What’s for Dinner?

One summer afternoon about four years ago, my wife and I knocked on the front door of people we did not know, anxiously clutching a Tupperware box of spicy pork balls.  We had been invited to the inaugural get-together of a new recipe club.  Everyone was asked to cook and bring their favorite Asian appetizer.  On the kitchen counter was an array of spring rolls, exotic salads, dumplings, and the like, all elegantly presented on beautiful dishes.  (I immediately began to regret our own plastic box.)  The kitchen was filled with people we did not know.  And I couldn’t help wondering: well, aren’t we a bit old to be making all these new friends?

The answer, thankfully, was an emphatic no.

This is how it works: about once a month, a couple volunteers to host the next event and proposes a theme, which sends the rest of us scurrying to browse our cookbooks and epicurious.com.  A flurry of emails then descends on our in-boxes as people volunteer ideas and recipes until a balanced meal presents itself.  Depending on the theme, people either choose tried-and-tested favorites, or else they use the opportunity to experiment.  How often, in these heavily-scheduled, frantic days, have you read a recipe and thought, when would I ever have the time to do that?  The club is an excuse for some of us to indulge our inner Emeril and attempt things that we would never usually even contemplate.

Since that first foray into Asia we have we have done a gastronomic world tour, visiting Mexico, France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Ireland, South America, Sicily, San Antonio, and the Caribbean (this in the midst of last winter’s ice storm).  We have celebrated Oktoberfest, Mardi Gras and the Kentucky Derby, and we’ve paid homage to the pig (a spit-roasted hog) and the cow (last July’s “Red, White and Moo”.)  One of my favorite evenings was “Everything Fancy You Ever Wanted to Cook on Thanksgiving but Knew Would Be Wasted on the Ravenous Hoards”.  Other more recherché ideas that haven’t yet made it to the table yet are having everyone cook something the same color, or doing an evening of music-inspired food.  This last project was abandoned due to the risk of a surfeit of Meatloaf (the artist, not the dish.)  The food may vary, but the pleasures of familiar ritual become sweeter over time.

One recent gathering was billed as Mafia Night.  The genesis of the idea came from an article I read about a dinner party game which involved people trying to guess who sitting around the table was a member of the mafia in a small Sicilian village, while the participants are being killed off, one by one.  The theme inspired dishes from various incarnations of the mob in popular culture.  There was fish stew from Sicily, cannoli (a nod to a famous scene in the first Godfather movie), and the spirit of Carmela Soprano, bling and all, hovered over us all night.  Thankfully there were no recipes which involved horses’ heads.  Marlon Brando and Al Pacino brooded silently on a large screen behind us and music was provided by Andrea Botcelli and other purveyors of questionable Italian pop (thereby obviating the need for a cheese course.)  We even had some of those fat, wicker-wrapped Chianti bottles.  Surprisingly, it was the first time we had tried an after-dinner game of any sort – usually we just lie back, utterly replete, and chat happily until it’s time to go home.  Even with all that food inside us, everyone joined in the game and enjoyed themselves.  Those murdered first gamely started on the dishes.

There have been a few interesting changes over the years.  When we first began, we brought our children along.  (That first afternoon, our infant daughter vomited on the lap of a doctor we had never met before and he just laughed it off.  I knew then we were on to a good thing.)  Having fourteen adults and fifteen children all crammed into someone’s home was chaotic, to say the least, so we soon agreed to pool baby-sitting resources, depositing children in one home and congregating (somewhat guiltily) in another.  But we were still beholden to our children’s moods, and we always partied with one eye on the clock, waiting for the witching hour when the worried baby-sitter would call to report that someone’s head had fallen off.  In other words, the kids were cramping our style.  We finally decided it was easiest to get our own babysitters and leave the children at home.  That way we, and not they, got to decide when the fun was over.

But perhaps the most telling difference of all is this: for the first few meetings of the group we all brought copies of the recipes we had cooked to share with the others.  That didn’t last long, though.  The food is important, but it’s not the reason we keep doing this.  The most valuable nourishment from our monthly get-togethers lies in the shared joys of camaraderie and friendship.  Long may it last.

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