Saturday, October 19, 2013


A midsummer email from abroad announced that my cousin, Sherry, was planning a visit to the U.S. from our native Switzerland in early October.  She was bringing her eldest granddaughter, eleven-year-old Nina, to the United States for the first time.  Sherry wanted to know if we would be able to get together while she was here.
Emil and Lina in 1934, the
grandparents who started
it all

I could scarcely contain my excitement.  It had been two years since I’d gotten together with most of the east coast cousins from my father’s side of the family.  What better excuse for a party than Sherry’s visit?  And October?  Why, that’s the prettiest time of year on my rustic two acres in suburban Baltimore County, Maryland.  The leaves would just be starting their fiery metamorphosis. The weather would be fairly temperate. My window boxes would still be brimming with bright green potato vine and colorful impatiens.  With all my autumn decorations in place, it was a perfect time of year for a festive family gathering.

I crafted these invitations from plain
Crane notecards decorated with
gold initial bookplates
I set about creating save-the-date postcards which I mailed to my Mid-Atlantic relatives in July. October 5th would be the day we would come together to celebrate being a family, midway through Sherry and Nina’s visit.  If every invited guest was able to attend, each of the five sons born to my paternal grandparents, Lina and Emil Tobler, would be represented by at least one descendant.  That would make nineteen of us, way too many to fit into the dining room of my modest, 1860s-era farmhouse. Perhaps we could dine alfresco in the yard.  My party-planning genes swung into full gear.  My brain crackled with ideas.

Jen Herchenroeder has
made art her career
At the beginning of September I slipped hand-embellished invitations into crisp sage envelopes and secured them with gold sealing wax stamped with our family initial.  I drew a diagram of the seating arrangement I envisioned out on the lawn.  14 guests would ultimately attend the dinner. I had china and flatware for twenty. No problem there.  I quickly supplemented my supply of amber-hued felt placemats shaped like maple leaves, conveniently priced for $2 each at Bed, Bath & Beyond.  I ordered a few more gold-lacquered resin chargers and counted my water glasses, wine goblets and coffee mugs.

Can you say
I searched the internet for a recipe that would feed a crowd, finally settling on a lasagna dish created by chef John Chandler that could be made ahead of time, for not only was I hosting a sit-down dinner but I was having everyone come early so we could make mid-afternoon sojourns to my two favorite places, Soldiers Delight Natural Environment Area, a nearby 1900-acre expanse of wilderness on whose board of directors I have served for many years, and the stable just down the road from my home where I keep my trusty steed, Chubby.

I sprinkled walnuts and Indian corn,
bittersweet and tiny crepe gourds
down the center of my five-foot-wide,
makeshift dining table
The day before my party I set up an old, wooden ping-pong table rescued from a secondhand store in Oakland, California, decades ago for use as a supplemental dining table, and pushed my newer glass patio table against one end of it, creating a 16-foot long surface that would seat 18 people comfortably.  I pressed solid brown flat sheets into service as tablecloths.  Since I was using a variety of patio and folding chairs, I cut a 100-foot length of burlap from Home Depot into eight-foot long strips and tied one to each chair back.  Silk chrysanthemum and faux foliage stems were then tucked into each burlap bow, giving unity and a bit of shabby chic glam to the seating.
Inexpensive burlap used for
winter frost protection
adds a rustic flavor to
ordinary patio chairs

Talented Baltimore artist Jen Herchenroeder, an employee of my former husband and frequent companion, Jesse Turner, was recruited to etch a gorgeous vine and leaf pattern into an eight-pound pumpkin which I then hollowed out, sprinkled with cinnamon and nutmeg and baked; the gourd becoming a vessel for a pumpkin pudding recipe I’d kept in my recipe file for years but had never tried.

Rope lighting woven through pop-up
canopy frames created the perfect
ambiance for dining under the stars
I printed my celebratory menu on tan parchment, tied seven of them with orange ribbon as mementos, and slipped place cards into slits cut through 14 baby pumpkins. I hung apples from long strings on my patio and wrapped small prizes for each of the six children who would be in attendance. Two pop-up tent canopies erected over my expansive dining table became a framework through which I wove rope lighting for soft illumination by which to dine. I left the canvas tops off, preferring that my guests enjoy the night sky overhead. In the event of an evening chill, I hung an infrared patio heater from the center of each structure, hoping I wouldn’t have to use them.

