BELMONT — This time, there’s a lot of ajvar. The Serbian relish of roasted peppers and eggplant plays a role in Tea Obreht’s bestseller, “The Tiger’s Wife.” Tonight, the dish is part of a buffet served at the home of Ann Silverman and Israel Fridman. Silverman and Fridman are hosting their book group, which has been meeting for nearly four years to discuss literary works ranging from classics to current literature, and to share a meal. Over time, the meal has evolved into a culinary celebration of whatever book is on the group’s agenda, with dishes that reflect the culture and characters.
It’s a practice that’s become increasingly popular. Needham authors Judy Gelman and Vicki Levy Krupp spoke to dozens of book groups to gather information and recipes for “The Book Club Cook Book,” a revised edition of which came out in March. “We’ve heard that it helps them read more closely and think about the themes of the book,” says Krupp. “It helps them review plot elements, prompts discussion, gets the conversation going.”
At Silverman and Fridman’s, the group enjoys appetizers of octopus salad and three kinds of ajvar, culled from Obreht’s book. Food definitely gets the conversation started. The hosts recall eating ajvar on their honeymoon in Yugoslavia, where the book is set; soon, group members are discussing the fragmentation of the Balkan states as described in the book and whipping out smartphones to check on the dates of the Tito era.
This particular book, say group members, was one of the easiest to match to a meal. Less successful, but perhaps the more memorable for that, was the Midwestern ’50s dinner inspired by Marilynne Robinson’s “Gilead,” or the corned beef and cabbage that accompanied “Ulysses.”
“I had never read ‘Ulysses,’ ” says group member Leah Greenwald, “but it’s full of references to organ meat.” Undaunted, Greenwald sculpted miniature kidneys and liver out of marzipan. “We have suffered with some books,” says Syrl Silberman, but for every “Gilead,” there’s been a Proust novel or a “War and Peace,” both of which inspired “amazing” meals, says Judith Vecchione.
Other local groups have made an adventure of matching meal to book. When Kathleen Schortmann’s group, based in Westwood, read Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique,” they went all out in re-creating the book’s early-’60s context, if not content. Taking their inspiration from “Mad Men” as much as Friedan, the group pulled recipes like wedge salad, deviled eggs, and beef Wellington from a period Betty Crocker cookbook (“I used the section called ‘Sumptuous Company Dinners,’ ” recalls Schortmann), drank martinis instead of their usual wine, and dressed as characters from the TV show.
Susan Kuder is a member of a book group comprising returned Peace Corps volunteers. For a recent meeting, they read “Into Africa,” and Kuder, who served in Togo, prepared a chicken in peanut sauce that she says is one of that country’s national dishes. As sometimes happens, the book wasn’t to everyone’s taste. “It was a little dense, to tell you the truth. But we got a good meal out of it,” she says.
Food and feasting play a large role in “The Tiger’s Wife,” so the Belmont group doesn’t have to stretch. Fridman prepared a roasted pompano, the closest thing he could find to the fish John Dory, mentioned by name in the book. Other dishes featured in the book and at the table include blackened potatoes, stuffed grape leaves, baked apples, and sweet Balkan pastries. “This is one of the best books we’ve had for food,” says Silverman.
Group members say they’ve never chosen a book on the basis of its dinner potential, tempting as that might be. Despite all the emphasis on the meal, says Greenwald, “I don’t think anybody’s in it for the food. We’re in it for the company and the entertainment and the opportunity to have a convivial time and put our heads into whatever the book is we’ve read.”