Cooking Is A Side Dish

Date July 31, 2005 at 10:00 PM

Categories Health & Beauty


If, on the third Saturday of every month, Santa Fe seems a little duller, it is because nine of its most vibrant women have cloistered themselves for a communal, multi-course, haute-libation feast. It's called Gourmets de Santa Fe, and no, Francine, they aren't looking for any new members.

Each woman spends the day shopping and cooking so as to bring their particular piece of the culinary whole to the rotating table, but after the courses are plated, they dress up. They put on makeup. They kiss good-bye fractious children, strained-smiling husbands, resigned or crestfallen boyfriends, and zoom off in their cars, bats out of domestic hell, heading for ladies' night nirvana. True ladies' night, not one peppered with louche lotharios and pounding house beats.

Meet Jessica Cavalli-Murray and Suzanne Valenzuela, founders of the dinner club. Jessica, high school Spanish teacher, mother of two, hostess extraordinaire, and all around dynamo, participated in a cooking group in Albuquerque that fell apart because there wasn't enough structure. So she and Suzanne, who was already professionally involved in the culinary arts via her cake-baking business, Total Dulce, drafted an airtight charter and approved it with another early convert, Patty Romero, the International Sales and Media Relations Manager for the state tourism department.

The rules were simple. Each night should be a challenge for all involved. The hostess role rotates through the group on a monthly basis, and she selects the themed menu, assigns recipes, cooks the main course, and coordinates that night.

"And recipes fail sometimes,"€ said Missy Wolf, a multimedia artist. "But no one has ever said, "€˜No, I can't make this recipe.'"€ The following month, the woman who hosted last time is in charge of the cocktail, which gives her a chance to coast after that big expenditure of effort. The food courses are paired with wines provided by Jessica's husband, Dan Murray, an owner of Boutique Wine and Spirits.

Another component is the secretary position, which rotates every six months, "Although it's always me, Missy and Suzanne,"€ Jessica says with a smile. "We don't force members to do that if they're not drawn to it."€ And they vote on decisions, like the recent one to keep the group all female, all the time.

The first three members, friends since high school, enlisted more old pals in the endeavor. Those who are still around today include Christina Gutierrez, bilingual elementary school teacher; Zoe Migel, a director of early autism intervention; Nicole Curtis, General Manager of the Santa Fe School of Cooking, and Raney St. Peter, who just got back from a hiatus in Manhattan. A recent adoptee, Mimi Ponchione, is an elementary school art teacher who was nominated by Christina.

To be in the presence of the gourmet gals is to be instantly enveloped in their buoyant world of female bonding at its best. There are many words spoken in italics. A lot of one-liners pronounced to guffaws, shorthand references to private jokes that gain more life and mileage with each retelling. Each person, from the garrulous to the reserved, is yielded the floor to speak, share, recollect-with lots of attention, active listening, and respect paid before everyone dissolves back into the giggly, tuned-in whole. Or, as Missy says, "the pack mentality-we feed off that."€

Over the years, some evenings have been hits and some courses have been misses. Best ones: the Frida Kahlo cookbook night, Murder Mystery nights, a Southern picnic with croquet, a Geronimo menu, tapas, and a Manhattan theme. And what was a miss?

"Hairy balls!"€ several women chime together, with equal parts horror and hilarity. Those coconut-stuffed limes just did not win any admirers.

"And my hockey pucks,"€ confessed Zoe, "They were supposed to be gougères, made out of cornmeal, blue cheese, grapes and piñon nuts. But they came out dense as rocks."€

In spite of all of the culinary Iron Cheffing going on, for this group, "cooking is a side dish."€

"In traditional societies,"€ Christina says, "women socialize naturally. They make baskets. They give birth together. For us, that's been lost. We've been placed in male roles that lead us to compete with each other. In dinner club, we get back to basics, talk about important issues in our lives. We get together after four weeks, and I feel like I've seen these women two hours ago."€

"We don't compete,"€ says Patty. "The way our group is structured, we realize how powerful we are working together. I cherish their opinions so much, and they've really helped me to grow into myself, and to make the switch in careers from restaurant management to working in government."€

"It's my time to realize that I am so lucky to have what I do,"€ Jessica says. "I go through periods in my life where I take things for granted, and this group reminds me of what I have. Single members, married women without kids, married women with kids-we remind each other of the enviable parts of what we each have, when we are too settled in our views."€

"It allows us to step out of our lives, it's a little vacation,"€ Suzanne says.

"It's a therapy session,"€ says Mimi. "And as the newest member, it's been such a privilege for me to be here."€

"I remember that I called once from a car wash, pregnant, overdue eight days with my daughter, crying and overwhelmed, and I said I couldn't come to that night's dinner,"€ says Nicole. "I didn't think I could get through it, but everyone insisted that I come, and I did, and it made me feel so much better."€

"Everyone in this group is really unique, powerful and smart,"€ says Zoe. "We're committed to each other, and we have a blast. And this is new for me. I've not hung out with women in my life, up to this point."€

"It's a monthly date-we dress up-it's our church!"€ says Missy. "In the past year and a half, I've been asking myself, who am I? And in talking to these girls, I became inspired to do a short film called the Enchilada Monologues, where I interviewed the women in the group, and I found out that we were all in the same boat; searching and growing. Everyone opened up to me, and I realized-I can trust these women. We've known each other since second, third grade, some of us, and we're still growing up together."€

Up at the Opera parking lot on a recent Friday night, the Gourmets are in full tailgate swing. A table for eight is laid out with colorful linens, candles, a tropical flower centerpiece, and ginger fever cocktails. Spicy tuna wrapped in cucumber slices and dolloped with chile mayonnaise jockey with jicama and green papaya summer rolls and spicy cold soba noodles on brightly colored plates. The theme is Asian, to go with Puccini's Turandot, and the wines are German, so as to hold their own with the bold flavors. Boutique Wines' Nigl Gruner Veltliner and Darting Riesling Kabinett race across the palate, heightening the effect of the gorgeous scenery and excellent company.

It's impossible to spend time with this group without feeling wistful for a corollary group of one's own. I am not in the minority when I note that I and my high school friends are scattered to the four winds, and my family moved too much for me to possibly be in touch with anyone I met in second grade. My college girlfriends did land in Manhattan with me for our twenties, which led to a lot of clubby nights out, hangover cure breakfasts, and faithful participation in showers, weddings, baby holding-but I moved on again, this time with my husband, to this high desert town filled with so many other folk who hail from elsewhere.

This Gourmet group is like a relic from another time; one that by some fluke has been sheltered by forces of nature like relocation, disposable histories, disconnect and "falling out of touch."€ We can warm our hands at their fire, and then take that warmth and build something lasting for ourselves, because it's like the nebulous term that a lot of people throw around without any concrete knowledge-true community.