Saturday, 21 July 2007

Food group nourishes need for culinary adventure, friendship

Food group nourishes need for culinary adventure, friendship

DIANNA MARDER The Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA — The table is set in traditional Asian fashion: at floor level, with brightly patterned silk pillows for guests to sit upon, a single orchid tucked in the fold of each cloth napkin, and red-lacquered chopsticks.

Lest we shudder at the prospect of sitting cross-legged for three hours while inadvertently dropping our dumplings, the host announces what she sees as the evening’s challenge:

“We’re having 12 courses tonight (miso gazpacho served in champagne flutes, smoked salmon crostini, sake, and so much more) and I’m eager to see who will be the first to recognize the Korean jellyfish,” says Min Kim.

“See if you can taste which dish it’s in.”

Ah, but this group loves a challenge.

This is Forking Delicious, a casual club of seven women in their 30s and 40s who meet monthly at one another’s homes for themed meals, with everyone contributing a concoction. On this warm spring night, they are gathered in the Huntingdon Valley home where Min, 33, a public school teacher with a penchant for pastries, lives with her parents.

The women — who were, for the most part, strangers to one another — came together through an online posting two years ago. Their ZIP codes were compatible and their chemistry immediately evident. Now they marvel at the alchemy that brought them together and the strength they draw from one another.

“The older you get, the fewer and farther between close friendships are,” says Kathy Simon, 47, of Riverton. She had just returned to this area after 20 years in San Francisco when she saw the online notice about a food group forming.

“And looking back,” Kathy says, “it seems to me we were each thirsting for an outlet.”

Three have favorite charities, and the others lend their time to help cater fundraisers for those causes. For Min, it’s women’s business development; Kathy supports a gallery for emerging artists; and Donna gives to a group that helps children with HIV/AIDS.

“We are there for each other as sous chefs, business planners, sounding boards and cheerleaders,” Kathy says.

Between monthly sessions, the women get together in twos or threes to attend a launch party for a new restaurant or a tasting. They seem to talk, in person or by e-mail, all the time. And when the conversation turns to a particular dish or technique, the phrase that comes up most often is: “My mom did that.”

Their Web site,, catalogs each month’s recipes. And it features a journal — the “Food Diaries” — where the women reflect on lessons learned at life’s table.
In early spring, about a month before this evening’s gathering, Min wrote in the online diary:
“I was not surprised when my mom announced that she was not working on her vegetable garden this Spring-Summer.

“She has recently had knee replacement surgery, and our family was relieved to hear that she was taking it easy. But I must admit that I was a bit sad. And this took me by surprise.”
Every year Min’s mother, Young Kim, 79, planted scallions, onions, sweet velvety eggplant, and more in the small backyard garden she tended with the efficiency and sensibility of a farmer.
“Every day around 4 p.m., I would see my mom and dad picking ingredients to prepare for dinner,” Min wrote. “Now when I look out the window and see the bare garden, I appreciate my mother’s gifts even more.”

Min’s friends were quick to respond.

“Maybe we could put in part of your mom’s garden for her?” Kathy offered.
Lesu Ali, 36, who says she learned about loss and longing for family when she was in the U.S. Navy, offered help.

“When my mom came to visit a few years ago, it was so nice to see her point out this or that in my backyard and cluck and coo,” Lesu wrote in the food diaries. “Since then, we can actually talk on the phone about my progress, or lack of, and problems, and her little suggestions you never read about in magazines.”

Lesu’s message touched something in Dana Greene, 45, a former pastry chef whose membership in the group provides an excuse to make Marjolaine cake or macerated pears and grapes in a champagne sabayon.

“Lesu, you reminded me to pay attention to the loving words that sometimes flow from my mom,” Dana wrote. “I hold them dear. If you want help in the garden, Min, count me in. And I’ll bring my mom.”

Min knew her mother was too private a person to accept the group’s generosity.
“She would start to think she could be easily replaced,” Min said. “But I was thrilled that they offered to help. It was one of those things that just touches your heart.”

Still, the women were eager to meet her mother.

In the Kim family home, guests are expected to leave their shoes at the door, in a freestanding mahogany closet custom-made for that purpose.

Min’s mother blushes as one after another of the group members greet her by bowing and inquiring about her health. Then, certain that Min and her friends have all they need, the elderly woman retreats into her bedroom for the night.

Min pours cups of green tea made from whole leaves of the first harvest from a friend’s garden. Then she serves chilled miso gazpacho in champagne flutes. The taste is surprisingly savory, like stuffing.

Lesu has made smoked salmon crostini. And now she pours the first of what will be many glasses of sake. Lesu went to a sake tasting that month and has brought quite an array.
“Wee ha yeo!” Min declares, lifting her glass in a traditional toast of “cheers.”

The feast seems endless: salmon sushi; Shanghai dumplings; tofu with bok choy, mushrooms and thin slices of lotus root; herb-encrusted salmon in citrus sauce, with fennel, cumin and coriander from Kathy’s garden; a salad of julienned carrots, cucumbers and — there it is — jellyfish with Korean horseradish. And we discover that like chicken, jellyfish seems to take on the flavors of nearby ingredients. It’s easy on the palate.

For dessert there is passion-fruit creme brulee with lychee jelly and coconut panna cotta in a phyllo shell. And between bites, the women chat about their coming trip. In mid-September, all seven (plus friends) are traveling to Italy, where they’ve rented a farmhouse on a hillside in Umbria. (Kathy lived there for a time and has connections that will make the trip affordable for all.)

They plan to visit cheese makers, bakers and olive growers, tour boutique wineries in nearby Orvieto, buy fruits and fish in open-air markets, and cook together.

The Thursday of their week-long trip will be marked with a wedding: Donna is marrying her longtime partner, James Kane.

The trip has taken on such a feel of family celebration that Min even persuaded her mother to come along to mark her 80th birthday.

“Forking Delicious evolved at the right place and the right time for each of us,” Kathy says. “We’ve never forced it. If it had not jelled correctly, we are strong enough women that we would have walked away. But here we are.”

“We are there for each other as sous chefs, business planners, sounding boards and cheerleaders.”

Kathy Simon
47, of Riverton, Pa.

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