The Feast of Friendship

Gourmet NightAll photos by Adrianne Mathiowetz.

Local women meet monthly to try recipes and build community

The tables are covered in butcher paper that’s tied on with blue-and-white strings, just like the boxes that come from Mike’s Pastry in Harvard Square. There are many flavors of Polar seltzer, bottled by the Crowley family of Worcester. And soon, more than a dozen friends from all over Greater Boston will converge on Emerald Miller’s home in Somerville, bearing dishes that originated in or were inspired by Boston, the city she loves so much.

For six years, Miller has been part of Gourmet Night, a group of women that meets every month to try new, gourmet dishes based upon a common theme. It’s the host’s prerogative to choose it, and for December Miller chose Boston—because in January, her family is moving to Kansas City, where her husband, Josh, is starting a new job.

“It’s bittersweet, leaving Boston,” says Miller from her kitchen, an aromatic spiced cider simmering on the stove. “I love this place.”

Thus the Mike’s Pastry table dressing, an homage to her favorite local bakery. And the Polar water, which she was relieved to learn can be bought locally in Kansas City. And the friends: Women she’s come to know and love as she’s shared a table with them month after month, year after year, trying new cuisines and new techniques.

“On my checklist for leaving Boston, this gourmet night was No. 1,” Miller says. “It’s a good way to say goodbye to people I’m close to.”

Gourmet Night was started in March 2010 by three Cambridge friends—Malia Morris, Jen Smith, and Alicia Galbraith. In fact, it was Morris, who now lives in California, who invited Miller to her first dinner in 2012. She says the group “just sort of happened naturally.”

“We all liked to cook individually, and had been a part of dinner clubs before,” she says, “but we were looking for something a little more tailored, a little more technical.”

What they found was also special, says Morris, because while she’s tried to start up similar groups in other cities since leaving Cambridge, they never quite took off.

“I think the sort of magic thing about the Boston group is that it’s really founded first on friendship,” she says. “It’s ultimately a place for women to come and be in a safe place and be creative—the food is a great byproduct of it.”

Gourmet Night

Over the years, members of Gourmet Night have picnicked on top of the Tufts University library, cooked in the MIT basement common room, and held a Harry Potter-themed dinner in the dining hall of Harvard’s Dunster House. In honor of Valentine’s Day, each February they invite their husbands to come to Gourmet Night—and feature themes like Flirtations and Made For Each Other. They have ventured to Italy, Mexico, Spain, the southern United States, and other regions of the world; tackled challenges like allergen-free recipes or dishes that can be made in 30 minutes with on-hand ingredients; and esoteric themes like hipster food and … toast.

If this sounds like just the thing you’ve been looking for, well, we’re afraid Gourmet Night will have to RSVP its regrets—they’re full up. However, Miller is quick to say that anyone interested in bringing friends together to step up their culinary game should follow @BostonGourmetNight on Instagram to ask questions about how they can go about starting their own club.

“We’d love to share our tips on themes and guidelines to make a successful Gourmet Night,” Miller says. “I only say that because … I think we’ve reached a maximum. I don’t know if our Boston apartments can fit much more.”

For December’s Boston night, the members didn’t go for low-hanging fruit like cream pie or baked beans. The menu is remarkably varied, and as each dish is introduced, its cook is eager to talk about what they made and why.

“I brought some crab cakes, which are only loosely associated with Boston … but it’s a very forgiving crowd,” says Zanny Perrino, who lives in Reading.

Her crab cake recipe doesn’t include eggs, so she warns the group that they’ll be crumbly, and she says the sauce of avocado and habanero pepper “tastes like frosting, but is actually good with crab cakes.” And you know what? That’s exactly how it comes across: Creamy and sweet, but with a hint of warmth that really complements the crab.

B. Swain, who lives in Arlington, created a boysenberry, beet, and blackberry salad inspired by fresh ingredients from farmers markets. She roasted the beets in a salt mound with horseradish, orange zest, and thyme from her garden. It was served on a bed of quinoa with crushed pistachio, and offered a remarkable medley of flavors.

“The thing I loved from the beginning is being pushed to expand my culinary skills,” says Swain, who was invited to her first Gourmet Night eight years ago. “I wanted to learn how to do pastries, create cream sauces. Every time I go, someone brings something new to the table—there’s something to learn.”

It was just the second Gourmet Night for Lauren Neeleman, who recently moved from Utah to Belmont and was invited by her roommate, Jeralee Johnson. Neeleman brought lobster mac ’n’ cheese with four cheeses and a homemade sauce.

“I love food and having an excuse to make gourmet food,” she says. “The last time I made a kale and wild rice salad. The secret is massaging the kale by hand.”

Johnson’s contribution was a focaccia inspired by Not Your Average Joe’s, with two dipping sauces: one with olive oil, parmesan, garlic, herbs, and red pepper flakes, the other a peach melba jam with raspberries.

Gourmet NightJohnson says her first impression of Gourmet Night was that “this is a bunch of moms who want someone to appreciate their food.” And that sentiment gets quick support from several other members. Husbands and kids, it seems, don’t always notice when you’ve mastered a new technique or discovered a creative ingredient substitution.

But during this dinner, everyone is effusive with their praise of each dish, and full of questions about how it was made. For Swain, “This is a moment to shine and be praised by your peers.”

Peers and, more importantly, good friends. Each woman who walks through the door adds to a growing emotional warmth, and everyone wants their turn to give Miller a hug and tell her how much they’ll miss her.

“I will fly to Kansas City to have you do my hair,” says Rachael Young as soon as she walks in, adding, “She’s the only person I let cut my hair.”

Young has brought salmon poached in thyme milk, served with watercress oil and confit radishes in a reduced balsamic glaze. It’s her fifth year of Gourmet Night, and she loves it.

“It’s a fun way not only to get together with women we love to see, but cooking something I don’t normally cook on a day-to-day basis,” Young says. “It’s a way to push myself a little more than I would.”

Every dish, from Ashley Dickson’s roasted balsamic cranberry and brie crostini to Julie Haun’s stuffed quahogs, is met with enthusiasm and undisguised interest. The Polar seltzer water flows and the conversation never abates, save for when someone is telling the story behind her dish. As it nears 10 p.m., Emerald Miller closes out her final Gourmet Night dinner with chocolate macarons and orange scones. But it may not actually be the last time these passionate cooks get together.

“We’re hoping to schedule a reunion in 10 years, and invite everyone who’s ever come,” she says. “We have people in Florida, in California…”

And, as of January, in Kansas City.

This story originally appeared in the Free Time Fervor issue of Scout Somerville, which is available for free at more than 200 locations throughout the city or by subscription.

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