The best dinner parties are impromptu

February 10, 2011

I used to give dinner parties, but ultimately it was too much work. Not the cooking, which I love, or the cleanup, which I tolerate, but the logistics of getting busy people together on a given night and guessing how many will cancel, bring extras or arrive with a new list of food quirks. Those events were fun but have been replaced by something else: a spontaneous convergence, based on the appearance of a special food, usually from the garden.

Why celebrate the first day of the year? I'd rather toast the first day of asparagus season, followed in due course by the first ripe tomatoes, the first sweet corn, the first peaches, and the first Charentais melons. No time to juggle schedules; some of these items disappear fast. And they must appeal. No one clears their calendar for zucchini.

With such offerings, there's no shame in announcing a potluck, an event at which our neighborhood excels. Sometimes great minds think a bit too much alike, so we end up with an all-squash dinner, an all-strawberry dinner or a noisy one to which everyone brings beans. Other evenings are time-honored traditions: One couple always returns with bratwurst after their Midwestern Christmas for the "Wurst Dinner of the Year."

A random remark can lead to a loosely organized party. Once, the question "What's the best way to cook okra?" led to a tasting where a bunch of us compared it steamed, fried and simmered in spicy gumbo. Fried won. Last summer, I visited my friend Deborah Nevins in eastern Long Island, where we admired Scott Chaskey's garlic scapes at his Quail Hill Farm in Amagansett. A few hours later, Scott and a dozen more of us were gorging on Debby's fabulous garlic scape pesto.

Another time it was a chance encounter. A young colleague brought his parents over, and a garden tour led to a harvest of early summer vegetables, which led to a thrown-together pasta primavera. We've been good friends ever since.

You needn't be a gardener to adopt this style, and it doesn't have to start with fruits and veggies. A special cheese or a large cut of meat big enough to share might be the spark. Just a week ago, our farmworker Matt Robertson came upon a woman selling live ducks. He bought three, roasted them in his tiny cabin and simultaneously braised a large fresh ham from a friend's farm.

A long table was spread, with tablecloths and candles, in our barely heated winter greenhouse. Several young bakers brought fancy cakes and their own breads. Someone made a big pot of lentils. The last of our turnip greens made the scene. We ate in heavy sweaters and wool scarves, warmed also by the food, wine and exuberant conversation. It could not have been more last-minute, and it could not have been, in any way, a better time.

Barbara Damrosch is a freelance writer and the author of “The Garden Primer.”
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