Saturday, May 21, 2011

Go progressive: spring dinner party

Grandma in her kitchen, 1951
As a kid, my mother spent every Christmas shuttling between the houses of her family members.  It wasn't that tough considering that my grandfather and his three brothers lived between two little towns, Erie and Ida, which sit side by side along the Michigan/Ohio border.  Everyone has their Christmas Day ritual; theirs was an extended family progressive dinner, starting in the day and lasting long into the night.  My grandmother told me recently that they would begin the first course around 4pm and often wouldn't be eating dessert until midnight. 

I know not everyone will think this sounds like a charming relic from the bucolic past.  But my mother's memories aren't of harried aunts swirling around a hot kitchen, or of stale gatherings she was anxious to escape.  She remembers the parties as lively and fun, a chance to play with her cousins' new toys and also show off her own.  For her, the food came second to the company.

Potluck mashed with obstacle course
I always loved the notion of a mobile dinner party, and wanted to try doing one with friends here in Chicago.  Progressive parties were popular in the 50s, but have since faded from fashion.  With the slow food movement gaining momentum, I figured now was a good time to ask people to hop on their bikes and spend the day together enjoying some of our favorite recipes.  When I asked several friends if they'd like to be in on it, I received a few confused looks.  "So, like a potluck?" Or worse, "Will someone be selling insurance?"

Well, no.  Progressive dinner parties are like potlucks in that everyone contributes, but a little more sophisticated.  Here's the deal:  there are usually four courses to the meal (appetizers, vegetables, main course, dessert) and each is served at a separate household.  The tricky part is in the preparation.  Planning a dinner party is hard enough, but how do you serve up delicious fare when you aren't entirely sure of when your guests are arriving?  There's only so much that can be done in advance, unless you're ok with having soggy, lukewarm dishes.  Saving all the to-dos for the moment your guests arrive won't work either, since who knows what shape you'll be in after enjoying a cocktail or three during the first course.  My enlisted dinner companions and I weren't sure how we would pull it off, but we wanted to try.  Think potluck mashed with obstacle course. 

The auditions
My messy kitchen, 2011. 
M. and I spent our Easter Sunday drinking wine and trying out recipes.  We had signed up for the second course - vegetables.  I wanted to try farm house style green beans (kitschy), an herb leek tart (classy), roasted rosemary potato and beet salad (color) and sweet potato fries (classic).  It was a lot of work! I am usually in awe of my grandma, but the experience added yet another layer of appreciation for her talents and effort.   M. and I both complained of sore hands after all that chopping, mixing and dish washing.

We sampled as we went, and everything came out ok apart from the leek tart - it was so artisanal that I wasn't able to find all the correct ingredients in the local grocery store.  I figured we'd just wing it on the morning of the dinner (if you think that sounds like an ominous hint for how the dish turned're right on).

l-r: roasted rosemary potato and beet salad, farm style green beans, sweet potato fries, incomplete leek tart

Course One: Appetizers, 4pm
Our friends B. and R. supplied course number one, the appetizers.  One the menu: creamy pesto cheese torte, cuban mojo deviled eggs, blue cheese stuffed figs wrapped in prosciutto, smoked salmon red bell pepper appetizer, walnut goat cheese red bell pepper appetizer, champagne and cucumber moijios.  Their dishes were delicious and photogenic: 

Part of the fun is playing with everyone else's toys, so I had to get a shot of B's spare bartenders:

What a crew! B. inherited these dudes from his grandparents

Course Two: Vegetables, 7pm.
Ok, our time to shine.  We biked home after enjoying a few mojitos on B and R's rooftop and then made a mad dash to get things ready before everyone else arrived.  On the menu:  farm style green beans with onion, tomato and bacon, roasted rosemary new potatoes and beet salad, sweet potato fries, herb leek tart, riesling, pinot noir and later, homemade (not by us) tarragon cerrano pepper pineapple tequila. Yeah.

The herb leek tart looked pretty enough.  I made it that morning, and confess that I do not know my way around a leek.  Have you ever seen one?  It looks like something Mario would have protected Princess Toadstool from in Super Mario Land.  Needless to say, it didn't turn out how I wanted.  The leeks weren't cooked enough, the mustard was too sour.  My dinner companions claimed it was good; I claimed they'd had enough tequila to think so.
I did channel Grandma when decorating for the day.


Course Three:  Entrees, 11pm
After several hours of eating, talking and drinking we were a jolly bunch by the time the main event rolled around.  We shared a laughter filled cab ride to J. & M.'s, our last stop, in which B. and I sat on the floor of the cab-van.  I'm afraid my state affected my documentary efforts, but the food was lovely.  We had pulled pork slow-cooked in vinegar, olive oil cole slaw, and Portuguese rustic rolls.  J and M very kindly also supplied dessert:  gelato from the parlor down the street, with fresh coffee.  Here's my one food shot of the delicious pulled pork, mostly eaten:

As the evening closed, we traded war stories.  R. had been assigned the job of chopping the deviled eggs by B. but had sliced them sideways, rather than longways, causing their contents to tip and spill.  It didn't affect the taste, but B., the chef d'jour, was dismayed to say the least. I had been irritated at M. that morning when he did his homework rather than help me chop.  He made up for it with a last minute beet run for me.  J. and M. joked about stuffing the large pork butt into their small crockpot, with M. commenting that the meat did indeed look like two flushed cheeks being squeezed into a tight spot.

Though the preparations may have tested our teamwork at moments, we delivered successfully.  And it was lively and fun - we spent hours together and yet it felt like a new party each time we arrived for the next course.  Plus, we had these two characters to close the night with:

Gravy & Biscuit, J and M's extraordinary Siamese cats
Plans were made for a summertime progressive where we hope to extend ourselves further with a fourth, equally decadent course.


  1. Hi Heartland! I'm not sure what brand of Pinot you usually like but you might try WillaKenzie Estate!

  2. How fun!! I might steal this idea from you, I have some foodie friends who might be into it. The beet thing sounds amazing!

  3. Thanks for the recommendation!

    Erin, do it - it was so fun!