I am so lucky to have two sets of Tobler cousins and their families within an hour of my home in Baltimore County, Maryland. Several years ago in celebration of that proximity, I organized an October get-together for all of us living in Maryland. Phil, the husband of my 2nd cousin, Claudia, eventually christened my gathering "OkToblerfest", and an annual tradition was born. Here is a recap of this year's festivities, which were held on Saturday, October 13th.
|I sent my hand-made invitations out|
a month in advance
I took off from work the day before my party, so eager was I to be able to relax and enjoy the event instead of cramming every last item on my long to-do list into a single hectic day. I didn't want to be exhausted by the time my guests arrived. Preparations for the event actually began a month ago, when I created homemade invitations, slipped them into envelopes fastened with sealing wax and mailed them off to all the cousins whom I thought might be able to attend. As I planned my menu, I discussed with those who had RSVP'd what dishes each would like to contribute. A game plan was established.
|There wasn't a shred left of this five-|
pound beef brisket at meal's end
For sides I tapped my best friend, Kari, who eagerly endorsed two recipes she'd tried from MyFitnessPal.com: Cauliflower au gratin and roasted Brussels sprouts with sweet potatoes in a balsamic vinegar reduction. Both sounded wonderful and neither were heavily caloric.
|Blue cheese-ricotta dip was perfect for|
dipping with red and green apple slices
For an appetizer I chose a blue cheese-ricotta dip with sliced red and green apples to round out the assortment of dolmas, curried cauliflower florets and pickled Cipollini onions I frequently serve to guests. I decided to repeat last year's Anjou-champagne punch for the adults and hot spiced cider for the kids because both had been so popular in the past.
|Chopping everything ahead of time was|
a huge stress reliever for me
With the menu set, I turned my attention to preparation. Every evening after work in the week leading up to the party, I sliced and diced and chopped and minced, until my fridge looked like the prepared foods section of a supermarket. I sliced oranges, lemons and limes for the punch, halved Brussels sprouts, diced sweet potatoes, cut two heads of cauliflower into florets, chopped onions and pecans, sliced apples into wedges, and bagged everything up.
|Anjou-champagne punch is decorated|
with multicolored citrus slices
|I always serve my favorite trio of |
curried cauliflower, pickled Cipollini
onions and dolmas from Wegman's
I created a pretty menu to print out on heavy paper stock for my guests. I printed place cards and carved slits in mini-pumpkins for place-card holders. I laid in a supply of graham crackers, marshmallows and chocolate bars so the five children in attendance could roast s'mores at my bonfire after dinner. I ordered dessert -- an extra long pumpkin roll cake which I asked Wegman's Supermarket to adorn with the Tobler family name in red icing on the side.
The day before the party I set my sights on setting up the venue. My 1862 farmhouse is plenty big for me, but I would be hard-pressed to fit 12 people into my small dining room, so I always feed my OkToblerfest guests outside on my lawn. Though it threatened to rain the morning of my party as a cold front arrived, by afternoon the skies were expected to clear. I just had to hope the weatherman was right about the timing. The cold front would cause temperatures to dip into the 40s on the day of my party -- perfect for an autumn celebration!
|This 16-foot table is actually|
an old ping-pong table and a
patio table shoved together
With the help of my longtime companion, Jesse, and a young coworker of his, Victor, we set up two shade structures and wove rope lights through their framework to create soft ambient light by which to dine. From the middle of each tent we hung infrared heaters, and beneath the structures we set up a long banquet table constructed by shoving together an old wooden ping-pong table and my glass-topped patio table. With this configuration I can seat 16 people comfortably; more if necessary.
|My potting bench became a makeshift bar|
|On this table I set up a carving station|
for the children to create apple heads
On the day of the party, the rain was forecast to quit by noon. That was okay. I planned to spend the entire morning cooking. I prepared a spicy rub for the meat, nestled the brisket into a baking dish layered with a tomato-brown sugar sauce, covered it all with tinfoil and tied it tightly with string. I tossed the Brussels sprouts and sweet potatoes with olive oil, garlic powder, cumin, salt and allspice and spread them out on a roasting sheet. I steamed the cauliflower and whisked up a beurre blanc with sharp cheddar in which the cruciferous plant would later bake. I whirled blue cheese crumbles in a food processor with creamy ricotta, stirred in chives snipped from my garden and scraped the dip into a hollowed-out gourd doing double duty as a serving bowl, around which I arranged sliced red and green apple wedges. I warmed cider on the stove with cinnamon sticks, lemon peels and orange slices pierced with cloves.
|Peeled blood oranges, navel oranges|
and tangerines with celery "stems"
made a seasonal snack that the
kids gobbled up
Once the sun came out and my dishes went into the oven, I dressed my dinner table and chairs outside, which is always a source of great joy for me. On went three plain brown bedsheets, providing a unified "tablecloth" pallet on which to build my tablescape. While Jesse filled tiki torches with lamp oil around my two acres and stacked firewood for the bonfire and my patio chiminea, I arranged twelve settings at the massive table, scattered the surface with walnuts and gourds, bittersweet and chrysanthemums, and arranged glassware, silverware and plates. On the back of each chair I tied burlap bows, each through which I stuck a cluster of colorful faux fall flowers.
|Each family received a printed menu|
to take home
|The children carved apples with faces|
that will contort upon drying in the oven
|Carving to-be shrunken apple heads|
is an annual tradition at my house
|My cousin, Heidi, right, came all the way from Oregon|
to attend my party!
I was especially excited to catch up with this year's guest of honor, my cousin, Heidi, who flew all the way from Oregon to spend the weekend with her daughter, Claudia, in order to attend my gathering. Together the twelve of us present at the party represented the heirs of three of the five Tobler brothers who raised their families -- on the east coast (Christine's father, John), the west coast (my father, Alfred) and in our native Switzerland (Heidi's father and Claudia's grandfather, Oscar). Along with spouses and children, we made a lively and diverse group whose well-traveled children chatted away in English, Swiss-German and Hungarian throughout the evening.
|The intricate embroidery on these Tobler|
family heirlooms was all hand-done
With toasts given and handkerchiefs duly acknowledged, we dug into our meal with gusto. I am happy to report that my flavorful roast was falling-apart tender. The meat was gobbled up so fast that it didn't even have time to get cold in the chill air. Wine, water and sparkling cider were poured. All of us ate heartily. I made coffee and sliced the pumpkin roll, which was also devoured post haste. Jesse lit the bonfire in my northern meadow. We all grabbed lap blankets from a large basket and made our way to the chairs surrounding the firepit.
|Warm blankets helped keep the chill at bay as we sat around|
the bonfire after dinner and shared stories of ghosts
and family lore.
|I don't know how the children|
found room in their tummies
for s'mores, but they did!
It was very late when my cousins finally said they needed to get their children home to bed, at least an hour's drive away for each family. Apparently I wasn't the only one who hated to break the magical spell of intimacy and laughter we were all sharing out there in the cold and dark. What a wonderful evening it was in every way!