I was chatting idly with my best friend the other day, and as usual, we ended up talking about books and food (this is doubtless a big reason why we are friends in the first place). Sometimes it's one, sometimes it's the other, but in this particular case, it was both of them combined.
"I love book clubs," he said.
"Oh, me, too," I agreed. "A bunch of people sitting around, preferably with a glass of wine in hand, talking about books. What could be better?"
"But there has to be food," he insisted. "There always has to be food at any kind of party. So what food would you serve that would be as stimulating, nourishing, and satisfying to a group of people with different tastes, as whatever book you all had gotten together to read?"
The query instantly made me fantasize about my very own perfect book club party.
It would be on a hot summer's day, cooling down then with just enough of a breeze to wake up the curiosity of the readers involved in the discussion. And the talk itself would be held under some trees in a shady meadow, around five in the evening. There would be wine for those who wanted it — red, white, and a lot of my favorite rosé. There would be sparkling water, with lemon and lime slices, for those who wanted that. There would be discreet little bowls of olives and roasted nuts and cloves of pickled garlic, for those who wanted a bit of a lagniappe before supper.
Nearby, on a picnic table or a long folding table, there would be a plate or two or three of flat omelets, frittatas, browned and each filled differently: say, one of chard and garlic, one of zucchini and marjoram, and one of potato and onion and smoked paprika* — all waiting, in the cool evening temperature, to be cut into wedges and served easily, so that the eater could enjoy them while talking earnestly about some point that had just occurred to her or him.
But the main part of my fantasy would be lining up behind those platters. Long, thick baguettes sliced whole down their middles, filled with salad fixings of various kinds, anointed luxuriously with olive oil, and weighted down to let the fillings soak through. When the weights are removed, and the rolls sliced diagonally into hand-sized pieces, each guest would have a salad and bread all at once. Pan Bagnat**, they call this in Provence, so they tell me, where these sandwiches originated. Or Pan Bagna, or even Pan Bagnia. But it always means the same: bread filled with a garlic-tinged, tomato-sliced salad, weighted down for an hour at least, if not more, so the whole becomes a more celestial version of its parts. Not unlike all the voices in a book club weighing in on a book.
But even beyond that similarity… the weights on the sandwiches would be books. Books lying horizontally all the way up and down the table, pressing down the Pan Bagnat, melding the ingredients, all the separate bits, into a harmonious whole just as the discussion is melding all the thoughts about a book into, I hope, another harmonious whole, both of them nourishing in the late summer evening sun.
And tasty, too. Because that is very important, in both food and books: good taste.
Here's a general sketch for making Pan Bagnat:
There are many ways you can go about this, just as there are many ways you can go about most things, and the way I suggest you go about it is the way that feels easiest and most entertaining to you, the cook. (Once again, not unlike how I would suggest going about expressing yourself on the book at hand.) What's needed is bread, olive oil, vinegar, garlic, some kind of onion, tomato, and a variety of salad fixings. When I say variety, I mean whatever variety appeals the most, and is the most convenient. I'll tell you what I would do, just because I can, but first, to give you an idea of the scope we're looking at, let me list possible ingredients for a Pan Bagnat:
Tomato. Garlic. Onion (red, white, green, or shallot). Cucumber. Tuna. Anchovies. Artichoke hearts. Pesto. Roasted peppers. Raw peppers. Radishes. Hard-boiled eggs. Olives. Sorrel. Basil. Arugula. Raw fava beans. Pickles. Lettuce. Mushrooms. Grated carrots. Olive oil. Vinegar. And so on.
No matter what goes into the Pan Bagnat, you pretty much follow the same pattern. Lay out your bread slices. Sprinkle them with olive oil, scrub them with a cut garlic clove (if you're not, like I am, going to put garlic liberally in the filling). Layer the filling in, or (see below) do like I do and toss all the ingredients together as a salad, layering that on the bread. Fit top slice above filling on bottom slice. Wrap in plastic wrap, or paper towels and then plastic wrap. Then weight down and leave for at least an hour. More will never harm things. In fact, it will only make things better.
(And you can weight them any way you like. Two boards are good. For a picnic with children, best is to wrap the sandwiches in a towel and let the kids sit on them on the way to the festivity. This will give rise to additional hilarity, adding to the pleasures of the day. Also, it makes a great sandwich. Something about the body heat. But back to the book club version…)
When you're ready to eat, unweight, unwrap, and slice to your preference. You should now have a juicy sandwich, a little messy to eat, but hey, that's why you're eating it in a meadow after the book club discussion, with plenty of paper napkins to help.
Here's how I'd make Pan Bagnat to feed a book club, body and soul:
Find the longest baguettes I can, slice in half, anoint with olive oil and a little vinegar on both sides.
Then make two kinds of fillings: one robust and hearty, one more delicate and vegetarian. Each one tossed in a bowl of its own, anointed with more olive oil and vinegar, and salt and pepper to taste, before being spread on its own baguette.
The Robust and Hearty Filling (really just a version of Salad Niçoise):
Juicy tomatoes, sliced
Canned tuna, drained
Canned anchovies, minced
Olives, pitted and chopped
Handfuls of arugula, chopped
Add together. Add a bit of vinegar and three times as much olive oil. Salt and pepper. Toss.
Then, for the Delicate and Vegetarian:
Cucumber, peeled and diced
Red onion, sliced paper-thin
Artichoke hearts, sliced
Roasted green or red peppers, sliced
Add a squeeze or two of fresh lemon. About twice as much olive oil. Salt and pepper. Toss.
Taste. You might want more lemon. I know I would.
I would figure out how many little sandwiches a hungry book club is likely to need here, and make a little more, since they'll only be better for my own lunch the next day. And then I'd fill the baguettes with one or the other of the filling, and cover the sandwiches, and wrap them snugly in plastic wrap.
Then I'd line them up on the picnic table and dreamily arrange books, stacked on their sides, up and down the baguettes. Not books chosen, necessarily, first for their physical heft, but for the piquant quality of their content, the satisfying nature of their substance, the sureness of their interest, and only then for their weight. Books that still satisfy, after they have done their duty toward the evening meal, when the main talk is over, and the more cozy talk begins between smaller groups as those groups eat and drink and wander together, both physically and mentally; books that could be stacked over on another table where the curious could pick them up and browse, as in a library, or a bookstore, or at a pile stacked beside a languorous, solitary chaise longue.
And that would be the most charming end of the discussion and meal of all. If the books had been well chosen, and the discussion preceding the dinner had been convivial and stimulating, and if the food and wine had been both as well.
That would be just about perfect. Well, if there were also a box of chocolates and a bowl of cherries put out for dessert. Then, with the last reminiscent fillip of talk, and a little something sweet to finish, everyone could go out into the final light of the day, sated and happy and a little wiser than when we all came in.
*You can find out how to make these frittatas in both the Jam Today books.
**You can find even more about Pan Bagnat in Jam Today Too.