It’s easy to write off reading as something you do alone. But throw a group of people around a table, with a tray of sweets right in the center, and a wonderful plot twist occurs: you’ve got yourself a book club.
The Pfister Hotel recently launched a book club that meets once a month on the mezzanine level of the hotel. The group’s attendees vary in age, residence and jobs, but when you have a passion for books, a good novel can bridge the gaps.
For a quieter person, it could be daunting walking up the grand staircase of the hotel and pulling up a chair next to a complete stranger. It could be intimidating to express your opinions about a book. It could be nerve-racking to answer a question as simple as, “what was your favorite book growing up?”
Is the “Harry Potter” series an acceptable answer when a woman at your table professes her love for Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women?”
The answer is, of course, a resounding yes.
Luckily, this book club lies in the hands of an enthusiastic hotel narrator named Nicole Mattke. Mattke became the Pfister’s 10th narrator-in-residence this summer. The narrator’s responsibility at the Pfister is to tell the stories of the hotel and its guests during her time. Mattke is taking it a step further with the introduction of this club. She recognizes that the success of bringing people together around storytelling lies not only in the book sitting before each member, but also in the plate sitting beside the book.
“I think people come together around food, “Mattke tells me, as we sit in the Pfister’s cafe. “And around dessert, that’s a time where you sit with your coffee and chat at the end of the meal. I just know from my personal experience with my family that it’s a sweet time to sit as a family, relax and enjoy food together. Food brings people together in a lot of ways.”
Mattke’s partner behind the scenes, the Pfister’s executive pastry chef Travis Martinez, sits with us at the cafe. As I listen to Mattke describe the way her family comes together around the table, Martinez nods in agreement.
“For my family, when we had dinner, everyone’s individually talking, you’re mostly eating and kind of chatting,” Martinez explains. “But it seems like when dessert came, everyone sits down, it’s a little bit louder and it’s a little more fun.”
It would be simple enough to set out a tray of cookies and a pot of coffee at the Pfister’s book club and call it a day. After all, the food and drinks at the club are complimentary. But in what seems to be a reoccurring theme, Mattke once again takes it a step further.
“I initially thought, ‘okay, dessert, he’ll just do the standards,'” Mattke admits. “Once I realized he was an artist and so creative, it kind of opened up.”
Mattke’s first book choice, “A Gentleman in Moscow,” by Amor Towles, tells the tale of a former aristocrat who is placed on house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel, circa 1922. Through a main character with impeccable attention to detail, the reader is lured into a vivid world, where the former aristocrat often holds court with his friends in the Metropol’s restaurant. It’s there that the reader is treated to tantalizingly delicious descriptions of food and wine. Thus, it’s fitting that in Milwaukee’s own grand hotel, this book club holds its own court with its own delicious food and wine.
For the first meeting, Mattke approached Martinez with a request to make mille feuille, a French dessert featured early on in the novel. With a chef like Martinez, there’s nothing standard about the kind of dessert, or more specifically, the kind of mille feuille.
What’s a mille feuille? Your typical dish is, simply put, a vanilla custard slice, comprised of flaky pastry layers. Martinez says he went out of the box for this dish.
“Instead of using traditional flavors or staying very ‘vanilla,’ we try to add something different: a little more raspberry.”
That ‘something different’ leads to something fantastically sweet. I loved the way raspberry sauce helped bind the flaky pastry layers without overpowering the satisfying little crunch each bite offered. I had never had mille feuille before the book club, and Martinez set the bar pretty high.
The second book, “The Veins of the Ocean,” by Patricia Engel, takes place in the Florida Keys. Obviously, if you’re theming desserts around the book, you can’t go wrong with key lime pie.
“I know exactly what you’re thinking when you hear key lime pie,” Martinez says. “But the shape’s a little different.”
Beyond that, Martinez admits that pie is a bit hard to change up too much, but that’s okay. Going forward, he’s got some chances to get even more creative. While Mattke may have picked out the dishes for the first two books, she’s handing over the reins for the upcoming third book, “The Cottingley Secret,” by Hazel Gaynor, simply telling Martinez that the book takes place in England.
He doesn’t miss a beat.
He declares he’s making Eton mess.
“It’s a trifle-style dessert,” he explains. “But it’s made with brûlée. It has meringue and cookies. It looks kind of like a hot mess, but it’s so good.”
Mattke may already have her calendar set for the next couple months of books, but that doesn’t stop her from posing a challenge to Martinez as we sit together.
“Maybe sometime in the future, you might want to pick the dessert first,” Mattke offers. “Then I pick the book that goes with that?”
“Absolutely,” Martinez responds.
In the most appropriate way that you can possibly wrap up an essay about a book club… look out for a sequel.
Interested in joining the book club?
It meets the second Thursday of each month at the Pfister.
The upcoming book choices are: “The Cottingley Secret” by Hazel Gaynor (September 14) and “Forest Dark” by Nicole Krauss (October 12). The Pfister book club is partnering with Boswell Book Company at 2559 N. Downer Avenue, which will have the book club’s selection on display each month.