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When The Neighborhood Comes to Dinner (recipe)

It all started with a crazy idea. I wanted to invite the neighborhood for dinner, like I'd seen in Gourmet or Saveur magazines, where whole Italian towns eat dinner together in the streets. Long tables, beautifully arranged, with hundreds of people sitting down for the same meal (usually spaghetti) at the same time.

I mentioned it to a neighbor when we moved to Mission Terrace in San Francisco, a little known gem of a neighborhood in the far south of the city. We have unpaved alleys behind our homes, right-of-ways owned by the homeowners, used by PG&E for access. I thought it seemed like the perfect place for a dinner, to gather people and tables and to somehow, someway all eat the same thing (likely spaghetti) at the same time. But how to make all that pasta? How to boil it, keep it warm, and serve it out to hundreds of people?

From there the story grew into reality. Ray, a neighbor from across the street, had the first big lightbulb - we could make the sauce, and people could bring their own cooked pasta. But what about the long table? Someone else suggested we could all bring tables out from our homes earlier in the day. Asa said she would make flower arrangements. Matt had a roll of butcher paper for the tables.

A crew, led by Glen and Aldolfo, offered to clean and rake the alley beforehand. It was my job to create an invitation, and David and Patricia were to get the word out. Perhaps most importantly, John planned to make the sauce, a huge messy affair that takes 12 #10 cans of tomatoes, 5 pounds of onions and a whole lot of time.

So we did it. we picked a day, put out an invite and people came. About 100 of them the first year. And by last night, year four, we had at least 170 people show up for dinner.

At 5:00 pm everyone gathered, staking out a claim at the 22-table-long table, unloading salads and wine and home made cookies. An impromptu cocktail hour ensued, people milling about talking to neighbors, introducing themselves to the strangers, kids shyly meeting then running off to play. About an hour later, we announced that it was time to eat, and people strolled leisurely up to John's makeshift kitchen where he ladled out sauce.

Then we ate.

Did I mention too that this was a mostly vegetarian meal? Almost 200 people eating tomato sauce with no meat? Sure, people bring an occasional meatball or sausage to the event, but for the most part, it was people enjoying well made sauce (recipe below), flavored with onions, garlic, oregano and basil. That's it.

But for me, the best part is looking around the massive table and seeing people of all ages and backgrounds sharing a meal together. Strangers talking about kids, religion, education, transportation, getting to actually meet and spend time together.

And aside from people taking pictures, I don't recall seeing a single phone out, no texting, no Facebook. Just people in the moment, in a place we all call home, together.

It is an amazing feat, especially when you consider that not a single piece of trash is left at the end of the evening (and there are no garbage cans). Everyone packs up the same stuff they brought, and slowly, a trickle of families with red wagons wander back from whence they came. Organically, without anyone really asking or directing, paper taken off the tables, the tables are folded, and lights are taken down. A few of us linger until late, not wanting the event to end, relishing time spent with people we had not known before.

I wonder what it would be like if we all had the privilege of spending this kind of time together with those who are different from ourselves. If instead of hanging out with friends you already know, what if we all had outlets for meeting those we don't know? If we could all sit around and talk about our religious beliefs with people we have never met before, ask questions about each other's holidays and customs? To talk about our families and how we all got to this country, to this block, to this house? What would our country be like?

Tomato Sauce (adapted for four people)

1 can diced fire roasted tomato (regular works too but we prefer fire roasted)

1 can crushed fire roasted tomato

1 large yellow onion

5 cloves of garlic (peeled)

1 cup red wine

1 T fennel seed

1 T dried oregano

1 T chili flakes

2 tsp fresh ground pepper

1 bunch of fresh basil

2 tablespoons fresh oregano

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

Salt to taste

Dice onion, mince garlic and saute with a little oil in a heavy bottom pot over low heat until translucent. Season with salt, pepper, fennel seeds, dried oregano and chili flakes as you go.

When the onions are translucent, add the red wine and reduce (keep cooking) until almost dry. Add tomatoes and bring to a simmer, cooking for at least 20 minutes (usually the longer the better) stirring occasionally to keep the sauce from sticking.

Taste for seasoning as you go, remembering that each batch of tomatoes is different, some sweeter, some more acidic. If you feel the tomatoes are too acidic, add a teaspoon of sugar - a little sugar goes a very long way!

To finish, chop the fresh basil and oregano and add along with olive oil just before serving.

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