Singles’ Club, Part 3: How to Maintain a Successful Cooking Club for 39 Years

Keys to a successful singles’ group not about dating

Posted Jan 06, 2011

Maybe the best foods are the ones we share with friends.

[This is the 3rd and final part of the story of the singles' cooking club that has been ongoing for nearly four decades. Here, prize-winning historian Mary Beth Norton reveals the three keys to the group's success. (I think I like the last sentence best of all.) Part 1 is here and Part 2 is here. You can read more about Professor Norton at the end of this post. Many thanks to her for her generosity in sharing this story and all of her insights.]

The Single Professors' Cooking Collective (SPCC): A History (Part 3)

By Mary Beth Norton

What has made the Single Professors' Cooking Collective so successful, so able to survive as an institution despite many changes of individual membership? Three basic rules have guided us, above all the rest.

First, members must have a genuine commitment to the club. The SPCC will put up with many things, including occasionally obnoxious behavior on the part of individual members, but it cannot tolerate lack of commitment. This means that if members are in town, they are expected to attend club dinners, and to turn down conflicting invitations or obligations. If one cannot attend, he or she is expected to inform the host well in advance. In the mid-1980s, we knew we had made a mistake in recruitment when a new member kept forgetting club meetings. For a year or so in the late 1980s, the desire to have all members present for each meal led to erratic scheduling, as we tried to accommodate people's other social and professional obligations. Intervals between club dinners grew longer and longer, until we finally reassessed the situation and established the current practice of meeting every third Sunday. That schedule can be flexible, with the intervals shortening or lengthening to account for the academic calendar or weeks when more people than usual will be unavailable, but the assumption of a three-week interval remains in place.

Second, the host must serve good food and plenty of it. One of the first SPCC rules, still observed, is that gourmet cuisine is not required. There are no contests for cooking dominance in the club. Although a couple of our members have used club dinners as an excuse for preparing elaborate meals, complete with homemade desserts, the rest of us have felt no need to do the same. That was their choice. If someone else chooses (as did an early male member) to order a beef roast cooked at a local deli, and to serve it along with baked potatoes and salad, with ice cream for dessert, no one complains. Everyone is sympathetic, rather than censorious, when the occasional disaster occurs--when the cook forgets to turn on the oven, or something burns or takes far longer to cook than anticipated, or a recipe never tried before turns out to have some unexpected property that renders it less than totally appealing. In such cases the cook might be the target of gentle jokes at subsequent dinners, but since it happens to all of us, no one goes too far. 

A less forgiveable offense is not having enough food. New participants do not have to cook until they have eaten at everyone else's house, but even so first meals at a new member's house are sometimes an adventure. Once the host miscounted and had set too few places at the table. He had correspondingly little food, and the older members were glad when a few weeks later he announced that he had decided not to continue in the club. Yet such events are not always the host's fault. One year a new member turned out to have a huge appetite, and it took a while to project how much food would adequately supply a group that included him. 

Third, the club observes an incest taboo. This rule is difficult for outsiders to understand, and yet it is, we believe, responsible for the club's continued success. Married couples and newly single people assume that a single person's most important aim is to find a partner. That may well be true, but we also need to find ways to live as single people rather than as potentially married ones. The SPCC does not supply a way to meet possible romantic partners. The current members joke that we are in the group together because we have all rejected each other as possible dates. Since no one in the cooking club has any special emotional investment in anyone else in the group, discussions can be particularly frank, free-floating, and uninhibited.

The importance of this rule was demonstrated when it was violated in the 1970s. Two members announced that they were dating, then that they had decided to live together. For a year both participated in the club, following the usual procedures, except that we ate at their house more often than at anyone else's, since two members lived there.  Near the end of the academic year the relationship collapsed, with all the emotional fallout that one would expect to occur in connection with such an event. Since a sizable proportion of the original members were simultaneously planning their first sabbatical leaves, the club simply dissolved, thereby avoiding the problem of having to choose between two equally valued members. 

The incest taboo was deliberately violated by the club when, in its renewed form, it sought to recruit men in 1980. One member was then dating a man who joined the group, but with the proviso--which everyone understood--that both would remain members regardless of what happened to their relationship. In the event, they broke up but both also continued congenially as members for several years. These two violations of the rule, one deliberate and successful, one unplanned and destructive, have firmly convinced the current members of the importance of observing the taboo.

Trying to explain this policy to a guest, one female member once remarked that if we had to choose between observing the incest taboo and a possible dating relationship, it was really no contest: the SPCC, after all, has existed for more than two decades. Not many marriages today last as long. Dates come and go, but the cooking club remains an important part of all our lives.

(Part 1 is here and Part 2 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?)