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Culinary book group caters to those who love reading, cooking and eating

Sunday, April 23, 2000

By Suzanne Martinson, Food Editor, Post-Gazette

When someone approaches Mary Alice Gorman for advice on how to pump up flagging interest in a book group, the owner of Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont cuts to the chase.

  Buff-Rodman, a bookseller at the Mystery Lovers Bookshop, serves a catered chicken dinner for the monthly meeting of the Food and Mystery Friends Book Group. (Joyce Mendelsohn, Post-Gazette)

First, she asks if they're reading "those Oprah books," the ones recommended by TV talk show host Oprah Winfrey. She deems them "too depressing."

Then, "Are you serving food? You can't have a successful book group without food."

Her formula is simple: "Consume books, consume food."

That's only one of the reasons the Food and Mystery Friends Book Group, which meets the first Wednesday of each month at the Oakmont store, is so successful. It is one of nine groups that meet at the 2,000-square-foot store.

When you sit in -- and eat up -- at one of their meetings, you discover this is not your grandmother's staid old book discussion group. Laughs fly as fast as plot twists. We haven't been at a Food and Mystery gathering for four months, but the warm feelings of sharing food and fun remain.

First someone hands out Bob's Real Meal Blue Cornmeal in zipper bags. It's a sharing group. Recipe included.

And what has happened to them since the last time they got together?

"I had a baby," says one.

Join the club

Mystery Lovers Bookshop's book clubs are open to all.

Most groups meet for dinner, one for lunch. Call 412-828-4877.

Specialized topics include classic, eclectic, historical, women's and food mysteries. The Women's Bar Association has had a group for seven years.

Related article:

Demystifying Mary Alice Gorman

The plot twists in the life of the Mystery Lovers Bookshop owner include victims advocate, director of Pittsburgh's ACLU, and imminent retirement


"My grandchild," adds her mother.

"I moved into my new house," says another.

The topper: "By the way, I got married Friday."

In this group, the first question about the wedding isn't, "What did you wear?" but, "What was the food?"

What sets this group apart is its specialty: a genre called culinary mysteries. These stories center around amateur sleuths who may be a caterer (Diane Mott Davidson and her protagonist Goldy Bear), restaurateur (Lou Jane Temple, whose Heaven Lee owns a restaurant in Kansas City) or herb specialist (Susan Wittig Albert).

You've got to have concentration to read a culinary mystery. The better the recipes that are interspersed with the murder clues, the more tempted the reader is to fling down the book and repair to the kitchen.

It's not enough for a culinary mystery writer to plot -- she must pot and pan, too. Gorman personally tries many of the recipes and can tell customers which mysteries have the most tasty fare. She was the first one to point out that one author's appetizer was missing an ingredient. (It was supposedly corrected in the next edition.)

Usually the group meets in time for a delicious catered supper, but once a year they do the cooking themselves. At their annual holiday potluck, the mystery isn't how good the food is, but how they're going to drive home afterward.

A head full of mystery meanderings and a stomach full of a delicious repast can't be ignored. Yet even when the dessert tray is passed, there is congeniality.

"Uh-oh, only one mousse," says one.

"We'll solve it by arm-wrestling," her tablemate jokes.

A book group get-together is a night well spent for the dozen or so participants, some coming from such far-flung spots as Murrysville, Lower Burrell and Ford City. These are women who cross bridges and go through tunnels to get what they want.

It's fun to see the plays on words that form the titles of the culinary mysteries: "The Butter Did It." "Catering to Nobody." "The 27-Ingredient Chili Con Carne Murders." "Death Lies in Apple Pies." "Stiff Risotto." "Eat Drink and Be Wary."

Some have local connections. "The Hand That Rocks the Ladle" is by Tamar Myers, formerly of Verona. She sets her mystery in the Penn Dutch Inn.

Not all culinary writers are women, though. Rex Stout, who wrote the Nero Wolfe stories, is a favorite food-focused writer with some of the group.

One of Gorman's own joys is reading mystery writer Margaret Maron. "One of the favorite elements in a book is voice," she says. Maron's voice is the "closest I've ever come to 'To Kill a Mockingbird.' It's one of those gems where it became a part of me."

Gorman figures there must be 2,000 book groups in the Pittsburgh area, many of them too serious for their own survival. "Reading is fun -- it doesn't always have to be serious. Reading is a solitary activity. A book group is a community."

Cooking has always been an interest of Gorman, and friends say she and her husband are wonderful hosts. Their Cuba party with the requisite Cuban food is a hot ticket item. Goldman grew up in Miami Beach, and the couple love Cuba. "Fifteen minutes after Castro dies, we'll be on a plane to Cuba," she says. "Well, as soon as they get the infrastructure in."

In their 10 years at Mystery Lovers, the Gorman-Goldman team created an atmosphere to give personal service in a field overtaken by chains. They have a newsletter. They sell books on the Internet via mysterylovers.com. If you buy three books, they know a fourth you might also enjoy.

They have two offerings you might not expect to find at a mystery bookstore -- children's books and cookbooks. The former English teacher and activist for civil rights dissolves into soft smiles when she thinks of grandparents bringing in their young ones to pick out a book.

Gorman learned with cookbooks, such as Fannie Farmer and "Every Woman's Cookbook," which has the stamp of real use -- it was burned on the waffle iron. She says she'll never forget the nuns teaching her how to make cream sauce.

Big favorites at the store this year were "The Italian Country Table," "Julia and Jacques," "Play with Your Food," "Moosewood Restaurant Daily Specials" and "Blue Moon Soup."

Gorman has spend hundreds of hours scanning the Internet for the most unusual products to pack in her specialty gift baskets, which include books plus such items as Green Mountain Coffee Roaster coffee, Fortnum & Mason Tea and Ghirardelli chocolate. She caters to everybody from shower honorees to dog groomers to hospital patients. "I got the idea when I was in the hospital," she says.

The book groups, Gorman says up front, are an opportunity for the bookstore to bring "people who read" into the store once a month.

The store's nine book groups dine in an in-store cafe added in 1992. Some locals pay a visit there most every day.

Last year, 90 mystery writers appeared in Oakmont. It takes tenacity to draw the likes of Sue Grafton, author of the so-called alphabet mysteries, the latest of which is "O Is for Outlaw."

"We told the publisher O is for Oakmont," says Ms. Tenacity herself.

This year, on May 8, they expect 40 writers at the store's annual "Festival of Mystery."

Before the store opened on Halloween 1990, Gorman spent six months on research before deciding that mysteries were the way to go in a specialty market. She is aggressive in pursuit of authors she wants, and she makes Oakmont a welcome spot on book tours. She has a nine-page how-to on the care and feeding of mystery writers in Pittsburgh.

Book group members say Gorman's knowing the writers personally can add insight into their book discussions, too. They laughed about the writer whose protagonist stuck a dog in her bra in one scene.

Room service, Gorman says, is a must for her visitors, but sometimes she cooks for the writers, too. One of her favorites is the Sesame Noodles she developed.

"It's the only thing I can cook and still talk to Diane Mott Davidson at the same time," she jokes.

Says Richard Goldman the husband, the co-owner, the realist: "My least favorite part of selling books is doing the dishes."

Related Recipes:

Mary Alice's Sesame Noodles
Potato Gatto
Cheesy Corn Bake
Artichoke Appetizer
Sinful Mac and Cheese
Date Pudding
Pea Salad
Chocolate Chip Oatmeal Cookies

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