Starting a supper club with friends got me out of my culinary comfort zone and expanded my sense of community, two things that are sorely missed during social distancing.
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An over the shoulder shot of a group of beautiful mid-adult women enjoying a celebratory toast together in a bar.
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On a Thursday in early March, 14 friends crammed into a 700-square-foot apartment to eat a smorgasbord of dishes we'd each lovingly prepared. The meal was Pisces-themed, which meant an abundance of seafood (and one pie, obviously). On the menu: Niçoise salad, smoked salmon with Greek yogurt, scallops with spicy beans and tomatillo, seaweed salad, crab cakes, and marinated anchovies, among other fishy delights. It was a blood-warm, almost-spring evening in Austin, and we drank gimlets and glasses of rosé, sweating through our clothes.

On one hand, the mood was festive — it was my birthday, and we'd also just celebrated a year's worth of dinners just like this one. Supper Club, as we call it, is basically an excuse to cook new recipes and hang out and eat an obscene amount of food together. Every month, we take turns hosting and picking a theme; there's always a Google doc sign-up sheet involved, with slots for appetizers, sides, dessert, and drinks. The host makes the main course, and the table always ends up overflowing with more food than we know what to do with, which is how we prefer it.

On the other hand, since this particular Supper Club meeting took place in March of 2020, there was also an undercurrent of vague dread in the room, as palpable as the scent of fresh fish. This was right before everyone's vocabularies changed; before we all knew how to "flatten the curve" and "socially distance" ourselves from the people we love. Before the toilet paper ran out; before we started working from home, those of us who were lucky enough to be able to do so; before we stopped going anywhere at all. Our dread felt shapeless, ambiguous. We didn't know what to expect, exactly — only that we might not see each other for a while, though no one could say for sure.

That was months ago now. The world is currently on fire. And these days, when I catch myself staring forlornly at all the dried beans and grains and pasta in my cupboard, I can't help but feel tiny waves of black grief, remembering what it's like to actually be excited about making food. Of all the things I miss during this dark time, it's the simple, primal act of gathering around a table and eating dinner with friends that I miss the most.

When we started Supper Club, a year ago, I was in a culinary rut. Sick of the same pastas, the same salads, the same quinoa bowls. As a person who thoroughly enjoys hobbyistic cooking—I've been known to go to three different grocery stores in one day, just to get the right ingredients: the flakiest sea salt, the freshest eggs, the most pungent winter greens — it can be jarring to go through cooking ruts like this. (But absolutely normal when your hobby is also an act of domestic labor.) A group of us got to talking: What if we started cooking for each other once a month, both as a way to experiment with different recipes and expand our kitchen repertoires, but also just as a way to bond? Some of us were still new to Austin, or new to each other, and this seemed like an excellent way to strengthen a friendship.

The dinners began as foreign country-themed. We cycled through Japan, Mexico, Austria, Italy, India, and Morocco. We got ambitious — homemade pasta and cannoli, gyoza, guineitos en escabeche, slow-simmered lamb biryani. We got a little weird — jello molds and Coca Cola-glazed ham for Mid-Century American Christmas night, potato pancakes with caviar and "herring under a fur coat" for Former Soviet Union night (which, as everyone knows, is pickled herring salad with beets, potatoes, carrots, grated egg, and gobs of mayonnaise).

We lived and learned. I once took an entire day off work to make ratatouille for French night, because I initially tried to take a shortcut by simmering all the vegetables together in a Dutch oven, which led to a soggy, under-cooked, stew-like mess. On my second try, I took time to roast the veggies evenly in the oven, with olive oil and lacy sprigs of rosemary and thyme (I even seeded and peeled the tomatoes, if you can believe it), which gave the dish its velvety texture and intense, bright flavor. As anyone who's even mildly interested in cooking knows, it's this freedom to explore new techniques and, crucially, make a million mistakes along the way, that makes you a better, more thoughtful cook.

We've since branched out into other themes (see: Pisces night), but the ethos is always the same. Experimentation is key. There's zero pressure, because if you fail, there'll always be plenty of other food to eat and cheap wine to drink. Above all else, it's never about impressing anyone with fussy, elaborate recipes; it's about cultivating the social glue that inevitably forms whenever people sit down to eat a meal together.

For as long as this period of social distancing goes on, I'll ache for Supper Club meetings, for the immense pleasure of cooking and eating with loved ones. I'd love to say I'll never take that pleasure for granted again, though that's not really how it works. Instead, all I can think is that, when this, too, passes, I'll be extra-grateful for community, for meals shared, and for friends who don't think twice about getting a little weird, wild, and creative in the kitchen with you.

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