The Meharg family arrives at New Brackett Church, bringing food for that week’s Cook Club. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

On a raw, rain-soaked Tuesday evening in early March, 86-year-old Wally Fischer bangs on the door of New Brackett Church on Peaks Island, cradling a shopping bag that holds a big, warm casserole of potatoes Dauphinoise.

In moments, the irresistible scent of melted cheese and cream fills the air of the dark, empty church. Fischer bustles about, turning on lights, setting up folding tables and chairs, and setting out plates and glasses in the sizable church hall.

Not 10 minutes later, the room is full of cheery noise and people. Some 30 Peaks Islanders have streamed in, greeting one another and bearing their own fragrant dishes. Two long, rectangular tables have disappeared under a splendid array of these home-cooked foods – quiches, gratins, souffles, sweet and savory crepes, croissants, carrots Vichy, orange-scented madeleines, chocolate eclairs, crepe gateau Florentine, a lemon tart and many more.

Cook Club participants dig into French dishes, among them Vichy carrots, celery gratin and quiche. Though the French are famed for leisurely meals, this meal seemed to disappear before you could even say “bon appetit.” Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Imagine the best potluck that you’ve ever been to – also the cheesiest, gooiest and creamiest one – and you’ve imagined French night at Cook Club. The themed potluck dinner has been held every Tuesday at the church for the better part of two years. It draws a friendly crowd of regulars, semi-regulars and occasional strays – islanders of all ages, from 5 to 86, and all types, from longtime residents to relative newcomers, college students and young parents to new Mainers and retirees (though few seasonal residents).

“The invite is across the board,” said Jessica George, whose 11-year-old daughter Naomi is a regular.

The club was dreamed up by then 14-year-old Pi Crosby, who was just discovering for himself the joy of cooking. Now a junior at Waynflete in Portland, Crosby was looking for a way to experiment in the kitchen and share the results with like-minded island cooks. It’s become that and much more.


Participants say the club has turned their kids into more adventurous eaters and both their kids and themselves into more ambitious cooks. They say it’s fostered community, introducing them to islanders outside their usual circles and age groups, as well as to unfamiliar cuisines and cultures. The club has given kids confidence and single people company. It’s brought families out of their pandemic shells.

Pi Crosby hand-mixes pasta dough at his home on Peaks Island for green-themed night at the cooking club he founded. He also made parsley-spinach pesto to serve with the noodles. Pi is named for his grandfather, who was a mathematician, and last year, Cook Club celebrated Pi Day with an all-pie menu. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“Every night we eat at home with our families, but tonight we go out and share with more people and not just because it’s coffee hour at church,” George said. “It’s because we cooked this and we want to share it – and that, I think, is really beautiful.”

Jessamine Dana moved from Austin, Texas, to Peaks Island two years ago with her husband and two girls. The family was drawn to the island in part by its sense of community. They’ve just started going to Cook Club, the sort of activity, Dana said, that is “exactly what attracted us to move here.” The club, she added, has become “a staple of weekly island life.”

If ever there were a template for food to bring people together, Cook Club would be it.

Ash Foster, left, Amber Sellers and others serve themselves food during Cook Club in mid-March. The potluck theme was “green.” Dishes included pasta with pesto, shamrock-shaped cookies, Watergate cake, potato-leek soup, green rice and more. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer


One day in the spring of 2022, Pi Crosby was in the car with his mom, Kathy Simmonds, talking over plans for school vacation. The previous Christmas, or maybe the one before that, she’d casually given him the cookbook “Teens Cook.” It sparked something. In months, he went from being a boy who fixed himself the occasional bowl of instant ramen or boxed macaroni and cheese to a deeply enthusiastic and curious amateur cook.


“That was the beginning,” Simmonds recalled. “My memory is it was like throwing gasoline on the fire. He went from zero to 60. Suddenly, it took hold.”

Chatting with his mom that day in the car, he mentioned an idea he had.

“It would be really cool to have a club where we all get to share food,” he told her. Instead of a book club, he thought out loud, he’d like to form a cook club. She encouraged him, and from there it was off to the races (running, it happens, is his other passion. Crosby is a top cross-country runner at Waynflete).

Though he isn’t a member of New Brackett Church, Crosby knew that the church often lent its premises for Christmas concerts, rummage sales and such, a generosity Crosby calls “the Peaks effect.” When he bumped into the Rev. Will Green, he mentioned his Cook Club idea. Green was amenable; the two agreed on logistics, then Crosby drew up a poster and posted an ad on the community website NextDoor.

Pi Crosby laughs with his fellow Cook Club members on March 12. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The first organizational meeting drew about a dozen people, who voted in lemon as theme No. 1. One week later, about 15 people came bearing lemony dishes. Crosby made lemon cake, though he doesn’t consider himself much of a baker. He hadn’t thought through the club’s future.

“If you’d asked me at the very beginning? Honestly, I had no idea,” he said. “But I pretty quickly figured out people were into it.” Now on any given Tuesday, Cook Club draws anywhere from a half dozen eaters and cooks to, on this recent French-themed night, its biggest crowd ever (about 30).


Crosby has developed as a cook. These days, he confidently caramelizes onions, produces showy sauces and whips up pasta, savory tarts and pizza. On green-themed club night this month (loosely linked to St. Patrick’s Day), he rode the ferry home from school, went for a run, showered, then still managed to roll homemade fettuccini and make spinach-parsley pesto in a mere 20 minutes, carrying the dish to Cook Club just a few minutes late.

