Sunday, July 16, 2017

Summer Potluck

My invitation doesn't
change much from year
to year
Oh, how I relish summer get-togethers with family and neighbors and friends all gathered in someone's yard for food, fellowship and, if I'm lucky, swimming and fireworks, too!  Except I found I wasn't being invited to any such gatherings on a regular basis. So in 2009 or so, I decided to start hosting my own summer party. Since my immediate family is clear across the country in California, I decided to invite friends and neighbors who I wanted to get to know better for a summer garden party, and I threw in for good measure a cousin or two from both sides of my family who live near me in Maryland and Virginia.

I soon discovered that holding my party on the July Fourth holiday does not produce a very big turnout, as everyone has already committed to spending time with their own families. The key, it turned out, is to host the gathering the first Saturday after the Fourth of July. Everyone who isn't traveling on vacation is far more likely to be available, the fireworks are all half price at the stores, and people are still in the mood for a patriotic outdoor gala.

I decided to make it a potluck, with the intention of taking some of the intense preparation off my shoulders. Much as I love to host fancy dinner parties during the winter, this would be an opportunity for my guests to showcase their own family favorites to a wider audience. Of course, I would make something, but it had to be easy and keep well. I chose my favorite Maahs family chili, a beloved recipe handed down to me by the family of my first husband, Mike Maahs, more than forty years ago. Some might think of chili as more of a cold-weather staple, but I love this chili any time of year. And made with lean ground turkey, it hits all the right flavor notes without being too heavy for sultry summer weather.  I had sixty guests that first year -- and I've never looked back.

This year I emailed my invitation on June 8, exactly one month ahead of the date of the party. Those neighbors for whom I did not have email addresses, such as Ricky and Bonita, the new couple who moved in across the street a few months ago, got snail-mailed invitations.

The new roof, by Dream Home
 Remodeling, looked great once it was
finally completed
As the date for the party approached, I began to get nervous, not about the party, which I've been doing for almost a decade now, but because I had foolishly engaged contractors in June to undertake three major construction projects at my house all at the same time. Suddenly I was not at all confident that the new roof, the new heating and air-conditioning system, and the new hobby-craft-guest room I was having built in a spare bedroom, would be finished in time.  On top of that, I had a houseguest coming from Australia for a seven-day visit just a a couple of weeks before the party. If you've ever stayed with me, you know that I like to wine (and cocktail) and cook for and pamper my guests, which understandably takes a bit of effort on my part.

The crew chief, Lapaya, added
this  imaginative "conehead"
decoration to my smokehouse
roof. I love it!
Installation of the roofs (not just one roof but the roof on my main house, on my guest house, on my pool shed and on an ancient smokehouse at the back of my property about the size of an outhouse) were initially held up because of a rainy forecast (which never materialized) and then, when roof construction finally did get underway, it rained a little bit every day they were here (Murphy's law).   Originally scheduled for the middle of May, my roofs were finally completed on July 3, after my houseguest departed. I love, love, love my new roof (and the new skylights in my laundry room and the scalloped siding on the upstairs dormers that the contractor threw in to sweeten the deal) but getting through from start to finish without a meltdown was a challenge. They actually gave me a hardhat to wear after I was hit in the head twice by nail-filled shingles being flung with abandon as the workers dismantled the old roof.

The new HVAC system was also a challenge. I'd researched various alternatives for my ancient fuel-oil boiler system and hot-water radiators. I loved the radiators and their silent, comfortable heat, but they took up an enormous amount of space in every room of my small farmhouse. The fuel oil that powered them was expensive, and I also had the expense of an inefficient forced-air propane furnace in my guesthouse. In addition to fuel oil and propane, I paid electric bills for both systems and, with only two small window air-conditioners (one in my home office and one in my bedroom upstairs), I'd never had truly comfortable cool, conditioned air in my home the entire seventeen years I'd lived in Maryland.  It was time for a change.

John Bain and John Weckessser of
Advanced Heating and Cooling
install a ducted unit in my small
attic space
I'd looked into radiant flooring, a geo-thermal system in the ground, and high-velocity hot and cold air that could be retro-fitted through the holes left in my floors and ceilings after the radiator piping was removed. Eventually, I decided on all-electric high-tech ductless mini-splits for the main house and a super-efficient propane-fueled heat-pump and air conditioner for the guest house.  That ten-day project began on June 7, and took every bit of ten days and a little more. My radiators were removed, leaving big, wonderful spaces in every room of my house, and my boiler and a rusty old fuel-oil tank were liberated from my basement, leaving me quite a bit more space down there, as well.

