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Book Club Spotlight: The Birmingham Foodie Book Club

On the second Wednesday of every month, we’ll share the motivation and passion that drives one book club — it could be yours! — from across the globe. These are the people who have combined the solitary pleasure of reading a book with the joy of sharing, discussing, and debating it in a social setting. For this month’s Book Club Spotlight, gastronome Shaun Chavis of Birmingham, Alabama, answers some questions about her book club. The Birmingham Foodie Book Club reads food-related memoirs, novels, histories and anthologies, and they have done everything from slaughtering their own pig to hosting a successful food blogging conference.

Foodie Book Club

Shaun Chavis (left) with Jason Horn, a fellow Foodie Book Club member, at the food blogging conference they organized this January. Photo by Stephen Vinson.

What was the inspiration for starting your book club?

I’d just moved from Boston to Birmingham, Alabama, after earning a Masters degree in Gastronomy at Boston University. I missed talking about food and food issues with my classmates, so I partnered with one of my new co-workers, also named Sean, who knows just about everyone in Birmingham, and together we started the club in summer 2007. We meet once a month on every second Tuesday evening. (We make an exception for election nights.)

In the beginning, most of us were editors and writers at the Southern Progress Corporation — a division of Time, Inc. that publishes Coastal Living, Cooking Light, Southern Living, Health, and Oxmoor House books. We started advertising regularly in a local weekly newspaper (for free) and got a lot of new members that way. And our host bookstore, Alabama Booksmith, does a great job at supporting book clubs — we’ve gotten new members because of them. Jake Reiss, the store’s owner, asks all his book clubs to put together their list of selections for the whole year in advance. He then displays copies of all the books in the front of the store, with a sign underneath showing the name of the book club that’s reading it.

Do you incorporate food, films, field trips, or other bonus features into your meetings?

Definitely! Sometimes we go to a restaurant that relates to the book. For example, we met at Dreamcakes, a local cupcake bakery, when we read The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender — we had the entire bakery to ourselves because the owner let us stay after closing hours. We had a sushi-making party when we read The Sushi Economy by Sasha Issenberg. We’ve watched Big Night and How to Cook Your Life.

We’ve also had authors present at some meetings, when we read The Perfect Fruit by Chip Brantley and Trail of Crumbs by Kim Sunee. And when we read Bottomfeeder by Taras Grescoe, we had a fish buyer from a local grocery store come and talk about buying and using sustainable seafood.

Twice in 2011, we’re going to have joint meetings with Slow Food Birmingham. The first one’s in March, and we’re reading American Wasteland by Jonathan Bloom. We’re planning a panel discussion with local experts about how to reduce food waste in our community. The second Foodie Book Club/Slow Food collaboration is in September, and our book is Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook. I hope we can do a tomato tasting at that one.

Has your book club and its members had a meaningful impact on your life?

Ha! Have they! The club’s co-founder, Sean Kelley, read Heat by Bill Buford a few years ago (it was a book club pick), and got it into his head that he wanted to raise and butcher his own pig. He actually bought two young pigs, named them Lunch and Dinner, raised them in a pen behind his home (annoyed his wife for months, especially when the pigs escaped), and then invited a bunch of book club members to help him butcher the pigs. It was an unforgettable experience.

Another thing is, for a while I’d been wanting the club to be a part of the community. Last year, I started volunteering for a new non-profit writing center for children in Birmingham (The Desert Island Supply Company, founded by Chip Brantley, the author of The Perfect Fruit), and I wanted to raise money for it.

I went to the Foodie Book Club members and proposed we put on a food blogging workshop for adults, and charge money to raise funds for the writing center. We created Food Blog South, and had our first conference on January 22, 2011, with great speakers like Kim Severson of the New York Times (author of Spoon Fed), Lisa Ekus-Saffer of [the food-specific literary agency] the Lisa Ekus Group, Virginia Willis (author of Bon Appetit, Y’all), and Christy Jordan (author of Southern Plate). We had a sold-out crowd and raised more than $3,000 for charity. Not bad for our first conference. Food Blog South is definitely going to be an annual event, thanks to the Foodie Book Club.

To be featured in a future Book Club Spotlight, email laura@bookclubinabox.com with a brief description of your club and what makes it stand apart from the rest.


1 Comment

  1. Birmingham’s Foodie Book Club has been a force for good in this city. Thanks to Shaun, Jason, Sean and all the members who make it and FoodBlogSouth happen!

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