There was so much bleu cheese in
this spiced-walnut terrine that it
actually turned blue!
On the day of the party, I turned my attention to the meal.  I had purposely chosen dishes that could be prepped ahead of time.  A bleu cheese and spiced walnut terrine came together beautifully, setting up in the refrigerator instead of the oven.  Served with crackers, it made a hearty counterpoint to the crudités with hummus and salsa with tortilla chips that comprised the balance of my appetizers. Greek Goddess salad, compliments of Bon Appetit magazine’s December 2011 issue, was impressive with al dente hericot verts, fresh thyme leaves and crumbled feta tossed with hardboiled eggs and Bibb lettuce in a sprightly vinaigrette. Romanesco broccoli, called by its German name on my menu, lent an otherworldly air with its spiral shaped florets steamed in minced shallot and garlic and dressed simply with lemon juice and cracked pepper.  I added a ruby-hued salad of heirloom tomatoes in balsamic vinegar for colorful flair, and pushed my gigantic lasagna into the oven just as the pumpkin pudding emerged.

My cousins stand with naturalist Rachel
Tenhoff as she displays a peregrine
falcon, one of the rehabilitated raptors
at Soldiers Delight NEA
Soon after their arrival, my cousins and their families piled into three vehicles. We paid a visit first to the Visitor Center at Soldiers Delight NEA.  Naturalist Rachel Tenhoff treated us to a private tour of the rehabilitation aviary where injured raptors are nursed back to health and then deployed as ambassadors for Patapsco Valley State Park’s Scales & Tails program, which introduces inner-city school children to the natural world that surrounds them.

Jesse helps the children "bob" for
apples suspended from string
From Soldiers Delight, our cousinly caravan ventured about three miles west to Gaitaway Stables, where the children delighted in feeding crisp apples to my horse, Chubby, and most of the other 35 equines boarded on Trina Vogelsang’s 70 bucolic acres.

My cousin, Sherry (right),
visiting from Switzerland, loved
the lasagna I prepared
Eventually we repaired back to “Lynell’s Two”, where the children amused themselves by bobbing for apples while adults sampled the bleu cheese terrine and the roasted garlic hummus. Dinner was served at 6:30 and all agreed that chef Chandler’s lasagna was a hit.  As I scooped pumpkin pudding into bowls drizzled with heavy cream and passed out mugs of steaming coffee, the children talked eagerly of my promise for S’mores by the campfire after dinner.  

The children toast marshmallows in
my lower meadow before squishing
them into traditional s'mores
With sizzling coals beckoning their marshmallow-laden skewers, my young third cousins toasted the soft white cubes while manly spouses set off an array of brilliant fireworks in my meadow -- to the great delight of all. What fun we had!

From left back row: my second cousin,
Claudia and her husband, Phil, my cousin,
Christine's husband, Zsolt with Christine,
flanked by Claudia's father, Christian. From
left in front: me, my cousin Sherry, her
granddaughter Nina, Christine's children
Kinga and Akos, Claudia's children Anya
and Riehen, and Christine's youngest,

Each guest received a copy
of the menu and a nosegay of
fresh-picked herbs from my
garden. The children took home
candy favors and Playdoh
It was wonderful to see my cousin Sherry again and to meet her darling granddaughter for the first time. After lengthy and heartfelt goodbyes, my cousins departed and I set about cleaning up after the evening’s revelry.  No complaint, mind you.  It is as I methodically go about setting my house back in order that I reminisce most passionately about good times just had.  

There is nothing quite like a loving,
extended family coming together to
share a meal to make one rejoice
in the strengthening of one's roots
Time passes so quickly.  Before I know it Nina and her generation of Toblers will be grown and embarked on lives of their own.  How wonderful to be able to steal a moment of their lives for my own pleasure!  Would that they remember fondly the family fellowship shared on an autumn’s eve, out on the lawn at Cousin Lynell’s.  Phil, my second cousin, Claudia’s, husband, suggested that I consider hosting an annual “Oktoblerfest”.  Hmmm.  Kind of has nice ring to it, don’t you think?

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