The pandemic has given new importance to cooking. But for our Paris Cook Club, it was always a central part of life. For eight years, our group of retired expatriates – English, Irish, American, and Belgian — met once a month at our Paris apartments to cook together. We shared an interest in researching, concocting, and eating fine food – mostly French. The hostess picked the theme and the recipes and bought all the ingredients. Everyone else brought wine. For some reason, our Cook Club involved cooking with and drinking a lot of vino. And this was before Covid-19.The Cook Club started simply by making Jamie Oliver 15- and 30–minute-meals. After watching a tape of the TV show, we would gather in the kitchen to replicate his dishes: butternut squash curry, smoked haddock chowder, chicken tikka – all with side dishes and desserts. While we loved Jamie’s food, it was all a bit too English, so we branched out to more international themes. One cook raised in Latin America had us try Mexican mole and different types of ceviche. Another, who had spent time in Cambodia, created a menu of fish amok and beef loc lak. Our Florida cook introduced Cuban treats such as fish in black bean sauce and picadillo.
Cooking themes based on single ingredients were popular. A mushroom meal included tarte fine aux champignons. The truffle menu featured poularde en demi-deuil or chicken in half-mourning inspired by Escoffier. Java was a main input in a repast of foie gras cappuccino, coffee-crusted salmon and tiramisu. Cooking with champagne started with oysters in champagne sabayon sauce. Lime-coconut shrimp and orange marmalade cake highlighted a citrus-centered menu.
There were Cook Club motifs revolving around cooking gadgets (spiralized courgettes and smoked goat cheese), the microwave (asparagus custard and butterscotch pudding), and leftovers (pain perdu and questionable quiche). “Lunch at Giverny” highlighted food favored by Claude Monet – stuffed onions, sole Véron, and pork chops Foyot. After Trump’s election in the USA, the theme was La Farce which means stuffing in French (gratin mussels and stuffed quail breasts).
Our last in-person Cook Club was in Paris on 12 March 2020 on the theme “Cooking with Chickpeas”. The menu included roasted chickpeas, chickpea fritters, pasta with chickpeas, and chickpea foam (aquafaba) chocolate mousse. We were aware of the encroaching danger of the coronavirus but decided to meet up anyway. We paused to listen to President Macron announce that the schools would be closing on Monday. Soon after, the lockdown was announced and we scattered, some to secondary residences in Provence and Normandy.
Via our WhatsApp group, we started exchanging recipes and photos of what we were now cooking on our own. This digital existence brought us closer to our “American branch” – three former members who had returned to the USA (Seattle, Florida and Colorado) prior to the pandemic. Our great physical distance made Zoom sessions impractical. But we make good use of our log of creations posted on the online Paprika recipe manager site. Here our food memories — the recipes (borrowed but tweaked)– are displayed on Paprika with the date and theme of the Cook Club as well as photos of the plates and the cooks.
Because we wanted more cooking communion during our isolation, we decided to make the same item on the same day and compare experiences. The first outing on Easter Sunday was Jamie Oliver’s slow-cooked lamb – smothered in olive oil, garlic, and rosemary. Although we were back in Jamie land, we diverged in approach. As to the lamb, we compared shoulders to legs, young Sisteron meat to older fare, and French to New Zealand. Some of us set our ovens at low heat for four hours while others preferred a slow cooker. One cook followed the wrong recipe! In the end, we agreed that the lamb was well worth the wait and that certain sides and sauces work better than others.
We continued to have themed Sunday cooking sessions. In our separate kitchens, we orchestrated and analyzed a symphony of lasagnas – traditional meat and tomato, pea and asparagus, and smoked salmon and spinach. Another weekend, we all made variations of chicken tajine – with apricots and almonds, olives and preserved lemons, and raisins and red peppers. On the May weekend we were supposed to be cooking in Italy, the Cooks indulged in Tuscan bean soup and roast pork with panzanella salad. On French Mother’s Day in June (with our children in lockdown elsewhere), we replicated our mothers’ favorite foods of yesteryear – eggplant parmesan, beef stroganoff, and fried oysters.
The Paris Cook Club lives on – virtually. We have mounted various cooking challenges: Greek (spanakopita, sweet potato moussaka), Persian (leek fritters, lamb meatballs), stuffed chicken breasts (Kiev, mushrooms and cream), and using ramekins (tomato crumble, pot pies). Photos and ideas are shared on WhatsApp. Now that the lockdown has eased in France, a few of us may be able to cook with each other in person. But the pandemic era has led to new practices. Just as people will continue to work online and distance learning will flourish, we Cooks will continue our Sunday culinary adventures with our distant members. We find solace in cooking anything together, whether physically or virtually. With wine, of course
Lead photo credit : The Paris Cook Club. Photo courtesy of Candice Stevens