They call themselves the Gourmet Group, but the members of this women-only club have for years valued friendship and good times as much as adventuresome cuisine
When the women of the Gourmet Group get together, it’s hard to believe that much cooking gets done.
“We love to talk, there is no doubt about that,” group historian and original member Kim Wood said.
“But we’ve learned so much since we started, whether it’s how to host a dinner party, setting a table, timing a meal or trying new recipes.”
The members of the women-only group, many of whom live in Port Washington, have been meeting at least every other month since September 1996 to bond over trying new foods, learn different recipes and, just as important, enjoy good company.
Founding members Peggy Pfeiffer and Carol Fisher came up with the idea after Fisher heard of a neighborhood group in Minneapolis that did the same thing.
“I met Peggy when I moved to Cedarburg and I told her about this group back in Minneapolis,” Fisher said. “She said ‘Oh great, we’re doing this.’”
The group met monthly and the member whose turn it was to host would come up with a theme and menu for the evening.
Invitations were mailed with cooking assignments and the expectation was that the hostess would serve the main course and other members would make an appetizer or dessert that went with the theme.
“It’s really a sisterhood thing,” member Peggy Pfeiffer said. “Our kids were all very young at the time and it was a chance to get away from them and our husbands for a little while.”
The invitations themselves almost became a contest.
“Laura Nigh once sent out menus as magnets that you could hang on the refrigerator,” Pfeiffer said. “We like a little competition.”
Pfeiffer, Wood, Nigh, Natalie May and Dee Johnson are the five original members who still belong to the group.
Jan Schueller, Camilla Jarman, Michelle Henkle and Megan Andersen were added as time went along.
Nigh, from Wauwatosa, and Johnson, from Cedarburg, are the only members who do not live in Port Washington.
The members were originally chosen from all walks of life, Pfeiffer said.
“We weren’t all friends when we first created this group,” she said. “That was done intentionally so we could branch out a little.
“What we had in common was a desire to cook.”
One of May’s favorite themes was a Greek party where she had to make stuffed grape leaves as a side dish.
“It pushed me to try something that I would otherwise never try,” she said.
They’ve tried to keep the group at eight members, but have extended to as many as 10 over the years.
As their children got older, it was difficult to keep up with the theme parties and the group chose easier recipes as a way to save time.
Now that many of the group’s children are in college or working, they are back to challenging themselves with more intricate meals.
Although almost every dinner party was hosted by a member, the group occasionally meets at a restaurant.
On Tuesday, for example, the group met at Coquette Cafe in Milwaukee, where chefs prepared a menu that was paired with suitable wines.
“I wanted to do something a little different,” Jarman, the host, said. “They did the cooking and then talked about the wines. It was something a little out of the ordinary for us.”
One of Nigh’s favorite parties was a trip to Olive ‘n Vinnie’s gourmet olive oil store in Cedarburg, where members were divided into teams and had to come up with meals based on items in the store.
At the end, they sampled each other’s creations.
“It was a really unique idea almost like the show ‘Chopped,’” she said.
Save for a few occasions, men are not allowed at the parties.
“The husbands always enjoy when their wives have hosted because they either get a meal out of it or have the left overs,” Wood said. “The group has always been about bonding with our girlfriends.”
May recalled a chili-themed dinner where the husbands were invited.
“We would always go home and tell our husbands about these wonderful meals we had and my husband would say ‘That sounds amazing,’” she said.
“So after this chili party, my husband said ‘You guys usually have these wonderful seven-course meals and all we got was chili,’” she said, laughing.
May once hosted a sleep-over where a chef was brought in to cook the food and members held a “stuff exchange,” where purses and other items were swapped.
Instead of paying the chef for his services, the group donated money to a charity.
One of Schueller’s favorite meals was when a group member brought in friends from India who made sure traditional customs were followed.
“They cooked us dinner and we sat on the floor and ate with our fingers,” she said.
As an invited member, Schueller was asked to make a tart at her first dinner party.
“Guests aren’t usually asked to make anything the first time and making a tart was quite a stretch for me at the time,” she said.
After each meeting, non-hosting members are expected to give a small gift as a thank you. In turn, the hostess gives a return gift as a way of thanking the members for coming.
“It’s traditionally expected that you bring the host a gift,” Wood said. “We have made it an embedded tradition over the years and try to make it special to the person hosting.”
Andersen, for example, gave members Italian cookies and candies based on her theme for the night.
“I taught the group some of the things I learned on an Italy trip, such as wines to pair with different foods,” she said.
Sometimes the group will donate to local food pantries and veterans instead of giving a gift, Andersen said.
The group has endured some tough times like having members move away or dealing with serious illnesses, but they’re still thriving.
“It was kind of our therapy,” former member Mary Henkle said. “We were all going through a lot of the same things like raising kids and it was just a way to vent sometimes.”
The group held a makeshift reunion on Sunday where original members Fisher, Henkle, Barbara Diamond and Linda Doughman were invited to attend.
No fancy dishes were served, just homemade “special recipe” Chex Mix, guacamole, veggies and dip and wine.
“To be invited back for this, it’s like I never even left,” Henkle said. “You just pick right back up where you left off.”
Image information: Snacks and a good time were served at a recent gathering of the Gourmet Group.
Photo by Sam Arendt