Good reads — and eats

BY ELLIE S GROSSMAN

“Eating and reading are my two favorite things to do,” boasts Wendy Pace, a gourmet cook and avid reader who blends her culinary and literary passions into every aspect of her life. It’s only natural then that this 38-year-old Kirkwood mom of two, who is a local food broker and the wife of the director of the St. Louis County Library, coordinates a unique Jewish reading group called “Cook and Book,” which heats up regularly at Congregation Shaare Emeth in Creve Coeur.

A former caterer for a small temple in Fargo, N.D. — they call themselves “The Frozen Chosen” — Pace reads religiously, but not necessarily the Tanakh. She and her fellow “Cook and Book” bibliophiles devour everything from The Last Jew to Rashi’s Daughter. To spice things up, they prepare delicious delicacies that relate to the region of the book.

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For Noah Gordon’s The Last Jew, a historical fiction about the treatment of Jews during the Spanish Inquisition, a dozen women prepare authentic Cuban cuisine in the temple kitchen. The menu includes white beans with vinaigrette sauce, a potato tortilla that looks like a big latke, a flavorful tapas made of chickpeas and spinach and refreshing sangria garnished with sliced oranges and apples. Somehow red wine makes it easier to swallow the serious discussion about forced confessions and torture.

At another recent book talk on Margaret Anton’s popular series Rashi’s Daughters, which takes place in medieval France, the irresistible aroma of butter, onions and mushrooms fills the air and sets the mood for juicy conversation about the great Talmudic scholar. I feel like Rachael Ray when I fire up the commercial gas stove and warm the lemon-infused olive oil with fresh thyme to drizzle over raw vegetables for the light French appetizer, crudit és.

Meanwhile, Pace effortlessly uncorks the first bottle of Chardonnay and savors the moment as she sips the chilled wine from a plastic cup. “A warm feeling down the palate…fruity aftertaste…” she comments to herself and pours the fruit of the vine for the rest of us.

By the way, wine is an essential ingredient in “Cook and Book.” With a little alcohol, nobody seems to notice the overpowering taste of Dijon mustard in the otherwise delectable goat cheese and tomato tart.

“Book clubs provide a sense of community. Here we are coming together over a nice glass of wine and some good food to talk about a book. So often we pass each other on our way to services or dropping off our kids for Sunday school, and we don’t stop to say hi to each other. Book club allows us to stop and sit and just talk,” says Pace, who is looking for a book based in China so that she can do dim sum.

For Thelma Schrier, a 77-year-old retired English teacher who reads about two novels a month, “Cook and Book” is a learning experience.

“The book club is a great idea, even without the cooking part, and it’s interesting to have a Jewish bend to the reading. In Rashi’s Daughters, I’m amazed at how religion and superstition come together,” says Schrier as she nibbles on chicken-and-mushroom crepes.

Book clubs satisfy the appetites of avid readers like Schrier because Jewish women are, after all, among the “Nation of the Book.” In fact, intellectual pursuit has always played an important role in our culture, and Jews buy more books per capita than any other ethnic group, according to Mazornet, a comprehensive online Jewish book club.

Actually, the bad economy has been good for libraries across the country, as more people are taking advantage of free books instead of buying them at bookstores, suggests Pace, who has transferred to six different states in the last 14 years for her husband’s library career.

Originally from Long Island, N.Y., Pace carries library cards as souvenirs of the cities she and her husband Charles have lived in: St. Louis, Fargo, Chicago, Dallas, Houston and Louisville. Even when she lived in Fargo and was the caterer for a small congregation (45 people), she never forgot her Jewish roots.

“One mom asked me to make chopped liver for her daughter’s bat mitzvah, and she wanted it to taste like her grandma’s. So I had to go on the Internet and order a minimum $60 worth of chicken fat. I had schmaltz in the freezer for a long time,” says Pace, who tells her husband, “I’m not packing another box or moving again.”

Pace met her spouse — where else — at a library. She had an expired library card and overdue fines, but he married her anyway. They share a love of reading, cooking, and each other.

“We started cooking together in the early years of our marriage when we couldn’t afford to do much else. We had our first child and we couldn’t afford to go out to dinner. But we could afford groceries, barely. We would eat really cheap all week and then on the weekend we would make some really elaborate meal that we found on Epicurious.com.”

Even their children, David, 12, and Emily, 9, have a taste for international food. Her son was just a 1-year-old when he ate at his first Indian restaurant, and he still craves Puerto Rican-style rice and beans.

“I believe in teaching them to eat all kinds of food from very young. I’m not one of those moms who makes something different for each kid. Don’t like what I serve, well it’s eight hours ’til breakfast,” she says. “They usually eat what I put in front of them. They also are exposed to a lot of different foods because of the way I cook.”

One of her goals is to start a “Cook and Book” for teens. “A lot of kids aren’t learning to cook because our lives are too busy and everyone is running too fast to stop and eat dinner together.”

At the Pace household, mealtime (and a good book) is something to treasure.

For information on “Cook and Book,” which is open to the public, contact Ronnie Brockman at 314-569-0010.

Hadassah book club

St. Louis Chapter Hadassah also offers an ongoing Jewish book club, which is a potluck program that participants take turns hosting in their homes every six weeks.

“Discussing a great book with other people allows you to get to know them in a very unique way. Frequently when you meet people you have this sort of superficial conversation. But when you’re sitting in someone’s home on the couch and discussing a book and its themes and its values you have an opportunity to learn about people at greater depth,” says Joan Denison, director of grassroots fundraising for the national organization, Hadassah WZOA.

“The Hadassah book club is open to all ages, backgrounds, and ideas. It’s interesting to discuss a book and learn about different perspectives, depending on your age and where you are in your life. With a diverse group, you might discover something that you never thought of before,” she said.

For more information on upcoming book titles and dates, call 314-991-0434 or email [email protected]

“Mishegas of Motherhood” is the creation of Ellie S. Grossman, a St. Louis freelance writer and stay-at-home-mom who never stays home. Visit her Web site at www.mishegasofmotherhood.com.