By Ivey Patton

 

banjo joe

 

“Community.” It’s a word that conjures up goodwill and a peaceful, easy feeling. It’s a song we all want to hum along with, in part because we love the sound of it, but truthfully, we hum because we don’t always know the words. If we are being honest, and let’s be, community can be a wee bit vague. It’s a delightful collective word that can sometimes fail to actively include the individual. We all want to be a part of a vibrant and dynamic community, but how does that look in practical terms?

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In the dictionary, you will find three concise definitions of community.

1. a body of people living in one place or district and considered as a whole; 2. a group with common interests or origins; 3. fellowship or being alike in some way.

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That makes it a bit clearer, but my old-fashioned self in this postmodern world wants more. There is community the noun, when I think we are all longing for community the verb.

Maybe it’s very simple.

Someone once said, “Love your neighbor.” If we’re quite literal, then we need to know our neighbors. We can’t be in community when we are strangers, pure and simple.

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I adore my neighbors. They are like family, but better. We don’t get to choose them. They are delightfully serendipitous and, if we’re lucky, they become the fresh air of daily life. The path between us is worn with urgent requests for the proverbial cup of sugar, the plunger, a black dress, a glass – or three – of wine , jumper cables (and a jump), the bicycle pump, a staple gun, and an endless parade of children. We carpool, we feed each other, we share and nurture.

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But guess what? I’ve often felt a guilty twinge driving home through my quiet valley, admitting to myself that I know very few of the people with whom I share this slice of heaven. Mother Nature has granted us neighbor status with her lush folding of the very earth. We are literally nestled together. We clearly have something in common. We have all consciously chosen the same geographical location to hang our hats. We wake up to the same coyotes howling, the same chorusing crickets and the same jackass dog barking. Shouldn’t I know more of these folks?

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This is certainly not a new idea. Everyone knows that the best way to unite people is with food. I was raised in the Deep South, so this is coded into my DNA, but it was still a Eureka moment when my neighbor explained her idea for a monthly, five-course, progressive, bike-to-dinner party and casually asked if I would host the dinner segment with her.

“Of course!” I said, not pondering the logistics of a hundred or so friends and strangers for dinner. Never mind that when considering my home, I mentally cue the Sanford and Sons theme song. (If you are too young for that reference, then you missed some rock solid ’70s sit-com programming, but I’ll fill you in. It’s about a junkyard.) I love my home, but it’s not the stuff of hostessing dreams.

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On the day of the dinner there is a buzz in the air. As we sneak up on five o’clock, my children are like woodpeckers to the skull, ‘Can we go yet? Can we go yet? Can we go yet?’ With their little packs (containing their dinnerware) slung over their backs, and the bikes on the ready in their usual spot (strewn in the driveway under the back wheel of my car), they are giddy to begin the evening. We zing down the driveway and join others headed in the same direction.

I drop my sturdy, stickered bike in the grass among several dozen others and make my way to a group of folks surrounding a rickety, vintage ironing board. Celeste Green and Kristin Harmon, the women behind the whole idea, are serving up spirited Colorado cocktails. An elixir of Jackelope and Jenny pear gin from Peach Street Distillers in Palisade is mingled with batch-brewed Evergreen Elderberry Soda from Rocky Mountain Soda Company in Denver. Add a slap of mint from the next door neighbor and a splash of plain ol’ soda water, have a sip, take a breath, and let your cares go the way of the once local whooping crane. They fill the cups, mugs and jars that we have all brought, and the distance between strangers dissolves into laughter. A rousing coyote call at the top of each hour is the signal to move on.

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Hors d’oeuvres are next and we gather in the Turtle Lake garden just down the road where the host, a single dad and his lovely daughters, have arranged plates of golden James Ranch raw milk cheeses, both Leyden and their signature Belford, with peppery, green chile summer sausages, from our award winning Sunnyside Meats and a mountain of crunchy chewy, just-made bread from everyone’s favorite local bakery, Bread. Creamy goat cheese from the Lazy Ewe Goat Dairy in nearby Del Norte, sliced tomatoes, a fat baggie of fresh basil yanked from a nearby garden, all topped with a shot of crunchy salt, are simple and sumptuous. Katrina Blair pulls a Turtle Lake rabbit out of the hat with her electric pink beet hummus and a deep pile of greens and edible weeds straight out of the grow dome for dipping. Last year’s cherries debut for their final ovation from her deep freeze, plump and chilly, still bursting with flavor. Even early in the season, all is alive and well in the land of local food.

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And so it goes. We eat and drink and eat some more. Abundant greens, organic early corn and avocados with homemade buttermilk dressing and two soul-soothing soups warm us as the sun sets at the third stop. The children travel in their own pack and find all their favorite neighborhood nooks and crannies. They are well fed and free on this near perfect summer night. They are more than willing to taste test all the many flavors of Rocky Mountain soda and vote Birch Beer as their favorite, with peaches and cream a very close second. The ironing board bar follows the group. Banjos come out and singers emerge. For dinner, Dove Creek beans simmered long hours with organic molasses and chipotle peppers slow dance with potato salad studded with bright herbs and green onions from the garden of party-goer Erin Jolley. Brats from our local meat cooperative, LB brand, sizzle on an open fire and secure their final resting place in mini buns with tangy sauerkraut and mustard. Mysterious Mason jars, filled with a golden homemade wine, are scattered on the table for sampling.

