ve even gone on an extended trip overseas.
“The Hanna’s (another couple in the group) and us had always talked about going to Europe together someday when the kids were finished with college and there was a good harvest,” said Hitchcock. “And we looked at each other and we said: We can’t put it off; they’ll never be a perfect time to go. So, we went to celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary and we spent a month in Germany and England and Scotland. And it was because of that family connection and the need to not put things off.”
For the group’s 40th anniversary next year, they are pondering another extended journey, perhaps a cruise.
Like a family, they look out for one another. After Kaltreider had been widowed, she brought a date to one of the dinners.
“She had five other big brothers vetting this guy,” said Hitchcock. “They were the ones who were extremely protective.”
The benefits of the gathering seem to have been passed down to the next generation. Naturally, the children of each family helped with the preparation and serving from an early age. Now, as adults, they hold mealtime in special regard.
“There’s no eating while watching TV for our kids,” said Kaltreider.