Dinner With 19 Strangers in Astoria. Yum!
So the whole idea is pretty funky.
Go to someone’s backyard in Astoria, Queens, (one of the five boroughs of New York City), and eat a meal chosen and prepared by two women you don’t know with 19 people you’ve never met. This is New York, where the style tribes mark their territories with psychic razor wire. Going to a party where you know no one, even in your best mood and wearing your prettiest dress, can send you home in misery as everyone eyes you with disdain for showing up in the wrong clothes/haircut/industry/attitude. So you have to be a little bit brave.
I drove in *&^$#@ circles for 30 minutes around Queens’ barren industrial precincts, running out of gas, trying to read my five-borough atlas at the red lights, wondering if I should just give up and just go home, before I finally found the place. Down a long, really narrow alley and into a postage-stamp cement backyard were 19 strangers gathered for a Saturday evening dinner party. A jam-jar of rose, a piece of homemade tomato tart and a fun woman in an emerald-green wrap jersey top helped calm me down. I was 45 minutes late, but the sun was just setting and the meal had not yet begun. It felt cosy and welcoming, the circular black metal staircase to their second-floor apartment reminding me of Montreal.
We sat down at a collection of tables, covered with a collection of mismatched plates and linens. The cutlery was battered, mismatched flea market silver plate. Our tablecloth was vintage white linen with brown cross-stitching. The woman to my left, a religion major in college who now coaches writers, talked about tango as a form of trust. The woman to my right, a funny French-speaking blogger, looked suspiciously like the man across the table and his red-headed companion — her parents, visiting from Toronto. Her mom and I had attended the same camp, the same ballet school and had attended competing private girls’ schools. “You always beat us at basketball!” she said.
The food rolled over us like some caloric, Mediterranean-inflected Niagara. Warm baguettes plunked onto the tablecloth. Tamara’s husband holding out a wall of roasted corn that we passed to one another like edible batons. A wooden bowl heaped with glistening red and yellow tomatoes, sliced thick. Bowls of bouillabaisse with a reddish-yellow bowl of rouille. A dish of yellow rice and a heaped bowl of yellow and green baby squash with feta and olive oil. A big green salad. Red and white and rose poured into out little former jam jars. Elizabeth waved her hands a lot, the way French people do. Anne reached across me for a radish. I poured wine for everyone who wanted it and asked for a fork and a spoon for dessert. “No. Only one!” I was told, mock-seriously. Having no idea what dessert was, I chose a spoon. Peaches, cut in half, warmed, with cream and fresh mint.
The kitty came around and we each paid $35. On the way out, I traded notes with an Irishwoman about Dublin. This dinner party has been going on for six years, has an email list of 400 and the first 20 to reply get to attend. Check out their website, f-ingdelicious.com.
The writers of a new cookbook extolling others to actually throw their own dinner parties, minus the angst and drama people (mistakenly) associate with entertaining a crowd, are Zora O’Neill and Tamara Reynolds, six-year hosts of this charming, unlikely, open-armed festivity:
“We do it because at every meal, our extended social community reknits itself in a fascinating way: The former priest turned calligraphy professor sits next to the design-school student, the hedge fund guy chats with the environmental activist. Neighbors drop by and meet people who live on the other side of the city…Our “hungry kiddies” (as we’ve come to call them in our e-mail invitations) always surprise us with their willingness to eat just about anything we throw at them and their enthusiasm for talking to whoever winds up sitting in the next chair.”
Their cookbook, available in October, is “Forking Fantastic!” (Gotham Books), $20.00. It’s filled with their lovely spirit of optimistic generosity — and some terrific recipes.