Food

Food Club brings longtime friends back to the table

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One Saturday night in May 1964, a group of friends from UCLA and their wives gathered together for a dinner that whimsically celebrated the French Revolution. There were crepes, fromages, French wines and true Champagne.

It was so much fun they decided to do it again the following month. And the month after that.

Now they're getting ready to celebrate their 45th year of regular monthly meals. And still they show absolutely no sign of slowing down.

"There's really never been any question," says Arlene Anderson, 72, of Northridge. She said she and her husband, Jim, 77, both retired LAUSD teachers, "just do it, and we'll keep on doing it as long as we can."

What started as a way to save money and practice new cooking skills evolved over the years into a gathering of gourmands who look forward to their turn at playing host and putting on lavish spreads, some with printed menus, seating assignments and an array of wines, liquors and aperitifs to complement the cuisine.

Yes, Food Club is certainly about the food. But it's also about something more. In a place like Southern California, where people seem to change addresses, hair styles and spouses with the same level of ease, the friends who give shape to Food Club have stuck by one another through a lifetime of milestones.

They graduated from college together. Got married. And launched careers, mostly in education. Collectively, they welcomed 14 children, all rambunctious boys until the very last one who, finally, was their little princess.

They've shared their highs and lows. When Jerry Samuelson, 76, became the dean of the arts college at Cal State Fullerton in 1976, the rest of the group raised a glass in his honor. And they'll do the same when he retires later this year.

The group sent their kids off to college. Commiserated when the gray hairs began to show. Grappled with the death of parents, as well as two of their original members. They welcomed grandchildren together. And got just a bit grayer.

One of their proudest achievements as a group?

Not a divorce in the bunch.

And they don't believe that that's a coincidence.

"Food is the tie, the cement that ties us all together," says David Jay, 75, a retired educator.

Where it began

It's hard to say how a group like this starts, but it probably would have been with Jim Anderson and Paul Iffrig, now 78, of San Gabriel. They've been friends since they were boys growing up in the Pasadena area. The pair went to UCLA and soon became friends with Samuelson, Jay, Philip Nassief, now 79, as well as the late Bob Lyons and Harley Broyles.

In the beginning, the seven college chums would save up their money and splurge at a new L.A. restaurant once a month.

Then, one by one, they began marrying off. (It was a given that the men would bring all serious prospects before the group. Afterward, they would compare notes about whether she was a "keeper" or not.)

With marriage came tighter fiscal budgets. Someone came up with the idea of sharing hosting duties as a way to save money.

And in May 1964, that first Food Club dinner was hosted at the home of the Jays, then newlyweds. The first few gatherings were much more casual -- money was tight, and many were just learning how to cook.

But it wasn't long before skills took off (given the era, read: Wives got better in the kitchen), salaries blossomed and, no surprise, a spirit of friendly competition took over and meals became a bit fancier.

Food Club requires a disciplined approach: Each June, members pick a host date and then stick to it. (In the early years, that also meant getting a baby-sitter -- these dinners were strictly adults only, though infants got a pass.)

It averages out to everyone hosting one dinner per year. Another date is set aside for a Christmas potluck, with those hosting duties also rotating among members. And after the UCLA-USC football game each fall, members dine together at an L.A.-area restaurant. The group takes summers off, to accommodate travel.

You might think that after 45 years this group would run out of things to talk about. You'd be wrong. They've found the conversation grows richer with each passing year.

Apparently, no one told them that politics and religion are supposed to be off-limits for the dinner table. Every topic is up for grabs at Food Club if for no other reason than members want to know what their friends are thinking.

Some of the members are registered Republicans, some are Democrats. One member, Lynn Jay, 68, is an Episcopal priest at St. Stephen's in Santa Clarita. Others aren't religious at all.

"We allow each other to be who we are," Jay says.

There's another topic that always gets put on the table: the food.

This is a group that is serious about cooking and honing their skills. Members aren't surprised to sit down to crown roast of pork -- finished off with white paper ruffles -- or coquilles St. Jacques.

