Creating Community: How to host a progressive dinner

I’m a huge believer in the power and importance of community. I think the best part about being human is meeting and hanging out with other humans and what is community if not that? As an anthro major undergrad it always cracked me up that one of the defining characteristics of being human is that we are “social creatures” and yet we will often go out of our way to avoid interacting with each other. Like how in church or classrooms the unwritten rules are 1) avoid eye contact with strangers, 2) sit as far away from the other people as possible and 3) NEVER engage the stranger in conversation if it can be helped. Unfortunately these same rules seem to apply to American neighborhoods too.

As native Angelenos who also attended college locally, our parties are often a mix from the many different stages of our lives, however, what is surprising to our non-neighborhood friends is not that we have friends from grade school through graduate school at our parties, but the fact that we have (*gasp*) neighbors at our parties. “How did you become friends with your neighbors” is a common question.

I think the way I started to get to know my neighbors was because of my background as a Resident Advisor (RA) in college where building community and planning activities was the main purpose of the job. Being an RA was one of the most fun and fulfilling experiences I’ve ever had and it also helped me grow a lot as a person too. I think the most important lessonI learned as an RA was that a group of random and diverse people thrown together can become a community if two things exist: 1) the people WANT to become a community and 2) a little bit of energy is put into it. And since I’m still an RA at heart and I WANT to be part of a community and am willing to put some energy into it, I thought a good way to start in my neighborhood would be to plan a progressive dinner.

What’s a progressive dinner? It’s a dinner where a different course is served at a different house or apartment. It’s a fun casual twist on a potluck that throws in a little bit of walking around and house-touring. You can have as many houses/apartments as you want involved, but over the last five years I’ve fine-tuned it and I find what works best for our community is:

Saturday Night, 3 houses, 6-10PM
House 1 hosts appetizers at 6:00PM (at 6:50 I round up everyone to move on)
House 2 hosts entrees at 7:00PM (at 7:50 I round up everyone to move on)
House 3 hosts desserts at 8:00PM

If someone with kids is hosting, I always offer them first chance at the appetizer or entrée courses because the dessert house tends to be the house where people stay late.

The way I set up our dinner is that hosts provide plates/napkins/cups and drinks and then the rest of us bring the actual food dropping it off at the host houses between 5:00 and 5:45pm. That way it isn’t too much work for the hosts.

When I send out the EVITE I ask people to tell me what dish they’ll be bringing and I try to make sure that there are more 2-3 more people signed up for entrees and appetizers than for desserts since that is what people tend to eat more of. Since our parties are capped at 50 (you have to decide how many people your space can comfortably fit), I ask each person to bring enough food for 8 people to have some. I also tell the hosts that they only beverage they are required to serve is water and that anything else is up to them (usually everyone has more than that…but it’s up to them and the dessert house usually has coffee and tea.)

I always write in the EVITE that the progressive dinner is about coming together as a community and getting to know each other and not about having your house in perfect shape or serving the most amazing food ever. It’s a really fun low-pressure opportunity for people to open their houses up to the rest of the neighborhood and my neighbors have really embraced it. I always plan the events, but really it runs itself now. We do it twice a year in March/April or September/October so that it is warm enough that patios/outside areas can be used and I set a cap of 50 on our events because they’ve become so popular. I always ask around for who wants to host the next event at the current event…it’s the easiest way to get it done quickly and people never say no.

Don’t be discouraged if your first event doesn’t have 50 people (or whatever your maximum is.) Neither did ours. I think our first 2 or 3 dinners had about 25-30 people but word got around the neighborhood and now I’m constantly meeting new people at these events. Stick with it and I’m sure you’ll get the attendance you want…and who knows, maybe you won’t be the only one planning events. Our neighborhood is full of neighbors planning events and it’s fantastic. We have an annual block party that is out of control fun, a monthly book club, a parenting group…and one of our neighbors is planning the first, of what I’m sure will be a really fun and successful event, a catered wine dinner where he will impart his varietal wisdom on those of us less informed (aka: me.)

There is nothing like living among people that you know and trust. It makes everything else, the political differences, asking your neighbor to cut their trees, borrowing milk and eggs…whatever it may be…a lot easier not to mention a whole lot more fun. Coincidentally, or maybe not so coincidental, but have friends locally means you drive a whole lot less meaning you save gas/carbon dioxide. Isn’t THAT intriguing…the universe throwing me a bone?

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