Dinner with friends

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New Yorkers have always been known for their ingenuity.

So, when Astorians Zora O’Neill and Tamara Reynolds, co-authors of “Forking Fantastic,” a guide to hosting dinner parties for those who are tight on cash and space, began giving their Sunday Night Dinners in the neighborhood in 2004, they improvised to accommodate up to 20 guests in their apartments.

“We’d have people bring their own chair,” said O’Neill, a freelance copy editor and travel guidebook author. “Tamara would use her couch for one side of seating and a fold-out table. We have rescued chairs from the trash, except it’s a little risky now because of bedbugs. We’ve made chairs from cinder blocks with pillows.”

The dinner parties have since evolved to include an e-mail guest list of roughly 500 new and returning guests, who dine at two well-appointed candlelit tables in Reynolds’ apartment in Astoria, and a cookbook published this year by Gotham Books that provides recipes for all levels of cooks and attempts to quell the fears of urbanites who fear that they lack the resources to host a dinner party.

“We really hope other people will start cooking dinner and eventually invite us over,” said O’Neill. “We hope that other people will make the leap. We hope that the book will give people the excuse to get around many of the excuses and think of it as a proper way to socialize, and once they try it, we’re sure that they’re be hooked.”

“Forking Fantastic” was conceived after Reynolds and O’Neill had proposed a television show based on Sunday Night Dinners, which the Food Network “held onto for a while, and decided was too edgy for their programming at the time,” said Reynolds. “Zora and I talked about a book, and there weren’t any books espousing our type of cooking.”

“You don’t have to be Martha Stewart,” she said. “You don’t have to be obsessed with perfection, and it’s given people this fear. What’s important is that the food tastes good, and that you’re surrounded by your friends.”

The duo met in 2002 when Reynolds, trained in opera, and O’Neill were working at Prune in the East Village, as a waitress and line cook, respectively. They discovered that they both lived in Astoria at the Prune Christmas party. According to O’Neill, they began cooking together for friends and friends of friends shortly thereafter, and “quickly ended up being broke.”

In 2004, they started asking members of their ever-expanding guest list to pay a donation of $15, but were hesitant to do so because they didn’t want to exclude anyone because of the cost, said O’Neill.

“People would give us $20 and say, “Don’t even make change,” she said.

Five years later, the dinner parties are still going strong, as evidenced by a lively crowd of both old standbys and newcomers on a recent Sunday night at Reynolds’ apartment. The menu, which included produce from Reynolds’ garden, consisted of green and yellow wax bean tempura with ponzu sauce, turnips and their tops in miso broth, Tamara Farms at Astoria dandelion greens, salad with candied bacon, Tamara Farms chard with chili flakes, cauliflower with anchovy butter, lamb shoulder with Concord grapes and green tomatoes, saffron rice and apples and pears Swedish over pancake for dessert.

Attendees pay $35 plus a bottle of wine to dine communally with guests hailing from locales ranging from Astoria to Fire Island.

Writer Kabi Jorgensen was a first time attendee with her fiancé, barista Drew De Geer, both residents of Astoria.

The couple heard about the dinner, ironically enough, from a friend in London who saw a television show mentioning Sunday Night Dinners.

“People who eat at restaurants don’t get this experience,” said De Geer. “You’re eating in someone’s home. People live here. You make new friends — it’s rare that you make enemies over dinner.”

John Blesso, a resident of Fire Island and the Upper West Side, was a returning guest with his friend Ulysses de la Torre, a political consultant and Astoria resident.

Blesso, who owns and manages Chance House, a guest house for chefs on Fire Island, and, a dinner series for single New Yorkers, said that since he spends a lot of time organizing dinners for other people, it’s nice to be able to attend dinner at Reynolds’ apartment.

“The food is good, the people are nice, and I don’t have to organize anything,” he said.

According to Blesso, Sunday Night Dinners are the antidote to everything that’s wrong with dining in New York, with the over-focus on ingredients and trends.

Reynolds “is the best chef that I know,” he said. “People forget that [dinner] is supposed to taste very good and be very fun.”

For de la Torre, Reynolds’ skill lies in taking “boring” foods, such as cauliflower and string beans, and making them taste good. He is also attracted to the value inherent in the communal dining experience.

“You get 20 people showing up and each person bringing a bottle of wine,” he said. “That’s better value for money than you get anywhere.”

Posted 6:29 pm, October 10, 2011
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