Tamara Reynolds is a the co-founder (with Zora O’Neill) of The Sunday Night Dinner, an Astoria, Queens-based supper club. The Sunday Night Dinner, which continues to thrive, was well ahead of what has become a supper club trend. Out of the Sunday Night Dinner came a fabulous cookbook, Forking Fantastic, which Reynolds co-authored with O’Neill. Travel is key to Reynolds’ imagination as a cook. She shops for food in the international food markets of Astoria and travels to countries with great food traditions.
Q: Sum up your professions in a few snappy words.
A: Cookbook author, cook for hire, cooking teacher, television show shopper, and Hostess with the Mostess of The Sunday Night Dinner.
Q: How did the Sunday night dinners come to happen? And how did Forking Fantastic emerge from the supper club?
A: SND began when Zora O’Neill and I met in 2002. We worked at Prune together and discovered we were neighbors and both loved to cook. We began cooking on Sundays for friends, and the next thing we knew, we were consistently feeding 15-20 people every Sunday. We began asking for donations so we could afford to keep doing it, and the next thing we knew, we were running an underground supper club.
We became convinced that the next step should be to write a cookbook, with encouraging words on entertaining, for real life. Zora and I felt that everyone was so hung up on the Martha Stewart perfection ideal that no one was actually cooking dinner for friends for the fun of it. Plus, we thought that if we wrote a kick ass guide to entertaining, detailing how we taught ourselves to cook and our many many mistakes along the way, maybe we would get invited to dinner more often.
Q: You told me that the fact that you’re based in Astoria has had a lot to do with the fact that the supper club took off.
A: It is funny, when we started our supper club, it was us and Ghetto Gourmet, a traveling club. Now I get a notice about every third day that another one is starting up, usually in Brooklyn. We remain one of the very few in Queens.
Queens is incredibly culturally diverse, but Brooklyn still seems to keep a headlock on “culinary coolness”. That said, I would never be the cook that I am or be able to feed people the way I do if I didn’t live in Astoria. I find the butchers and “old world” feel of Astoria’s food shops completely inspiring and refreshing. There are stores that only import Greek products, Italian products, Eastern European, North African, Middle Eastern, Brazilian, etcetera. Within a seven-minute walk from my house there are three butchers, all with whole lambs, goats and pigs hanging in the windows. These hanging animal carcasses aren’t decorative. People in my neighborhood cook these things on a daily basis. The produce markets burst with really excellent fresh produce, too. The first Long Island tomatoes and flat beans of the season just appeared last Friday and it looked like there was going to be a riot lead by the grandmothers of Astoria!
Q: Your Forking Fantastic co-author Zora O’Neill is also a travel writer. Did her perspectives on travel and food influence your own?
A: Absolutely. I went to grad school to be an opera singer; Zora went to grad school to study Classical Arabic poetry. Along the way we both learned to cook, but when I met her she had lived in Egypt and knew far more about Middle Eastern/North African cuisine than I did. I eagerly lapped up all of the information I could get out of her. She still travels far more than I do. My travel is mainly for pleasure while hers is for work. It is always nice to get a story of a great meal from her. It spurs my imagination.
Q: Where do you like to travel?
A: I feel like I am kind of done with Europe for now. I really want to concentrate on the US states I have not visited, North Africa, and Vietnam. February I am trying to put together a Vietnam/Cambodia/Laos trip. I think it is safe to say that I like to go anywhere where they are doing things differently than I do them at home.
Q: Have you ever traveled somewhere expressly to try a particular food?
A: You know, not exclusively, but I never go anywhere without considering where and what I will be eating, and cannot imagine traveling to a country with bad food. That said, I cannot wait to go back to Turkey to eat some more, and to Morocco, Tunisia, Syria, Sicily, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos just to eat. I view sightseeing as a great way to burn off the last meal and get your body ready to eat the next one. I am also considering driving around the backwaters of Georgia in August to sample some Gullah specialties. I am fascinated the resilience of Gullah traditions.
Q: How do your travels influence your cooking?
A: People cannot cook without markets and grocery stores. Going into either can tell you so much about where you are, who lives there, and what happens in their kitchens. I love to visit grocery stores and markets in every town I am in, one-horse or otherwise. The fact that in other countries you can wander around and see meat sitting out in the open for hours and here we insist on shrink-wrapping everything is fascinating. Sometimes small observations can inform you that your accepted way of doing things at home is definitely not the only way.
Of course, places have particular smells. Every time I exit the airport in Phoenix, my hometown, it smells like home. The smells of cities often tell me what people are eating, and I love to try to recreate particular smells in my home kitchen.
Q: Do you have a favorite destination, secret or otherwise?
A: Secret? Are there any secrets left? Ha. I must say, I loved Ayvalik, a small town in Turkey. People were transporting goods through the cobblestone streets in the town in horse drawn wagons. And there was pickled watermelon rind everywhere. And the eggplant, tomatoes, melons and lamb were amazing. We took a boat from Mytilini, Greece to Ayvalik and stayed a few days on our way to Istanbul. I would love to return.
I also loved the plains of Portugal. I ended up there six years ago purely by accident; my drive down to the Algarve was scuttled by torrential rain, and we didn’t want rainy beach. So we ended up driving up and over from east to west: Evora, Elvas, Beja. So beautiful and so unexpected. We happened into an ancient Roman Meat Market that had at a later point been a Catholic Church and was now a local craft shop/art gallery. So many Roman Ruins and such beauty! For a few years I loved to say, “If you want to see Rome, go to Portugal!”