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Party Hopping

A night of noshing at the neighbors' can contribute to a closer community.

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Imagine living in a neighborhood where people wave to you as you pass by and call you by your first name. These same neighbors would also be willing to baby-sit your children on short notice or help you put up the new fence in your back yard.

Not many people can claim to live in a neighborhood like this, but Cindy Perez says that she does. According to Perez, her neighborhood is like "one big family."

How did this neighborhood become such a tight-knit community?

Perez believes the closeness is largely due to the Kelly West Annual Progressive Dinner, an event that she helps plan every year. Although the neighborhood is only four years old, it will soon celebrate its third progressive dinner.

A progressive dinner is a concept that many people are not familiar with and one that is now an integral part of the Kelly West neighborhood, Perez says.

How do neighbors organize a progressive dinner of their own? Perez says it takes a lot of planning, but it is well worth the trouble.

"When people first started moving in, we had a committee in the neighborhood that tried to plan activities like picnics and cookouts so that everyone could meet and get to know each other," Perez says. Then, Gayle Revis, another resident of the neighborhood, said she had heard of an idea called a "progressive dinner."

"After Gayle told us the basic idea of the dinner, we went on what she said and came up with our own ideas of how we should go about having one," Perez says.

A progressive dinner is one big meal that is planned to include different houses within a neighborhood. The meal consists of several courses and as participants "progress" from one course to another, they move from house to house within the community.

The residents of Kelly West plan their progressive dinner every year for sometime during the weeks that fall between Thanksgiving and Christmas. This way, neighbors have a chance to show off their houses when they are decorated at their finest for the holidays.

The whole neighborhood is notified by a flier, usually at the beginning of November, of the intended date of the dinner and asked to RSVP within two weeks with plans to attend or plans to host. Then, during the following week, a meeting is set up for those who indicated an interest in hosting a course at their home.

The planning stages of the event are extremely important, according to Perez, because decisions need to be made quickly about who will host a course at their house and what foods will be on the menu.

"We've been lucky so far to have more than enough people say they want to host. Last time, people who had hosted for the first party were more than willing to do it again unless someone new really wanted a chance to host," Perez says. "It's just a lot of fun and people really do like to show off their decorations and trees."

When the committee meets, they decide as a group what the order will be for visiting houses; which house will have a certain course, like appetizers or desserts; and what specific foods will be served for each course. At this time, people who do not host a course at their house can still volunteer to help out at or contribute a food to one of the host houses.

The process works well, according to Perez, because different people volunteer to make whatever they consider to be their "specialty item." By the end of the meeting, the committee has agreed on a good variety of foods, so as not to include too many repeated items.

Another flier is sent out to the neighborhood during the following week notifying those who plan to attend of the order of the progressive dinner, the time that the first course will begin, and what food will be on the menu.

On the night of the dinner, everyone who indicated an interest in participating shows up at the first house around the same time, usually 6 p.m. Guests expect to spend between 45 minutes and an hour at each location. When that time is up and the food is gone, guests move collectively to the next home. However, the last stop of the night finishes the dinner whenever the last guest decides to go home.

"A few people from the neighborhood always stay behind for a few minutes to clean up the houses, though," says Perez. "Everyone is really good about that. You'll see people you never knew before that night taking out your garbage or wiping your counters. It's great."

The residents of Kelly West try to keep the courses limited to five houses because most of the couples have children who accompany them during the dinner. Food, games, and activities that are geared toward children are provided at each stop throughout the night, says Perez. The past year's activities included the chicken dance and a limbo.

As for the food served during the dinner, the menu is a lot more involved than just chips and dip. Perez volunteered the menu from last year's dinner:

Viki and Ernie Jacob hosted the first course, and they had assorted cheeses with crackers, summer sausage, hot crab dip with bruchetta, and a variety of wines. Robin Forgione, a neighborhood resident, also contributed a bread bowl with salmon dip at this stop. In addition to these main food items, bowls were set out filled with chips, dips, nuts, and candies. This was the case at all of the host houses.

The second course was hosted by Larry and Gayle Revis, although Joyce Monachella, a host during the first progressive dinner, helped with the preparation. This course consisted of Hawaiian meatballs, a vegetable tray, a bacon cheese ball, and fruit served with both chocolate and marshmallow fondue. Champagne punch was also provided.

For the third course, guests moved on to the home of Jim and Shannon Gettings. The items provided there were stuffed mushrooms and shrimp cocktail. Guests also treated themselves to chocolate martinis.

The fourth hosts were Fred and Diane Hylan, and they served the main course at their home. This meal consisted of a spiral ham, baked beans, and a cold pasta salad with chicken. Homemade eggnog was also served.

The last course of the night provided guests with a variety of desserts and was hosted by Cindy and Daren Perez, who is the builder and superintendent of Kelly West. Guests could take their pick from decorated sugar cookies, pound cake served with fresh fruit, yellow cake with chocolate icing, or a variety of marbled cheesecakes. Champagne, wine, and coffee were also available.

In addition to dessert, the Perezes served up a big surprise to their guests. They hired a DJ to set up at their home and entertain everyone with dance music. The party went on in their garage until the wee hours of the morning.

"The DJ was a total surprise to everyone. We ended things with a real bang," Cindy Perez says.

According to Perez, the progressive dinners have made a definite difference to the residents of the neighborhood. The turnout for both dinners has included over 50 people, without counting the children, and many of the people were meeting various neighbors for the first time. The participants get to dress up and enjoy the night, even people who have limited time out because they have children to consider, Perez says.

"It's really all been about getting to know people and the goodwill of the neighborhood. It's a lot of work, but it's all worth the hassle. There's not one person here that I can't go ask for an egg."

How many people can say that about their neighborhood?

For more tips on how to organize your own progressive dinner, visit http://entertaining.about.com/library/weekly/aa092500a.htm.

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