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Food for thought: Tasty Reads book club explores culinary literature – Charleston Gazette

HUNTINGTON If there’s any truth to the idea that you are what you eat, then maybe the members of Cicada Books and Coffee’s popular Tasty Reads Book Club should adopt a new slogan: you are what you read.

The club started in January of 2019 when two Dawns — Cicada owner Dawn Hylbert and social media manager/part-time barista Dawn Nolan — were brainstorming ideas for free events that would help build an engaged community for the new bookstore in the heart of Huntington’s antique district.

“We were trying to come up with a unique twist on a book club, whether we were going to do best sellers, we were going to do a certain genre, a certain demographic, or what,” said Nolan.

Hylbert is a self-described “foodie” who reportedly knows how to cook, and Nolan, who’s also a foodwriter, had read several biographies of chefs.

“There are an amazing amount of people who want to read cookbooks,” said Hylbert.

But wait. There’s a lot more here than “a quarter teaspoon of this” and “a half a cup of that.” Before your eyes glaze over and you feel the beginnings of a yawn coming on, consider the rich histories of food from all walks of life, from other cultures, other countries, other periods in time.

Consider, too, the lengthy list of well-known names, titles and tales: “Coming to My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook,” a New York Times bestselling memoir by Alice Waters; “Like Water for Chocolate,” a novel by Laura Esquivel; “Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder,” part of a series of food-themed mysteries by Joanne Fluke; and “Garlic and Sapphires,” one of several hits by New York Times undercover food critic Ruth Reichl.

Nolan made a list of possible titles. It was long. And just like that, they had all the ingredients they needed for a thriving book club that’s spanned several years now and has touched on a wide variety of genres.

“We’ve done Anthony Bourdain books. We’ve done Julia Child books,” said Nolan. “We’ve done some books about science and history of food,” she added, like “Eight Flavors” by gastronomist Sarah Lohman, who explores how black pepper, vanilla, curry powder, chili powder, soy sauce, garlic, MSG, and Sriracha have come to define American food; and “Salt Fat Acid Heat,” a 2017 cookbook by chef Samin Nosrat so intriguing it sparked the 2018 four-part Netflix documentary of the same name.

Every club meeting includes food related to that month’s book selection. Pre-COVID, the club was potluck. These days, Cicada has partnered with The Wild Ramp farmers market, directly across the street, to offer pre-ordered meals unique to each book for picking up and enjoying before each month’s meeting, and Nolan, the club president, makes a few items from the books to share on site.

She made cheese puffs for Julia Child’s “My Life in France,” and brought Kentucky Fried Chicken when it was time to discuss “Kitchen Confidential” because Bourdain had once said KFC was his guilty pleasure. Wild Ramp Market Director Shelly Keeney made tamales with mole sauce when the group read “Like Water for Chocolate.”

For the very first club meeting, Gazette-Mail Culinary Team writer Candace Nelson, author of “The West Virginia Pepperoni Roll,” held a pepperoni roll tasting and signed copies of her book

“So we had a full house,” said Nolan.

It’s been going strong ever since, with no threat, she said, of running out of books.

For this month’s meeting, held August 2, club members read “Victuals” (pronounced VI-tuhlz), winner of the James Beard Foundation Book of the Year Award and billed as “an exploration of the foodways, people, and places of Appalachia,” by Ronni Lundy, who completed a 4,000-mile roadtrip through seven mountainous states as part of her research.

Wild Ramp Chef Jedediah Thornburgh – who used recipes in the book to prepare a pickup meal of chicken and dumplings, cornbread and succotash — talked to the group about what he sees as a resurgence of Appalachian cuisine.

“I guess I’m lucky because I come from this area. …I would go down every summer to my grandparents in Greenbrier County and a lot of what was said in the book, I remember seeing,” he said.

“I remember in the chapter on beans how they were talking about miners doing farms and that it was a way to supplement some of their income,” he added.

“They talk about a lot of stuff that’s in this culture that you don’t see as much any more. This is a very important book.”

That sparked a lively discussion about upscale comfort food cropping up in exclusive restaurants nationwide, apple butter, wilted lettuce, heritage green beans and the definition of Appalachian cuisine.

“I feel like it’s more of a cookbook-slash-travelogue with a little bit of history there,” said Nolan.

The conversation, though, notably picked up after club members sampled some of the treats, taken directly from the book: blueberry cobbler, cornbread with sorghum molasses butter, chow-chow and nutmeg buttermilk cookies.

And perhaps therein lies the recipe for success.

Food, said Hylbert, “is universal. And I think that’s why the book club is popular, because everybody has an opinion about food. …It sort of eases the way for talking about it. Even if you don’t consider yourself an intellectual, maybe reading the books about food, everybody has an opinion they’re ready to share.”

The Tasty Reads Book Club meets the first Monday of each month except December, beginning at 6:30 p.m. at Cicada Books Coffee, 604 14th Street West in Huntington. For more information call the book store at 681-378-3463, visit the website at or check out the Tasty Reads and Cicada Books Facebook pages. For more information on The Wild Ramp or to place a Tasty Reads pickup order, visit the Wild Ramp Facebook page or website at, or call 304-523-7267.

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