Organizer Marco Flavio Marinucci. © Lucy Schaeffer
Lean and lanky in a t-shirt screen-printed with two fish, Marco Flavio Marinucci (pictured, left) bolts up and down a massive industrial kitchen in San Francisco, booming in his Italian-accented voice, “Scuuse me!” Dozens of members of his two-year-old cooking club, Cook Here and Now, are furiously prepping dishes. His friend Raj Patel, author of the food-politics book Stuffed and Starved, grinds ancho chiles; Jeremy Sommer, owner of the furniture company Zocalo, in whose warehouse everyone is gathered, is trying to wash his hands in a sink where another cook is already cleaning squid. There’s a lot of bumping into one another and tight-spaced maneuvering.
The flurry of planning had started online two weeks earlier on Marinucci’s blog, CookHereAndNow.com. A visual artist by profession, Marinucci spends his free time photographing and blogging about his finds at the Alemany Farmers’ Market. About once a month, he announces the date for his next “Let’s cook and eat together” dinner. There’s always a theme, ranging from wood-fired-oven pizzas to free-range lamb, all with the understanding that cooks use only local, seasonal produce; this time, the theme is sustainable seafood. Everyone must choose from the options listed on the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch list. Cook Here and Now members sign up online for free, posting what they’d like to make based on Marinucci’s list of what is needed (for example, “three participants will make appetizers for eight people each”). Then they convene on the designated Sunday afternoon with their own recipes, ingredients (there was much boasting about a bag of just-caught smelt) and equipment (one member came toting his own mortar and pestle).
Making crab cakes. © Lucy Schaeffer
The success of Cook Here and Now illustrates the old-fashioned, cross-cultural pull of communal cooking and eating. Marinucci remembers the large gatherings every Sunday at his grandmother’s home in Rome. Another cook recalls endless multigenerational meals in Chandigarh, India, while still another reminisces about Shabbat dinners with his family in Lyon, France. “But the reality in most American cities is that we eat out a lot,” says Marinucci.The Cook Here and Now group is both large (more than 500 have participated) and disparate (members range in age from their twenties to their sixties and work in professions as varied as business coaching and neuroscience). The range reflects the Internet’s ability to pull like-minded strangers together to forge a new, broader sense of community that extends beyond the traditional ties of family or neighborhood. To maintain that feeling of inclusion, Marinucci reserves 10 spots for newcomers at each dinner; otherwise, slots fill up in less than a day with regulars. To ensure that people mingle, he also asks everyone to change tables between courses.
Butternut squash turnovers. © Lucy Schaeffer
After people have sampled appetizers like potato focaccia with caramelized leeks and Emmental cheese and flaky turnovers filled with butternut squash (pictured, left) and creamy goat cheese, Marinucci taps on his wineglass with a knife: Time for the main courses. The line for entrées, which are spread buffet-style on three tables, is so long and enthusiastic, people look like they’re about to do the conga. Instead, they seat themselves around eight dining tables after filling their plates with saffron-infused seafood paella filled with seared squid, juicy chicken and smoky chorizo as well as an Indian-spiced catfish with a refreshing, citrusy avocado salad.
At one table, Jeremy Sommer, who made the turnovers, is describing his most recent trip to Vietnam (his 46th): “I bicycled around the Mekong Delta and slept in hammocks slung from trees.” Writer Colleen Hubbard, who baked a lime pie with a layer of blackberry jam, listens intently. She and a friend who met through Cook Here and Now recently booked plane tickets to Hanoi.
“To me, the low point of the work week is eating a processed sandwich alone at my desk,” Marinucci says as he moves from table to table. “Cook Here and Now means that I can count on at least one day a month when I’ll have a creative, sit-down meal in good company. We all get stuck with that sad sandwich sometimes, but we have so much more to look forward to.”