The Wilmont neighborhood’s annual progressive dinner isn’t really about the food. Now in its ninth year, the dinner is more about getting to know your neighbors because at this party nobody knows everybody, but everyone knows someone.
At the home of Jerry Sayre and Mandy Smith, who hosted the appetizer portion of the evening, a multigenerational crowd seems more interested in mingling than nibbling from the platters of treats spread about the expansive kitchen.
“That’s the intent of the party,” organizer Heather Pace starts to say. Fellow organizer Kristen Sloop finishes the thought: “to get to know your neighbors.”
Ninety-two neighbors signed up for this year’s event on March 7. To be a part of the dinner, residents must live within Wilmont, a neighborhood tucked between Hillsborough Street and Wade Avenue with the boundaries of Dixie Trail, Faircloth, Ruffin and Clark streets. (Although a few early attendees who have since moved just beyond Wilmont’s borders are grandfathered in for the dinner.) Some years, there is a waiting list of folks who did not make their reservations in time.
“It’s not your typical neighborhood,” says Pace. Once people move in, they want to stay.
“It’s common for people to move houses within the neighborhood,” adds Sloop, who lives around the corner from her former home.
The format is simple and the rules clear. The cost is $20 per person and all are expected to provide at least one dish, whether it be appetizer, dessert or a part of the main course. Everyone meets at the “appetizer house” and then splits up in groups of eight to 10 to have dinner at a few neighbors’ homes. After dinner, the entire group reconvenes at another home, aka the “dessert house,” to share stories. The fee covers items such as paper products, beer, wine and $7 per person for dinner hosts.
Luckily, Sloop said, “this neighborhood really loves to cook.”
Sloop’s husband, David, was up at 3:30 a.m. the day of the dinner to fire up his smoker for the pork the couple would be serving that night.
Deciding who eats where has the potential for drama. “People would tell us they didn’t want to sit by someone,” Sloop said. Having hosts draw the names of their guests the night of the event took care of that. “It’s completely random.” Any dietary concerns are noted on the name cards and dealt with at the drawing. For Sloop, it’s the best part of the evening: “You don’t know where you are going or what you are going to eat.” Names are fastened to a board with the hosts’ names and addresses. Balloons identify the houses as guests walk to their dinner assignments.
Jean Gross recalls her first time as a host drawing names. “The first people we pulled were clearly not happy about it. I panicked because I thought no one wanted to come to our house. We didn’t know a lot of people.” In the end, she says the evening turned out well and she has been a regular host ever since. This year, beef brisket headlined her menu.
The dinner was the brainchild of Sloop, who had tried similar events that had fizzled. “I missed it and I knew it had to be more organized,” she said. That’s where another organizer, Pace, comes in. An engineer by training, Pace keeps spreadsheets and pays attention to details. “This party doesn’t happen without Heather,” Sloop said. The third member of the team, Katherine Gilliland, was originally recruited because she worked for a wine distributor.
At first, invitations were word of mouth. Nine years later, they are sent via evite.com. The onus is on neighbors to make sure the organizers have email addresses for newcomers. Various dates were tried before settling on the first weekend in March three years ago. “It’s tricky,” Pace said. “You don’t want to have it on ACC Tournament weekend.”
At the home of Ned and Robin Mangum, the table is set for eight. “It forces you to meet people,” says guest Magara Boisvert. “Now I can say, ‘Hi!’ when I see you outside,” she says to Heather Spencer, who is relatively new to the neighborhood. Boisvert, a third-grade teacher at Fred Olds Elementary, is well-known among the families with young children.
Robin Mangum, who has a reputation as a great cook, had a Plan B if any of her guests were wary of the black squid ink pasta she was serving with her Shrimp Puttanesca; she offered angel hair pasta as an alternative and had a simple marinara sauce on hand. She didn’t need either. Seconds were had by all, though the unique pasta prompted a round of “What’s the strangest food you’ve ever eaten?”
The biggest challenge is finding enough people willing to host. This year, the three organizers had to take on that job as well because there were not enough dinner volunteers. “Some people love to host,” Pace says. Adds Sloop, “We love them.”
All the organizers agree that the appetizer host has it the easiest. “They just have to provide a clean house,” Pace says. Dessert is considered the hardest job because guests tend to linger late into the evening. Pace adds: “I’ve done dessert, but I’ll never do it again.”
Petra Martignoni, a 20-year Wilmont resident, is a veteran host. She and her husband, Thomas, have hosted the main course all but one year, when hers was the dessert house.
“I enjoy cooking for a crowd and don’t mind spending some time in the kitchen,” she says. “The most important thing is that you pick a meal that you feel comfortable serving and that is somewhat forgiving in terms of time. You don’t want to be nervous and checking your watch every few minutes while you are at the appetizer place.”
Martignoni, who is Swiss, often turns to her European roots for her menu. This year she served Salade Niçoise. Martignoni says no one is expecting a five-star experience, noting the guests arrive for the main course in a good mood, having typically had a glass of wine or beer at the appetizer house. “A relaxed simple and good meal is better than something that easily can go wrong,” she says. “Even if something would really go wrong, nobody would really mind.”
Raleigh home cook Robin Mangum offers this advice: You can make the sauce ahead of time. Reheat and add pasta and shrimp right before serving.
5 garlic cloves, minced
2 shallots, minced
1/2 cup olive oil
1 28-ounce can tomato sauce
1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/2 cup capers
3 cups olives, pitted and chopped (I like mixed kalamata and large Spanish green olives)
5 anchovy fillets, rinsed and finely diced
1 tablespoon red pepper flakes
Bunch of basil, chopped
3 pounds peeled and deveined shrimp (any shellfish could be used)
Black squid ink pasta or your favorite pasta.
Red pepper flakes, parsley and Parmesan cheese, optional garnishes
HEAT oil in large pot and sauté garlic and shallots for 3-5 minutes. Add tomatoes, tomato paste, diced tomatoes, capers, anchovies, olives, basil and red pepper flakes. Stir and let simmer for 15-20 minutes. Reduce heat and start pasta.
ADD pasta to a large pot of salted boiling water and cook according to package.
WHILE pasta is cooking, add shrimp to pasta sauce. Let cook for a few minutes until pink (don’t overcook). Add pasta to sauce and serve immediately.
Yield: 6-8 servings.