Last month, the menu was loosely German in theme. There were handcrafted German cheeses served with crackers, two types of gougères, and kielbasa sliced on the bias and simmered in a stout barbecue sauce. For the main course: sauerbraten and potato pancakes served with braised red cabbage and apples. An impressive Bavarian cream finished off the meal.

"I hope everyone likes it," said Nancy Iffrig, 77, of San Gabriel, who used a silver dinner bell to summon her guests to the table. "But if they don't," she said laughing, "I just know I'll hear about it."

Certainly, everyone is honest about the results in a way that only lifelong friends can be.

If there was an award for absolute worst dish ever, the lighthearted consensus would undoubtedly be for the Brazilian avocado cream that Arlene Anderson once made for dessert. And she is the first one to admit it.

"It looked beautiful. But it was ghastly," Anderson says. "It was the most obnoxious dessert we've ever had." (It is a sign of the dish's infamy, and the club's longevity, that it was served in the 1960s but is still spoken of as if it were just last month.)

What's for dinner?

Recipes come from all corners including cookbooks and favorite magazines such as Gourmet and Bon Appetit. And everyone plans their menus just a bit differently.

Some plot it all out weeks, if not months in advance. Some try their dishes out on "guinea pig" friends before determining whether it's good enough for Food Club.

Others wing it: "I make it and I serve it and if it's good, it's good and if it's not, it's not," says Anderson, who then dryly reflected that a trial run might have prevented the Brazilian avocado cream debacle.

Food Club members almost never make the same thing twice -- it's just a point of pride.

There is one noted exception. In the early years of Food Club, the Lebanese-born Nassiefs would serve up Middle Eastern delicacies such as ground lamb kibbe, roasted lamb shoulder, homemade pita bread and tabbouleh made with cracked wheat that came "from the old country" because the kind found in local supermarkets just didn't stack up.

Then one year, Katie and Philip Nassief abruptly changed the menu, wanting instead to experiment and try new things.

There was a revolt.

And a compromise: The Nassiefs' Middle Eastern feast must be served, in full, every other year.

There is one other tradition that must be obeyed. Whenever a member turns 70 he or she is "honored" with a most unusual hand-made gift: a piece of driftwood fashioned into a . . . well, let's just say it bears some vague resemblance to a duck wearing red lipstick. The ungainly souvenir is the recipient's to keep until the next member turns 70. (Members range in age from 63 to 79.)

So, in 45 years, hasn't there ever been a fight? Or a clique? Or a splinter group? Nope. "We really like each other," says Nancy Lyons, 63, of Irvine.

Democracy in action

On the rare occasion when a serious disagreement erupts among group members, it's decided by a vote. And votes must be unanimous.

There was talk awhile back of making dinner earlier -- say, a 4:30 or 5 p.m. start to accommodate those who don't like driving at night, especially since they don't live anywhere near one another. (They hail from the San Fernando Valley, Irvine, San Gabriel, Santa Clarita and Fullerton.)

Another proposal was to do away with Saturday nights altogether and opt instead for a Sunday brunch.

Votes were taken, but they weren't unanimous.

Certainly, there have been some subtle concessions to age. Once in a while, salad is served in a bowl at the table, instead of the host plating 11 servings in the kitchen. And the alcohol consumption certainly isn't what it used to be.

But, for now, Food Club continues to be a full-fledged Saturday night affair. For how long, no one knows for sure, or cares to speculate. Instead, they just look forward to the next gathering of a family that hand-picked itself.

And to those friends, relatives and colleagues who are still trying to wheedle an invitation to the fun, please don't bother.

This club is closed to newcomers.

"We don't want to expand it," says Katie Nassief, 78. "You have to honor the fact that this was a group that we started from the very beginning. We've nurtured this thing along. It started out that way and it will end that way.

"Besides," she says, "someone who came in really wouldn't understand."

rene.lynch@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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