[This is Part 2 of the 3-part essay on the singles' cooking club that has nothing to do with dating and has lasted nearly 40 years (and counting). If you haven't already read Part 1, click here. You can read more about the author, the celebrated historian Mary Beth Norton, at the end of this post.]
The Single Professors' Cooking Collective (SPCC): A History (Part 2)
By Mary Beth Norton
Over the past three decades, about thirty people connected to academia have been members of the club. They have been recruited in a wide variety of settings, from a chance encounter in an apartment complex elevator to the president's reception for new faculty to university committee meetings. In the spring of 1984, when two SPCC members married on successive days, members recruited a man who also attended both weddings because he was a friend of both the new spouses of our friends. Another SPCC member's wedding the following fall produced two more new recruits. Participants have sometimes come from the ranks of people who once dated previous members, from colleagues in departments or interdisciplinary fields, or from people encountered at social events or university athletic facilities.
Yet we cannot recruit indiscriminately: new members, we have learned, should be approximately the same age as current members and at a similar career stage, if possible. The presence of one tenured member in the early years proved to be a problem, especially since he was in the same department as one of our founding, untenured members. And these days, when all of the professorial members have tenure, we do not seek to recruit younger, untenured persons.
Moreover, personal compatibility with club participants is crucial. Throughout the SPCC's existence we have regularly invited guests to our gatherings. The host can always invite someone of his or her choosing, and if the cook is given sufficient notice others can bring guests as well. We use the vehicle of a casual invitation to survey potential members in addition to simply bringing new faces to our table. How the person fits into the group dynamic is of critical importance. The club can be intimidating--for a stranger, attendance at our meals must be a bewildering experience, since we often speak in a sort of shorthand born from years of close acquaintance with each other's concerns and problems. Still, since there is no way to vote a member out, we must have a chance to assess each potential participant at least once at a club dinner before extending an invitation to join the group.
Compatibility does not necessarily imply harmony or consensus. SPCC dinners are occasionally punctuated by heated arguments over politics, economics, or some other controversial topic. One long-time member and I not infrequently engaged in passionate debates. Once a guest was present on one such evening. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the appalled look on the guest's face. I hastened to assure him--as did my debating partner--that this was a common occurrence, that we would remain friends despite our evidently angry words, and then we went back to our "discussion." On the other hand, boorish behavior is difficult to tolerate. Once we had a member who did not know when to stop arguing and who, on one infamous evening, was thrown out of the host's house because he insisted that he, rather than the host's daughter, should determine what channel the house's TV set was tuned to (he wanted to follow the progress of a football game; the little girl, understandably, did not). Fortunately, he later decided to drop out of the group.
Unlike him, most people who have joined the SPCC have continued as members until they married or left town or both. Former cooking club members teach today at such universities as Iowa, Princeton, and Carnegie Mellon, and one is now a youthful retiree from a university presidency. Very few past members are still single and still in Ithaca. One such person dropped out primarily because she joined a local musical ensemble that frequently rehearsed or performed on Sunday evenings. The SPCC, at the insistence of one of its founding male members, has a "grandmother" clause: a participant in the club can continue as a member even after marriage (or the establishment of a nonmarital live-in partnership). Several members-including two current ones-have taken advantage of this rule, which requires them to come alone to club dinners except when they are cooking, in which case their partners are allowed to attend under the "guest" rule.
Over the past two decades the club's character and activities have changed, yet always within the established framework of regular dinners. In the 1970s club members rarely saw each other as a group outside of SPCC meetings and did little else than eat together. In the early 1980s one member loved to dance and often persuaded us to go dancing as a group. Another member had an outdoor jacuzzi that we would all jump into before dinner at his house. In the mid-1980s an SPCC participant spent a year in Florence; four of us descended on him there during spring break. Joint trips to summer houses owned by members or their families have led to days-long socializing and pleasant memories.
These days the host, who still cooks and cleans up, is no longer expected to supply all the wine for dinner; most attendees bring a bottle, though skipping that chore on occasion is perfectly acceptable. Now, too, the timing of meals is relaxed, and we come expecting to spend the evening together. Although sometimes members must arrive late or leave early because of other commitments, the rest of the group always finds such dinners disappointing because we look forward to several hours in each other's company.
(Continue reading here for Part 3. Part 1 is here.)
About Mary Beth Norton:
The author of this history of the singles' cooking club, Mary Beth Norton, is a chaired professor of history at Cornell University. If I were to list all of her honors and awards, this section might just run longer than the post. (You can find some of the details here and here.) So I'll refrain from reiterating the full honor roll, and just mention a few of my favorite things about her. First, her book, Founding Mothers & Fathers, was one of three finalists for the 1997 Pulitzer Prize in History. Second, when I was writing this, I remembered seeing her name in the New York Times a few times, so I typed her name into the complete archives to remind myself of what I had read, and got 76 listings in return! She has appeared there in sections such as the op-ed page and the books section (both as a reviewer and an author). Third, she appeared on an NBC show to tell Sarah Jessica Parker that she has a family link to the Salem Witch Trials. (What, you don't think that's on a par with a Pulitzer Prize?)