39 Years and Counting: The Joy of the Singles’ Cooking Club (Part 1)
The singles club that has outlasted most marriages
Posted Jan 05, 2011
If you love food, friends, and camaraderie, and if you would like to hear the story of a club for singles that has nothing to do with dating and has lasted nearly four decades (and is still going strong), you are going to love this guest essay. It was contributed by the renowned historian Mary Beth Norton, one of the founding members of the club. (You can read more about her at the end of each of the 3 parts of this post.) I was so delighted when she agreed to let me share her essay with all of you. It is lengthy - that's why I'm posting it in 3 parts - and I think you will savor every morsel. The essay was written in 2004. As of 2011, the club still has the same number of women and men that it did then.
The Single Professors' Cooking Collective (SPCC): A History (Part 1)
The 2002-2003 academic year marked the thirtieth anniversary of the founding of the Cornell SPCC --the Single Professors' Cooking Collective, known more simply as "the cooking club." A sociologist, our founding mother, had the insight that led to its founding: Single people need families too. The first members of the SPCC in 1972 were a miscellaneous group of her male and female friends, all assistant professors who had been at Cornell only a year or two. Fearing the disdain of department secretaries who would take telephone messages about meeting times for a "cooking club," we coined the name SPCC for ourselves and, around others, referred to the group only by its initials. As a historian and the only founding member of the group still active in it, I have become its informal chronicler. This is our story.
Initially, we met twice a week (Mondays and Thursdays) for dinner at each other's apartments. The rules were rigid: dinner was served at 6:30, whether or not everyone had arrived; people could leave shortly after 8; the cook supplied all food and drink and did all the work. The rule most frequently broken forbade the use of the dreaded "T" word: tenure. No member of the original group was tenured, and we tried without success to keep our obsession with that goal out of our conversations. Finally, we lifted the ban, but charged a 25-cent fine to anyone who brought up the subject. At the end of the first year, the proceeds paid for a superb bottle of wine when we went out to dinner together at a nearby French restaurant.
Today the rules are not nearly so strict and the membership of the group is almost completely different. Yet the character of the SPCC remains intact and the institution still serves the same function. The cooking club, which for the past several years has met every third Sunday evening during the academic year, continues to be a place to share with good friends the trials and triumphs of the period since our last get-together, to discuss the latest campus issues, to debate local and national politics, or to ask for advice on a variety of topics (from investments to home repairs to coping with difficult colleagues).
The SPCC serves most importantly as a source of crucial support for us all. The club has seen its members through positive and negative tenure and promotion decisions; through the break-up of personal relationships; through illnesses and crises; through difficult departmental battles; and through the many struggles involved with writing, rewriting, and publishing books and articles. The club helped one member survive the trauma of her husband's murder and another live through a long period of unemployment. The club has also hosted happy occasions--announcements of weddings, book publication parties, birthday observances, and promotion celebrations.
The club has no formal rule of confidentiality, but, as would members of a family, participants in the SPCC observe considerable discretion when speaking with outsiders about other members' disclosures. A woman who revealed that as a teenager she had been a baton twirler for an NFL team located near her home town, for example, was concerned lest her older male colleagues learn about her past and use that knowledge to discount her publication record when she was considered for tenure. Members know that they can complain at length about a colleague or a university administrator, and that what they say will not be repeated outside the group.
At the moment the SPCC has eight members, five women and three men. Three decades of experience has shown us that eight or nine is the ideal number. Any more than that, and cooking becomes too much of a chore; any fewer than five, and it's hardly worth the effort to prepare an elaborate meal. Since we all now lead very active professional lives, at most meetings at least one person is absent, even though we moved our dinners to Sunday nights to minimize scheduling conflicts.
The current members are a university administrator, a former university financial officer, and professors of history, art history, veterinary medicine, and biology. The diversity of fields is deliberate. Again, years of experience have demonstrated that for the health of the group it is important to avoid having too many members in the same field or department. Two historians, two Renaissance scholars, two political scientists, two literature specialists each coexisted in the group at different times without overly annoying the others with shop talk. But when there were three social psychologists or three business-oriented professors the other members occasionally endured conversations that held little interest for them.
Likewise, we have learned that it is critical to have members of both sexes. The SPCC's history has not been continuous: there was a hiatus of three years (1977-1980) in its existence, for reasons I will explain later. When it reformed in 1980 at the instigation of a female member, she proposed an all-woman group. That configuration lasted exactly one semester. Having no men present changed the nature of the club dramatically, and in ways no one liked. So the core membership of five women quickly recruited three men, and ever since the SPCC has had a male contingent.
Maintaining an appropriate sex ratio is, though, a continuing problem. Many single men cringe at the thought of cooking regularly for a large group. Thus when we seek new members we always seem to have a plethora of female candidates and few possible males. For a time in the 1970s there was only one male member, one of our founders. We all agreed the situation led to poor group dynamics. To solve this problem we have occasionally recruited male participants from among visiting professors; and once we designated as an "honorary single person" a man whose wife commuted to another university. Neither solution was entirely satisfactory, for continuity of membership is one of the keys to our success.
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?)