YARMOUTH — Mary Rehak loaded four bottles of wine, a loaf of bread, two plates of chocolate truffles (made from a Julia Child recipe), and a bunch of flowers into her car and cruised down the street to drop it all off at other houses in her neighborhood. Saturday night was the annual progressive dinner party on Oakwood Drive, and Rehak, one of the organizers of the event, was making last-minute deliveries before heading to the first stop of the evening, the appetizer house.

A progressive dinner is a dinner party that moves from place to place, with each venue serving a single course. As Rehak rolled slowly down the street, she passed five neighbors already walking to the first house and waved to them, calling out a greeting. A little later, a couple more. It was a cool but beautiful night. Two men were wearing shorts, which, along with the progressive dinner, is an annual sign of spring in this circle of 64 attractive, contemporary homes.

Progressive dinners, in and of themselves, are not an unusual thing. But this one has some legs. This is the 29th year the dinner has been held on Oakwood Drive, making the dinner as old as the neighborhood, which sits on a mile-long loop. Serious planning begins two months in advance, and there’s a different theme each year – this year, in a nod to the Olympics, it’s “Around the World.” The whole neighborhood gets a printed invitation. Most years, 50 to 60 people participate. It’s kind of like “a block party for bad weather,” says Rehak, an art teacher who has attended the dinner for 16 years and worked on the planning committee for eight. Neighbors, like groundhogs emerging from their dens, step out of their houses after long winters spent hunkered down inside with comfort food and Netflix.

“Honestly, this is a time I see people that I have not seen all year,” Rehak said.

After nearly three decades, the dinner runs like a well-oiled machine. Everyone who attends must either host or bring food, and guests are expected to show up for all the courses. The evening starts with an appetizer house that everyone visits. Then people split up, visiting one of two salad houses – one gluten-free, one nut-free. The groups become even smaller at the five dinner houses, each with sit-down dining for eight to 10 people. At the end of the night, all the neighbors come back together at the dessert house.

“People don’t want to have the whole evening at their house,” Rehak said, “so it’s a good way to break up the responsibilities. And it’s a nice walk.”

‘YOU’RE THE DESSERT HOUSE’

First stop, the Beckman house at 5:30 p.m. for appetizers. A large group is already scattered around the kitchen and living room, chatting and drinking wine or beer. Another half-dozen or so are outside, standing around a ceramic fire bowl to ward off the chill. Many people have written their house number on their name tag along with their name.

“It’s a wonderful way to get to know your neighbors,” said Laura Beckman, who has lived here 24 years. Like many of her neighbors, she’s attended most of the dinners since she’s lived in the subdivision. “If we’re here, we do it,” she said.

Her husband, Steve, recalled that when they first moved in, one of the first greetings they heard was: “Welcome to the neighborhood. You’re the dessert house.”

“And we had no idea what that meant,” he said.

In the living room a huge white platter is filled with cheese and fruit. On the dining room table there’s shrimp cocktail, artichoke dip, sliced meats and crackers, and “Peppers Provencal,” small pastry cups filled with sauteed peppers and onions and seasoned with herbes de Provence, prepared by Karin Walsh from a recipe she found in her old “Silver Palate” cookbook. Walsh stands by the table, chatting with Maureen Darling, who’d made an Asian salad for one of the salad houses. They share a story about one of the dinner’s most memorable years, when a potholder started a kitchen fire. “In this town,” Walsh said, “when the fire department gets called they get pretty excited, so they brought out every piece of equipment.”

The host’s kitchen was ruined, but the guests scheduled to eat there were squeezed in elsewhere. The progressive dinner must go on.

Another memorable year: Someone showed up at the dinner house door in late afternoon, a couple of hours before the event was supposed to start – with a raw turkey. The host cooked it anyway, and dinner was served later than usual.

Debbie Ryan and Bruce Chung are first-timers. The couple and their two boys moved into the neighborhood almost two years ago. They couldn’t attend last year, but this year Ryan made a Moroccan lamb tagine. “I’m hoping it turns out,” she said. “It’s in the oven right now.”

Moving onto Oakwood Drive, Ryan said, has been “a really welcoming experience.” The day they moved in, a group of neighborhood kids brought them a card and flowers.

“We haven’t always loved our house because we have a lot to do on it,” Ryan said, “but we love our neighborhood.”

WILL WALK FOR FOOD

The clock’s about to hit 7 p.m. Someone taps the side of a wine glass to get everybody’s attention. It’s time to draw names for the salad and dinner houses. The host houses are determined well in advance, but guests don’t know where they will eat salads or entrees until the drawing. Keeping part of the itinerary a surprise adds an element of fun, Rehak said, and it prevents people from hanging out with neighbors they already know.