Jessamine Dana signs the guest book and enters the dishes her family brought to the potluck: green rice and green juice. The theme of the dinner was green. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Crosby is a fan of the New York Times cooking site and of chef/cookbook writer Yotam Ottolenghi. His dishes for Cook Club are often ambitious – an elegantly fanned ratatouille inspired by the movie “Ratatouille” (French Laundry chef Thomas Keller created the dish for the movie; Crosby was pleased), and for French night, mushrooms bourguignon with polenta (not all he’d hoped for, Crosby said, if only he’d been less hurried).

Last summer, Crosby worked as a line cook at Jones Landing, a seasonal Peaks Island restaurant by the ferry landing, and he plans to be back there again this season. He credits the restaurant with giving him confidence and speed in the kitchen. He considered, briefly, becoming a chef. And reconsidered.

“I had very, very little idea what I was signing up for, the absolute insanity of restaurant work,” he said with a self-deprecating laugh. “I do not want to be 30-plus and coming in every day and breaking my back over a hot grill for the rest of my life. But it’s a cool experience for sure, and it’s great just getting in the kitchen and feeling really competent.”

Pi Crosby, center, tallies votes from siblings Mica, left, and Calvin Foster after dinner earlier this month. Each meal concludes with nominations and votes for the next week’s dinner theme. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer


Toward the end of each Cook Club, Crosby rings a bell, or sometimes just hollers, to get everybody’s attention. All who are there then call out and vote on ideas for the next week’s theme. Some you might expect – say, cardamom, apples, Korean, family recipe. Some you might not – deceptive, rainbow, foods that start with the letter “m,” all of which were proposed at dinners this month. Regular Sarah Alechnowicz jokes that the crazier ideas usually get voted in by “the kids’ voting block.” Themes like Mexican or Italian are popular and attract many attendees. Themes like tall food or food in threes tend not to. No matter. It’s a relaxed, welcoming group, “pretty chill” about whatever way an individual evening or dish shakes out, Crosby said.


If there are three king cakes, as there were for a recent dinner celebrating Mardi Gras/Louisiana, so be it. The group enjoyed comparing them – comparing, not judging. If people bring all soups and no desserts, no big deal. It’s just one meal. Nobody assigns one person a dessert and another a soup. That said, the meals usually work out, with enough variety and quantity for all comers.

Mica Foster laughs while reassembling a cake that slid apart during transportation to New Brackett Church for Cook Club. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

And there is always the ferry consult: Before French night, Alechnowicz discovered while commuting to work on the ferry that another clubgoer planned to bring potatoes au gratin; she switched gears, baking flamiche instead, a tasty northern French specialty she described as “a cross between a pizza and a quiche.”

“Maybe the first couple times you feel you need to impress people, but it very quickly departs from that,” Crosby said. “You will drive yourself crazy trying to do that every single week, and you’ll never learn anything new. Which is kind of the whole point of why I wanted to do it – so I could experiment and fool around. It’s very much a ‘mess up or make something good’ – it doesn’t matter. It’s more ‘follow the prompt, let your inner cook guide you.’ ”

Pi Crosby’s homemade pasta and pesto. ( Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Some island “inner cooks” get an A+ for imagination. Mica Foster, a student at Southern Maine Community College who now lives on the mainland, often takes the ferry home to attend the dinners with his siblings, mom and grandmother (Wally Fischer, who set up the tables for French night).

For a Thanksgiving theme, Mica and his siblings made a turkey out of meringue, so that the many vegetarians at Cook Club could eat turkey, he explained. For Valentine’s, the family made “probably the weirdest thing we’ve done,” said Mica’s mother, Christina Foster. To represent St. Valentine’s martyrdom by beheading, she shaped the saint’s torso out of bread, then they used a bowl of spaghetti and meatballs for his head and eyes. For tall food night, Alechnowicz batted about menu ideas with her online quilting group, and together they came up with a breadsticks Jenga tower.

Cook Club attracts many families with children, who by all accounts are as eager and creative as their parents. For the lemon-themed night, 11-year-old Naomi George hollowed out lemon halves, used the flesh to make raspberry-lemon frozen ice, and then scooped the sorbet back into the lemon halves.


“She did that all herself! That was a hit!” her mom, Jessica George, said. “I was really proud of her for that one.”

Emmett O’Brien and Naomi George fry potato chips for a potato-themed Cook Club, a weekly potluck dinner on Peak’s Island. Photo by Amanda Dennison

Naomi often goes to her friend Emmett O’Brien’s house, where the two cook together under the supervision of Emmett’s mom, Amanda Dennison.

“Naomi and Emmett are the drivers,” she said, starting with coming up with a dish.

For a potato-themed dinner, they landed on homemade potato chips. For French night, they Googled “French pastry” and decided on chocolate eclairs. Dennison and her husband then figure out how to involve the fifth-graders in the actual cooking.

“We kind of give them the glory jobs,” Dennison said, such as filling and icing the chocolate eclairs.

Each week, the themes, proposed themes, dishes and cooks get recorded in a big notebook that’s kept at the church. Crosby often adorns the record with decorative lettering and doodles – a jack-o’-lantern and maple leaf on Autumn night, a curvy halved avocado for Avocado night.

Arriving Cook Club participants set out their dishes for a French-themed potluck as French cabaret songs play on a Bluetooth device. At the start of the meal, everybody says what they made. A young girl, Juniper Henwood, brought peanut-butter brownies with chocolate chips. “It isn’t that French,” she told the crowd, getting a big laugh. “They don’t like (peanut butter) at all.” Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Recently, to his own surprise, Crosby noticed that the book is almost full.

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