This twin bed recesses into the attic
of my front porch roof
Derek Hahn and his son, Jordan,
of Hahn Home Improvements,
are working together
to build my new hobby room
And then there was the hobby room build-out. I designed a room full of cabinets to maximize storage, leaving space for a large worktable in the middle of the room. I configured a twin guest bed to pose as a small couch by day, with the length of it recessed through a knee-wall down into the attic space over my front porch. If my guest house is ever full (or if I eventually rent it out for extra income), I can simply tug on the end of a platform and the entire length of a twin bed magically pulls out of its attic alcove on rails into the middle of the hobby room!  I found a handyman in nearby Pennsylvania to build the room for me. He and his 12-year-old son have been working on the room since June 1st. Unfortunately, like my bathroom renovation in 2015, not a single line in this 1862 dwelling is straight, level, plumb or true, causing even the most patient of carpenters to have to take extra care with every step. The hobby room was not finished in time for my houseguest or my party -- and it still isn't finished. I keep telling myself "Man, it's going to be great when it's done!" But I digress.

In the angst-filled construction days leading up to my party I watched in wonder as the "yes" RSVPs began to mount. When the guests coming to my party topped 100 in number, I realized that over the years I'd created a summer party that people seem naturally drawn to. I discovered that others want a family-friendly place to enjoy good food and drink with friends and neighbors as much as I do!  I began to get really excited.
Tables adorned with red cloths and
patriotic flower and flag bouquets
grace the yard in anticipation
of my party

After work each night I busied myself with preparations. I made three kinds of sangria, a Greek-pasta salad, a carrot-turmeric salad, a blueberry-cucumber salad and a baked cashew-artichoke dip. I made my pot of chili and ordered small deli-trays of raw veggies, lunch meats, and sandwich roll-ups. I prepared the custard for my grandmother's old-fashioned homemade ice cream. Blackberry-sage would be this year's flavor. One neighbor smoked two entire pork briskets. Another made her famous lemon cake. A third brought me dozens of her wonderful deviled eggs. Still another made Jamaican barbecued jerk chicken with rice and peas.

On the day of the party, 121 people came to enjoy a perfect summer evening on my lawn. I was ecstatic to have such a wonderful turnout. The tables I'd set up as a "food court" on my patio groaned under the weight of all the delicious appetizers, salads, main dishes and desserts everyone contributed. The culinary imaginations of my guests knew no bounds. There were avocado pudding "boats" (avocado-infused chocolate pudding in hollowed-out avocado shells), bacon-and-caramelized onion mini-quiches, couscous-shrimp salad, and blueberry-strawberry "crustless" pie to name but a few of the offerings.
On my patio, a festive "food court" was
filled with the contributions of more
than a hundred friends and neighbors

More than twenty children splashed in my pool and tried their hands at badminton, horseshoes, Frisbee and soccer across my two acres. The mood was festive and the weather ideal.

As dusk approached, I lighted candles inside the house and tiki torches outside, creating a magical glow across the expanse of my little slice of paradise. When my old ice-cream maker gave up the ghost at the last minute, a neighbor rushed to my rescue and brought me hers.

Once darkness fell, torches and candles
gave the yard a romantic glow
And, finally, when it grew dark, I invited my guests to grab their chairs and migrate to my northern meadow, where a pair of talented pyro-technicians proceeded to wow the crowd with a nonstop twenty-minute display of professional-strength fireworks bursting right over our heads.

My cousin, Ian, and his wife,
Sharon, are from my mom's
side of the family. A cousin
and her family from my
father's side were there, too 
As I cleaned up my yard the next day I couldn't help but reflect on the goodwill that is engendered when friends and strangers come together to celebrate nothing more than enjoying each other's company on a warm summer's eve. Neighbors got to meet neighbors. New friendships and acquaintances were formed. Children frolicked in a welcoming and sociable environment. Sure, there was a "political" table engaged in heated debate and, as a brief cold front blew through, a single gust of wind that simultaneously knocked over everybody's drink.  But lively discourse and a sudden, mother nature-inspired surprise served only to underscore how well the wonderful diversity of our human race can play nicely together amid fireflies and candlelight.  That I had a hand in creating such a magical ambiance truly made my heart sing.
Cheers,
Lynell

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