“Happy spring!” Rehaks says in a short toast before the group moves on. “We deserve it.”

Mary Rehak checks her list for the annual progressive dinner. Staff photo by Derek Davis

Johannes Wiebus is hosting the nut-free salad house because his wife is allergic to nuts, but she ended up having to travel for work and couldn’t make it. His father, Hans, is here though, visiting from Munich, and everyone wants to talk with him. Randy and Nancy Billmeier provided enough salad for 20 people – two big bowls of greens tossed in a tangy vinaigrette, with shaved Parmesan – and whole wheat sourdough bread that Randy made himself.

Wiebus and his wife are in video production and moved here from New York City in 2008. They had never lived in the suburbs before, Wiebus said, and they didn’t know what to think when they first heard about the progressive dinner. “It was a little suspicious,” he recalled with a smile. “We thought they must be plotting something. We stayed away for a couple of years.”

Now they’ve grown to love the neighborhood so much they hosted a German-style Oktoberfest at their home last year that people are still talking about.

As Nancy Billmeier and Kimberly Snow ate their salads, they shared other neighborhood traditions. At Christmastime, luminaries line the entire Oakwood Drive loop.

“People in town, if you don’t do it, they’re really upset,” Billmeier said. “People drive through on Christmas Eve.”

Oakwood always holds a Halloween bonfire, and the neighborhood is perfect for trick-or-treating. Parents park at the end of the street and wait their while their children make their way around the loop. In the spring, if neighborhood kids are graduating, congratulatory signs are placed at the end of the street, and everyone gathers for a group photo. The neighborhood also has a long-running book club.

THE BABY SITTERS CLUB

At 8 p.m., guests are ushered out of the salad houses so they can make their way to dinner. At the French dinner house, the dining room table is elegantly set for nine. Carol Austin, who is hosting with her husband, Lin, tells her guests to help themselves to wine as she slides the evening’s entrees under the broiler. Usually, the host just provides the space for sit-down dining, along with wine, beer and soft drinks, but this year Austin is doing double duty by cooking the entire dinner herself. She had Rehak print up the menu in both French and English: Scallop and haddock St. Jacques, potato and tomato gratin, and French green beans.

The other dinner houses are serving food from Argentina (empanadas), Vietnam (pho), Morrocco (tagine) and India (chicken tikka masala).

A table groaning with food helps kick off the festivities at the appetizer house.

Carol Austin estimates that only 10 houses in the neighborhood still have their original owners, but the progressive dinner goes on. The Austins have lived here 31 years – so long they can’t remember when they attended their first one. But in the early days, she said, the organizing was casual: “Somebody said, ‘Everyone bring lasagna.’ ” At that time, houses didn’t yet extend all the way around the loop, so fewer people – about 25 to 30 – attended. This year’s attendance is just 37, and no one is quite sure why. To encourage attendance, the dinner is always held during “the dead time” after March Madness but before spring break. (Basketball ruined some of the early dinners when fans would turn on the host’s television and everyone watched the games instead of socializing.) Skiing is over at this time, and children’s spring and summer sports haven’t yet begun.

Because this is a coveted adults’ night out, it’s also a big night for baby sitters. “Once the invitations come out,” Austin said, “the baby sitters are all taken.”

Austin has outdone herself with dinner, which begins after a brief toast to the hosts. The sauce in the seafood dish is too thin, she worries, but no one complains. They just sop up the sauce with a slice of baguette from Standard Baking Co. The beans are perfectly tender.

Dinner conversation is more intimate in this smaller group, and wanders from topic to topic. At one point, a guest suggests going around the table so everyone can say where they are from, and people start asking questions about everyone’s hometowns.

Among the guests at the Austins are Kimberly and Mark Snow, who will be the hosts for the dessert house. The Snows leave the Austins’ a little early to get the coffee and tea started.

At about 9:30 p.m., all the guests head over to the Snows’ house for one final round of socializing, and where a spread of chocolate truffles, key lime bars, a carrot cake, cookies and cheesecakes await. The dining room and kitchen are packed, and loud chatter fills the house. Technically, the evening is supposed to end at 11, but – as everyone has joked throughout the evening – the Snows have never kicked anyone out.

When it is finally over, the hunger for both food and friends satiated, everyone heads home to their children and their busy schedules.

Same time, next year.

Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: MeredithGoad

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