Entertainment Tip: The Secrets of Mary Bowser
My friend Kate told me her mother once told her, "Your generation is so smart . . . you invented the potluck!" I'm not sure her assessment is historically accurate, but it can be extremely reassuring. If entertaining seems intimidating, it's perfectly reasonable to share the load, as long as you remember to share it when you're a guest, as well as when you're a host. After all, many hands do make light work—and some fantastic dishes.
Not only does establishing a potluck tradition for all your book club meetings save each host the burden of providing everything for everyone, it also allows the more "culinarily challenged" members of the club to avoid a disastrous series of flops when it is their turn to host; it's easier to make (or buy!) one item that complements the rest of the club's contributions than to try to take on everything yourself. After all, entertaining should be just that: a source of joy, for the host as well as the guest. So if your book club is game, agree that the host will provide the wine and one or two "anchor" dishes, and the rest of the club members will bring something as well.
Your book club can turn the potluck into a literary game. The easiest, of course, is to have everyone bring a dish described in the book. That may not work so well for The Secrets of Mary Bowser, given that the ingredients and finished dishes that appealed to palates in the 1850s might not appeal to ours, and the war-related shortages of the 1860s led to desperate efforts to substitute things like parched corn "coffee" for real coffee. In fact, although I include recipes in the "extras" section at the back of the book, I joke there that you probably DON'T want to make them for your club.
Instead, why not try for dishes that evoke the setting of the novel, in this case, Virginia and Philadelphia. What foods are particular cities, states, or regions known for? This can be a fun excuse to try new recipes, and with the internet at your fingertips, who knows what you can come up with.
Or have each member take on a particular character, and make a dish that represents that character in some way. For Mary, a recipe with a hidden ingredient would be terrific, given her secrets. Hattie, who is Mary's best friend in Philadelphia, has both a sweet personality (she goes out of her way to make Mary welcome when she's new to the city), and a sweet tooth. Bet Van Lew can be a little tart, though ultimately not bitter, so maybe something with grapefruit as an ingredient captures her personality. Zinnie Moore isn't into anything frilly or fancy, but she is always appealing, so I'd think of her as a nice goat-cheese spread with bread or crackers. This is a chance to get creative in the kitchen, and then club members can share the reason for their choice of dish as a way to start discussion about the characters.