25 June 2009

Delightful Meals with Family & Friends

One of my favorite things in life is a protracted meal enjoyed with family and friends. I especially love this on a warm summer evening under the stars. Sunday afternoon meals are also great, as they can go on for hours. Interesting food, easy-drinking wine, multiple generations and an international component amongst the assembled company tend to increase the probability of good conversation, and the more the wine flows, the more the laughter grows as the hours progress. At our home in Massachusetts, two such meals - one Saturday evening barbeque and one Sunday lunch that stretched into dinner - stand out in my memory as being pretty much as good as it gets.

The Sunday lunch was several years ago with our now dear friends, Ayca and Scott, when we were just getting newly acquainted with each other. Ayca (with her heavy Turkish accent and buoyant attitude) and I had gotten to know each other slightly, but I'm not sure the guys had ever met. Our lunch was a long affair with their son, Orhan, and our kids, Madeleine and Drake. As we sat and ate in the sunroom at our old French farmhouse table, it became clear that we were meant to be friends. We had so much in common, so many of the same passions, and we all talked with such easy camaraderie, that the day passed by unnoticed.

The kids had long since tired of sitting at the table and had moved to the backyard where they were running through the hose, as it was a steamy day. Their laughter was matched by the excitement with which Jack, Scott, Ayca and I talked of many subjects all at once. Languid from several bottles of wine, and yet lively at the same time, we couldn't get over how close we felt - as if we had known each other for years.

So much time passed that eventually, we all decided it was time to eat again and prepared a dinner together since cooking was one of the passions we had just discovered we shared. Finally, darkness was complete and we were dining again, but now by candlelight. By the time our friends left, they had been at our house for nearly ten hours! And what an all-encompassing warmth was felt by all!

One impomptu barbeque began last summer when our oldest son, Giles, his wife Mia, and their daughter Taylor, visited us for the weekend and brought with them their new meat smoker.

Mia and Taylor

Never being shy when it comes to varieties and quantities of food, Giles bought several kinds of meat to smoke and began inviting friends to join us later in the day. We also invited some of our best friends who we know are always game for a last-minute invitation.

The preparation began around Noon, as smoking the various meats can take several hours. Naturally, once we all begin creating a good meal, we tend to start thinking of more and more items we'd like to prepare, either new experiments or tried and true favorites. Add to that the fact that most everyone in our family likes to cook, and you can imagine the pervasive air of pandemonium in the kitchen. However, in situations like this, we all agree that "the more the merrier" so on this day, as usual, the mood was festive.

We have a lovely spot in our upper garden, with a table, umbrella, lots of comfortable chairs, and a charming antique gazebo which serves these days as the site for our buffet spreads. The old garden also has a fountain gurgling into a small fish pool. The sound of the water splashing on the rocks in the pool is so soothing and always makes us feel miles away from civilization, since it drowns out any noise from the street on the other side of our house. What used to be a formal parterre has been turned into Jack's organic vegetable garden, so the whole little enclosed area has a kind of European feel to it.

Jack planned to grill his famous chicken with herbs, garlicky Italian sausage and corn on the cob. Salads and marinated olives, cheeses and desserts were concocted and carried to the upper garden.

Jack with his homemade charette de pique-nique

Throughout the afternoon, Giles smoked baby back ribs and big beef ribs with hickory chips. The pungent, smoky aroma was a mouth watering harbinger of delights in store for dinner. And we were not disappointed. When the meat was done, it literally melted in your mouth, juicy and falling off the bone, with incredible flavor - not overwhelming in smokiness, and really meaty.

Giles's smoked baby back ribs and beef ribs

Wines and beers were set in the fountain to chill. Friends started arriving around 5:30 and soon our backyard as well as our kitchen were humming with activity and happy chatter.

(Incidentally, the humming did not include many mosquitos, since Jack had mixed a strong solution of garlic tea and sprayed it around the garden earlier in the day. This is a terrific and chemical free way to keep pesky bugs away.)

Brett and Giles

Our ages ranged from 7 months old (our little granddaughter, Taylor) to 66 years old. I am a big believer in mixing all age groups. It brings so many more perspectives to the table than just one general age group can share. Our daughter, Madeleine, arrived with several old high school friends. Our son, Drake, was there with several friends who, frankly, consider our gazebo their home away from home.

Drake with Taylor

Several nationalities were represented, which is always more fun than not. Giles's friend, Brett, brought two adorable girls he had recently met in Tokyo, one of whom, Liz, from Brazil, took most of the photos seen here. I had a really terrific conversation about art with Shantell, an illustrator from London, who creates large-scale experiential multi-media presentations.
Liz and Shantell

There is a spontaneity that seems to make these kinds of gatherings come alive and this evening was no exception. I can't remember who first brought out a guitar, but eventually, Jack was playing his flamenco guitar, and Giles had brought out his own guitar (or maybe Drake's buddy, Austin, had his with him).

Jack and me

Drake, Jack and Giles

Eventually, both instruments were being passed around and informal jamming was a backdrop to our conversations. Jack, Giles and Drake played along with Austin and Brett.

Things really got lively when Renato, our Italian pal, decided that we should be dancing flamenco to Jack's accompaniment.

Renato and Dolores

Renato and his wife Dolores are superb dancers who fell in love with the tango in Argentina, and now have joined a group who dances the tango on a footbridge over the Charles River in Cambridge, whenever there is a full moon! In any case, Renato was not shy about trying the flamenco in our backyard. Soon, everyone was clapping and cheering.

Brett and Jack playing flamenco (as Renato tries to teach me some dance moves)


One of my favorite parts of evenings like this one is that as the clock advances into the wee hours, what was a rowdy party tends to mellow slowly, and there is much reflection along with sighs of contentment.

Austin and Giles

Lisa and Dan

Our friend Lisa will invariably state "We love you guys!" and by the time people are leaving to get home and crawl into their beds, a soft aura surrounds us all.
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