Recipes for Life

A group of women started a cooking club in 1976-and it's still going strong

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At monthly cooking club meetings, the hostess makes the main course—they rotate houses—and other members are supposed to bring something they’ve never made before.

The marinated lamb is cooking on the grill. In the kitchen, vodka, scotch and fresh limes are arranged for cocktails. The dining room table is set with china and fresh flowers.

Around 7 p.m. on a May evening, the women begin to arrive with appetizers, sides, wine and desserts, the same way they have for the past 41 years. The hostess of the monthly cooking club dinner always prepares the entrée, and the other members are supposed to bring something they’ve never tried making before. Then the 60-somethings share recipes. 

“If nobody comments on a dish, you can kind of read between the lines,” says Carroll Dunn, who started the club with sister-in-law Gerri Connolly and is hosting the dinner at her home in Chevy Chase (they rotate every month). At first, the group came up with themes, but that went by the wayside. “You can only do Italian, Chinese or Southern picnic so much,” says Dunn, a retired teacher and school administrator. 

The women formed the club in 1976, when many were young newlyweds, as a way to socialize and learn how to make new dishes for entertaining. “As we started having our families, it was an outlet for exchanging parenting info and sharing both the good and the not-so-good experiences,” says Connolly, a floral designer. Most of the women were busy with kids and careers, but they carved out time for the Monday night dinners, which eventually turned into girls nights out.

Over time, they’ve become more laid back about the meaning of gourmet cooking, and sometimes they even repeat recipes. “If you are rushed, people will admit, ‘I got this at Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods,’ ” says Leanne Boland, who lives in Northwest D.C. These days they serve more salsas, fish and grains, and lighter desserts than they used to. They use olive oil instead of butter. “We’ve basically cut out bread and use healthier salad dressings,” Connolly says. “Kale has become our friend.” 

Nearly all of the 11 cooking club members grew up in the D.C. area. Many went to Catholic school together; about half attended Georgetown Visitation in the District. They’re all still married to their first husbands, something many of them consider a feat. “Maybe our cooking has something to do with it,” Boland says. They’ve been together through christenings, graduations, weddings and funerals. They’ve given their children books of their favorite recipes—often as bridal shower gifts—and helped some start their own cooking clubs. Recently they’ve watched one another become grandparents.

After drinks and appetizers on Dunn’s patio, the women—who refer to each other as “girls”—move inside for dinner. They jockey to share the microwave, lamenting how their starter apartments didn’t always have that convenience. Carla Byrd of Bethesda heats up sautéed Broccolini, noting that of all the women, she is not much of a cook. “Now I can admit it. In the early days, I used to have to pretend,” she says with a laugh.  

The women fill their plates at the buffet, pour wine (which is in bottles, not jugs, as it was when they first started) and chat about what they’ve made. Kathy Hayes, who lives in Chevy Chase, is asked about her Tuscan white beans with sage and rosemary. She explains that she soaked the raw beans overnight and they often taste better the next day. Several of the women got their recipes online, and say their cookbooks are collecting dust in the digital age.

The women have had some hits—including beef Wellington, Toblerone mousse and crab canapé pie—and some clunkers. Years ago they had awful bourbon ball appetizers, and someone made an Irish soda bread that was so hard it could have been used as a doorstop. Then there was the roast fiasco, when Byrd’s kitchen filled with smoke after a mix-up over the broiler setting and Dunn took the entrée to her ex-fiancé’s nearby apartment to finish cooking it.

When the cooking club meets, the husband of the host typically stays away—things get louder as the night goes on—only dropping in at the end to say hello, as Dunn’s husband, George, does on that night in May. The women used to invite the men to join them once in a while, but they haven’t done that in years. One man put a silver serving tray in the oven. “They make a mess, even if it’s takeout,” says Connolly, who lives in Chevy Chase. “Every pot and pan and spoon you own is out on the table.”

As the evening closes, Connolly serves her mom’s “Apple Brown Betty” with vanilla ice cream. Chris Cassidy announces that she’s planning to move to Florida soon, but assures the group that she’ll try to come back a couple times a year. By 9:25, Connolly dings her glass to announce that she has to leave, but as the group’s scheduler she wants to confirm next month’s host before she goes.  

The women used to meet later in the evening, after their kids were in bed, and once lingered till 2 in the morning after a wine-filled San Francisco-themed dinner in Chevy Chase in the ’80s. “I never stayed so late at anybody’s house in my life,” Connolly says. Now they opt for less wine and more sleep. Says Cassidy, “You come at 7 and you leave at 10.” 

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