The final stop is dessert. The stars and a few headlamps are our only light as bikes bob down the road. Mountains rise up on either side, hemming us in their shadow. We eat chocolate-dipped strawberries as we gather round a fire pit and relax into each other.

We are now a group of friends. We know each other. We can now chat at the grocery store or give a helping hand. We are available and open.

This will be our second summer of dinners. We are a funny bunch. There are longtime valley veterans who have been here forever, and will never leave. There are itinerant seekers who find our little valley and call it home for a brief season. We are professionals and hippies and families and retirees. Deep roots or fanciful wings, we are all travelers on this same road and right this minute, we live on the same road.

We are neighbors. We are friends. We can now go about the business of community.

P.S. There is talk of adding a dance to the whole thing. There is one thing that I can say with certainty: “to be continued.”

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RECIPE FOR A COMMUNITY DINNER

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Gathering to break bread is nothing new. There is no right way and certainly no wrong way.  There are those who go “all out” with their flown-in hoo-ha and fancy table, and those who throw together hearty comfort food with ease and little fanfare. Logistically, it can be a little overwhelming to entertain for an unknown (but large) group of folks, so here are some simple guidelines to help make a community gathering an event that is doable, fun and stress free. Add your own local color!

Collaborate. No one person should take this on. By very definition, it should be a group effort. Find several people to coordinate the logistics and divide the responsibilities. Our dinner is a fairly elaborate progressive affair at five different locations, and while that may seem daunting, in fact, it takes the burden off of any one person. You can relax in the knowledge that four other hosts have your back should you scorch the beans or over garlic the dip. A potluck would be an easy route to take, too. The point is not to one-up Martha Stewart. The point is to gather. Keep is simple and share the load.  This will prevent burnout and assure that your event is sustainable over time.

Choose a theme. Does this sound hokey? I thought so too, at first. It’s not. It’s oh-so-helpful. A large gathering needs some unity, a thread to weave it all together. If there are several different hosts for different portions of the meal, it just makes sense. It narrows the options from several million to a blessed few. Hors d’oeuvres for 100? No thanks. A southwestern theme? Well, sure….chips and fiery salsa for all, no problem. Bear in mind that some themes lend themselves to budget entertaining better than others. French versus Mexican is a good example. By incorporating seasonal offerings, your theme just might create itself. A few that we have chosen and that worked well are Italian Garden Party, Mediterranean Garden, Spring in the Southwest, and Fall Harvest. A theme keeps it fresh and makes it easier.

BYO. If there were a way to make print media flash, this little section would be a blinding beacon. Pretty please, try our BYO trick for a sustainable event that does not leave the landfill groaning or your kind host washing dishes for hours after all have left. We all know what BYOB means. We aren’t asking you to supply your own liquor; we gladly do that. But please do Bring Your Own plate, cup, and utensils. Think of the savings: five courses, five hosts, five sets of disposables, or five epic dishwashings. This also means that after the group moves to the next course, there is virtually no cleanup.

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Bike to dinner. This is optional, but boy is it fun. The biking is as much fun as the dinner. The kids love it. We collectively wheel from house to house in the fading sunset. We take over the road, kids screeching, dogs barking and any traffic behind us just has to wait. The sun sets and headlamps come out, but a group of fifty bikers still rules the pitch black road. Some walk. Some drive. It’s all good, but there is something about a bike. I highly recommend it.

On a Budget. Serving a large group of people can get expensive. Printing invitations and mailing them to 75+ folks is not free. Here’s the bald truth: it’s doable. If invitations feel like too much, consider a group email. There are many ways to stretch your food dollar. Think beans, potatoes, hearty breads and soups, or whatever is running rampant in your garden. We easily served one hundred people dinner for less than fifty dollars with an unruly bed of mint and ten boxes of penne. Minty lemon pesto and pasta wove itself seamlessly into our Italian Garden theme, solely because my mint is invasive and noodles are cheap.

Just do it. Of course, there are a million reasons NOT to do this.  We are all busy (and we always will be). We are all hesitant to invite over a hundred friends and strangers.  Don’t worry about how your house looks. Don’t worry about the food.  Don’t worry if you’re just renting or are new to town or are soon moving on. Be casual. Relax. Let it be easy. Don’t sweat the details.

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Here’s a final word on invitations. One neighbor designed them, another printed them and I have often volunteered to deliver them. I send my youngest daughter out with the neighbor boy. They go up and down our country road sticking invitations in all the mailboxes. We have come to learn that “This Is Not Okay.” I envision my mailbox as a portal of sorts. It’s a diminutive tunnel of love. Yes, it can harbor bills and other undesirables, but its primary purpose is one of goodness and joy. You can stick an invitation, or a loaf of warm bread, or a gray squirrel in there. I don’t care. We will be surprised and delighted. I assumed that everyone felt this way, but it’s not unusual for me to be wrong.

You can sleep safe in the knowledge that the federal government and the US Postal Service do not share my warm fuzzies for the common mailbox. They see it as a fortress not to be breached, and apparently some of my neighbors do too. I’m not going to die in this particular ditch, and the moral of the story is to mail your invitations with a stamp on them, rather than sending your young child and the neighbor boy to hand-deliver them. They are now serving two to ten at Canon City for mail fraud. Lesson learned.