It isn’t hard to organize a block party (see our post about organizing block parties) and the benefits of neighbors getting to know each other is invaluable. So it’s not surprising when a block party instigates more community activities among neighbors. Craig LaBan, a food critic at the Philadelphia Inquirer, wrote an article on May 1, 2008, called “Rowhouse ritual: Block parties morphed into ‘family meals’ – three sets of busy neighbors taking turns making Monday-night dinner.” In the article, Craig, who lives in a 1860, three-storied row house in Philadelphia, explained how block parties have helped transitioned his block into a very close knit community.
During the ten years that Craig has lived on his block, he has seen a shift from older residents to more young families. As more families moved onto the block, the block parties have become more frequent with informal “parties” for most holidays as well as random celebrations prompted by neighbors who’ve made too much dinner, perhaps, and need to share with the others. Their community goes beyond the block and many even vacation at the shore together.
Specifically, Craig and two other households found that they were all too tired to make a decent dinner after their kids’ Monday night swim team practice. So they decided to cook for each other, in turn. Every Sunday someone makes enough food for all three families and passes the food to the others via casserole dishes and soup pots. When asked about the welfare of the dinnerware, some of which inevitability gets left behind, Craig said with neighbors living within feet of each other, it isn’t hard to track down M.I.A. items.
As for the menu, the choices are not complicated. Craig says “these are family dishes.” Aside from the main dishes, often the neighbors will make side dishes, desserts and salads as well. He says people put a little more effort than if they were just cooking for themselves and that the dinners have “brought out the best home cooks in us.” The pickiest eaters are often kids and Craig says the meals have expanded their horizons. Often having the food come from a neighbor will prompt them to try some to “be polite.” For the parents, it can be a friendly competition to see whose meatballs, for example, are better. But the best part is that it’s a nice way to have a home cooked meal on a busy night.
This will be the second year that LaBan and his neighbors participate in their ritual of Monday night meals, coinciding with the second season their kids are on the swim team. With this special exchange between only a few neighbors, do the other neighbors get jealous? Craig says that although there is a core of neighbors who do a lot together, all the neighbors on the block enjoy a cordial relationship with each other. “You always worry that someone feels excluded, but with everyone in the same swim class…[the dinners are meeting a] specific, practical [need].”
LaBan adds, “when you work with your neighbors, sharing food, there is a level of intimacy and involvement that goes beyond your normal neighbor relationship. I think it’s definitely part of the proximity of the row home neighborhood that makes this possible.”
Originally posted May 2008.