On an evening in late August, I was sipping a refreshing drink while waiting to be seated at a table with about a dozen others — a group brought together for a book club dinner at Flora in Downtown Oakland. The drink was made with wild mountain huckleberry, white sage shrub and ginger ale, but no alcohol — a small detail from a well-thought-out evening designed by Flora’s executive chef Rebecca Boice and her crew.
The night was themed around, and inspired by, 2019 Pultizer Prize finalist, There There, which we would discuss over dinner. Its author Tommy Orange was born and raised in Oakland and is a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma. In the novel, Orange explores the challenges faced by urban Native Americans, including addiction.
While sipping my no-proof cocktail, I met Frankie, a Flora book clubber, who has attended all three of the previous dinners. The books read and discussed before were The Portable Dorothy Parker, Sourdough: A Novel by Robin Sloan, and Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold, the last being an obvious choice for a restaurant that has a large print of the book’s cover hanging on one of its walls and a signature cocktail with the same name.
Chef Boice said she started the book club because she wanted to host something different from what the restaurant normally does. Additionally, the team wanted to create a space for “community and conversation.”
As we sat down, I perused the menu, noticing each course was paired with an optional mocktail. I asked Frankie if she thought it was intentional. “Oh, totally,” she responded, noting that previous dinners came with a cocktail to start and an optional wine pairing for each course. Later on, right before the first course was served, our waiter confirmed the lack of alcohol on the themed menu was purposeful. (For those who wanted to tipple, the regular bar menu was available to book club attendees.)
Over the next three hours, we dined on three courses plus dessert. There was a chilled heirloom tomato soup with Community Grains red flint corn polenta croutons, wild fennel and a squash blossom; maple-cured king salmon with apples, hazelnut sauce, elderflower vinaigrette and nasturtium; California bay laurel-smoked duck leg with Native Harvest Manoomin wild rice pilaf, crispy sweet potato and salad; and fry bread with Sebastopol Berry Farm blackberry jam and bee pollen, served with a mint and buckwheat honey tea.
Every ingredient on the menu was intentional. Boice said that each book lends itself to a different menu development process. For Flora’s last book dicussion, about Sloan’s Sourbough book, the chef baked her own sourdough bread for two of the courses. For There There, she said she wanted to mostly use ingredients native to California and in some cases, made by Native people. For the tomato soup, she used olive oil from Séka Hills, which is owned and run by members of the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, whose farm is about an hour and a half north of Oakland in Capay Valley.
Boice also mentioned that the menus for the book club dinner have become more collaborative with the staff at Flora. Staffers who have read the book pick and share their inspirations from the text. The crew also contributes by designing the back of the menu. Bartender Tony Martinez designed the back of the There There menu, drawing upon imagery and themes in the book. The headdress-wearing Native American he drew is a reference to the iconic Indian-head test pattern used as a television sign-off for decades, which Orange discusses in the novel’s prologue. For the drawing, Martinez created a web-like design around the head, mirroring the layout of the Oakland Coliseum, the site of the climactic powwow in There There.
Each course came with a question or two about the book for everyone to discuss. For course two, the king salmon — wild-caught in Bolinas and my favorite dish from the night — the questions were, “What were your general impressions of the book? Was there a character you found particularly compelling? Why?”
As a group, we answered the questions — in some cases, dug deeper and asked more questions — but our conversations also moved beyond the text. We talked about our time in our respective Bay Area cities, other book clubs that we belonged to and a local bread baker to who delivers his loaves by bike.
Book clubs are a good way to read more, something many friends have told me they don’t do as much as they’d like. In addition, this particular book club felt like a way to meet people from different backgrounds outside your own.
I conversed with people who’ve called a large swath of the Bay Area — including Oakland, Walnut Creek and Livermore — home for decades. And by my estimation, I probably wouldn’t have crossed paths with them had I not gone to the dinner. I was one of a handful of Black women at the long table. There was one White man, several White women and two Indigenous women who were there from the Oakland-based Intertribal Friendship House, which would receive a portion of the proceeds from the evening’s $75 dinner. (Full disclosure: I was a media guest at this dinner).
Meals themed around literary works are a fun idea, and can spark creative food, decor and conversation, but there were moments from this book club dinner that made me pause. When guests arrived at Flora, they were handed a slip of paper with the words “Welcome to the Oakland powwow” written on them, which, given the plot of the novel (don’t worry, no spoilers), seemed inappropriate. The mocktails, while well-intentioned and related to one of the issues explored in the book, veered dangerously close to stereotypes about Native Americans and the misuse of alcohol.
I also wondered if chef Boice had consulted with any Native chefs on the menu, especially given the themes of Native appropriation that run deep in Orange’s book. I emailed her after the dinner to find out.
“Most of my research for this dinner was based on California native plants, and general knowledge of Native American traditions which inspired the smoked duck, nuts and berries,” Boice wrote in an emailed response. “Our sous chef is from New Mexico and had suggestions on how to approach the fry bread. And then a lot of our seasonal approach influenced how dishes like the chilled heirloom tomato soup came together.”
While discussion questions were provided, diners were responsible for facilitating the conversation. There was a part of me that wanted a moderator to guide us, to ensure that we engaged with the text and one another as we consumed each course.
Still, the event succeeded in getting us to talk about difficult subjects. One of the most compelling parts of the evening for me was when people discussed the injustices that Native American people have endured and continue to grapple with. One of the questions I was left with at the end of the night: How do I deal with the consequences of history in the present?