On a Sunday night in November, guests at a dinner party in Astoria, Queens, gathered in the dining room to drink wine and chat. The lively mix of 20 friends and newcomers included a charter-school principal, a talk-radio-station talent booker, a software programmer, and a recipe tester for a food magazine. They came to explore new foods and make new friends at an underground supper club, held at the home of Zora O’Neill ’94. Price of admission: $35 and a bottle of wine.
In the tiny backyard, O’Neill’s husband, Peter Moskos ’94, supervised the party’s dramatic centerpiece: a suckling pig speared on a metal shaft, rotating on a grill.
“We haven’t roasted a whole pig in a long time,” O’Neill said during a break from the bustle of the steamy kitchen, where she teamed up for food prep with her friend Tamara Reynolds. Her brown hair pulled back into a ponytail, O’Neill sported a purple T-shirt she designed with the words, “Clean as you go” — which she called “a key message” of successful cooking.
O’Neill and Reynolds, who started and run this supper club called Sunday Night Dinners, both worked at restaurants when they met at a party in 2002 and bonded over their love of cooking. First they cooked together, then they started having friends over in 2003. Friends invited friends, and the dinners became regular affairs. After a year, O’Neill and Reynolds realized they were “super-broke at the end of the month” and began asking for donations to help cover the costs. Today, open slots announced on a 400-name e-mail list get snapped up quickly.
About 60 percent of attendees are regulars, such as Christopher Calder-head ’84 of Queens, who began attending three years ago. “Going to the dinners has made me more adventurous in asking questions when I go to the local green market,” he says. “And Tamara helped me learn to cook red snapper and also duck for Christmas dinner.”
O’Neill and Reynolds capture the gatherings’ ambience and menus in their book, Forking Fantastic! Putting the Party Back in Dinner Party, published in October by Gotham Books. The book walks readers through the basics of organizing a dinner party, from shopping and essential kitchen tools to recipes and common mistakes (such as “going light on the salt”).
The parties are an antidote to the rushed and loud experience in many restaurants. “We’re getting people together so they can reconnect and chill out,” declares O’Neill, the daughter of “perfectionist hippies” who fostered her love of good food.
At the November event, the menu, written on a sheet of butcher paper posted above one of the long dining-room tables, listed apple-turnip soup, bulgur and farro with butternut squash, pickled tomatoes, beets with garam masala, cauliflower, pumpkin pie, and, of course, the roast pig.
Menus reflect the organizers’ interests and discoveries. O’Neill leans to spicy dishes, Reynolds more to French and Mediterranean. Their travel experiences often influence the menu. For example, O’Neill, a Near Eastern studies major and travel writer, has made a grilled eggplant salad that she sampled in Turkey and pomegranate molasses that she first tasted in Syria.
“They’re not shy in their personalities or food selections,” observes Brona Cosgrave, a food-marketing and publicity professional who attended the November party. She started going to the dinners four years ago, after she moved to New York, to make friends and “eat good food.”
With the book and a blog, rovinggastronome.com, O’Neill is moving into the public realm. In December, O’Neill and Reynolds were scheduled to be regular guests on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show to give advice on holiday cooking.
“Instead of calling the Butterball turkey lady, people could call us!” she says.
Van Wallach ’80 is a writer in Westport, Conn.