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"Books bring people together," says singer Kellie Pickler

Kellie Pickler's tour bus should come with a warning sign. "We brake for bookstores!" says the bubbly country singer. "If we pass one, I tell my driver, 'Let's pull in there.' " Now the avid reader has found a way to get her literary fix at home too. She recently started a club with three close friends: Aimee Mayo, a songwriter, and singers Rachel Reinert of Gloriana and Hilary Williams (Hank Jr.'s daughter). Their meetings are all about "good girlfriends and snacks!" says Reinert. And, of course, a little lively conversation. "We don't just talk about books," says Pickler, "but we always spend time talking about the book." On Dec. 17 the group met at Mayo's Nashville home to dine and discuss The Help (see their review on next page). Pickler and Mayo share a 100-page rule. "If I'm bored by then, I won't finish it," says Mayo. "It's like a song," adds Pickler. "If the chorus sucks, you don't listen to the rest." So far, this club is in perfect harmony. "Everyone gets something different out of a book," says Mayo. "What makes a book club great...you can share your perceptions and get even more out if it than you would if you had read it by yourself."

The Menu

Spicy Herb-Roasted Pecans

CherryTomatoes with Broccoli

Filling

Baked Vidalia Onion Dip

Pound Cake with Kahlua Cream

Sparkling Wine Coolers

Assorted Cheeses and Crackers

How They Felt About The Help

It was Pickler who chose Kathryn Stockett's bestselling debut novel for the book club's inaugural meeting. "I liked that it's set around the time of the Civil Rights movement," she says. "I grew up in the deep South, and I'm just fascinated by that." And the entire group loved the tale of Eugenia Skeeter Phelan, a budding journalist who decides to write about the experience of black maids in Mississippi during the early days of the Civil Rights movement. Phelan is horrified when one of her best friends tries to forbid the maids from using the toilets in their employers' homes. "The women in the book are so strong," says Pickler. "I love that the book speaks from the help's point of view and from someone who was raised by the help." "The author does a great job at voicing the characters," agrees Reinert. "You feel like you're in the moment."

SPICY HERB-ROASTED PECANS

Serves: 4½ cups

Hands-on time: 10 min.

Total time: 1 hr., 25 min.

4½ cups pecan halves

½ cup maple syrup

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 teaspoon dried crushed rosemary

½ teaspoon dried oregano

½ teaspoon dried thyme

¼ teaspoon ground red pepper

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1. Preheat oven to 300. Stir together first 7 ingredients in a 15- x 10- x 1-in. rimmed baking pan. Sprinkle with salt. Bake 45 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until pecans are golden; cool.

2. Sprinkle with additional salt if desired.

POUND CAKE WITH KAHLUA CREAM

Serves: 8

Hands-on time: 10 min.

Total time: 10 min.

1 cup heavy whipping cream

2 tablespoons powdered sugar

1 tablespoon Kahlua

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

1 store-bought pound cake, sliced

Garnish: chocolate-covered coffee beans

1. Beat whipping cream and next 3 ingredients at low speed with an electric mixer until blended. Gradually increase mixer speed, beating until soft peaks form.

2. Dollop each slice of pound cake with whipped cream. Sprinkle with crushed chocolate-covered coffee beans.

BAKED VIDALIA ONION DIP

Makes: 3 cups

Hands-on time: 20 min.

Total time: 1 hr.

2 tablespoons butter

1½ large coarsely chopped Vidalia onions (about 3 cups)

1 cup (4 oz.) shredded Swiss cheese

1 cup mayonnaise

1 (8-oz.) can sliced water chestnuts, drained and chopped

2 tablespoons dry white wine

1 clove garlic, minced

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon hot sauce

Freshly ground black pepper (optional)

Toasted baguette slices

1. Preheat oven to 375.

2. Melt butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat; add onion and saute 10 minutes or until tender.

3. Combine cheese and next 7 ingredients; stir in onion. Spoon mixture into a lightly greased 1-quart baking dish.

4. Bake 20 minutes; remove from oven. Preheat broiler to high. Broil 6 inches from heat 3 to 5 minutes or until lightly brown. Let stand 10 minutes. Serve with toasted baguette slices.

SPARKLING WINE COOLERS

Serves: 8

Hands-on time: 10 min.

Total time: 10 min.

1 cup lemon-lime soft drink, chilled

1 cup assorted berries

½ (12-oz.) can frozen limeade concentrate, thawed

¼ cup fresh mint leaves, torn

1 (750-ml.) bottle sparkling white wine or champagne, chilled*

1. Combine first 4 ingredients in a large pitcher. Gently stir in sparkling wine. Serve immediately.

* For a nonalcoholic version, substitute 3 (12-oz.) cans orange-flavored sparkling water, chilled, for the white wine. Proceed as directed.

CHERRY TOMATOES WITH BROCCOLI FILLING

Serves: 8 to 10

Hands-on time: 45 min.

Total time: 45 min.

48 cherry tomatoes (about 2 pints)

1 (10-oz.) package frozen chopped broccoli, thawed and drained

½ cup mayonnaise

½ cup sour cream

¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese

½ teaspoon dried crushed red pepper

¼ teaspoon kosher salt

1. Slice tops off tomatoes and reserve. Remove pulp with a melon baller or small spoon; discard pulp. Invert tomato shells on paper towels to drain.

2. Pat broccoli dry with paper towels; place in food processor bowl. Add mayonnaise, sour cream, Parmesan cheese, dried crushed red pepper and salt. Pulse 3 or 4 times to combine; do not puree.

3. Spoon 2 teaspoons broccoli filling into each tomato, mounding slightly. Replace tops on tomatoes. Serve chilled or at room temperature.

  • Contributors:
  • Eileen Finan,
  • Kay West; Recipes by Susan Nash Gilpin.