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Dinner Club Rules! 

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As of late, Bend is becoming known as a food destination. It wasn't always that way.

When I first moved here in 1996, eating out was a rare event. I was working for peanuts, just like everyone else I knew. And there were only a few good places to go. Deschutes Brewery and Bend Brewing Company were always a good bet, and my husband liked Dude's Night at McKenzie's, where he could grab a cheap burger and beers with the guys, or indulge in Bend's only salad bar. Ethnic food was even more challenging. We could get decent Thai at Toomie's, or basic Italian at Giuseppe's. But even good Mexican food was hard to come by in those days - never mind Indian, Spanish or Ethiopian.

So potluck dinner parties became the default dining option among our 20-something crowd. Nary a week went by that we didn't bring "something to grill and something to share" to one friend or another's Westside hovel.

Over the years, it became clear that certain members of our social circle were more "gourmet" than others. Some would show up with a package of hot dogs and a bag of potato chips, while others would arrive with Oysters Rockefeller and seasoned lamb cutlets. Guess which ones we gravitated toward.

A few years ago, one of the foodies, a former professional chef, invited us to join a Dinner Club she was starting. She had picked an all-star line-up, and we jumped at the chance. We have been dining together once a month ever since.

The "rules" are simple. Each month, one couple hosts the group, selects the theme and assigns dishes to the other members. Themes vary. Sometimes we pick a country, such as Germany, Norway or Spain. Other times, it's raw food, or gourmet white trash. Assignments can be general, as in, "Bring a Moroccan dessert," or specific, as in "Make Spanikopita following my grandmother's recipe, which is attached to this email message." At the end of the meal, we choose next month's host.

Because each couple typically is responsible for only one dish, we can go all out on ingredients and preparation. One member of our club made his own goat cheese, then stuffed it inside bacon-wrapped dates for an appetizer. Another smoked a duck he had shot on a recent hunting trip. Our club shares two deep-fryers, an ice-cream maker and a pasta bike. At least one of them is put to use each month.

Since Dinner Club started, I have enjoyed some of the most memorable meals of my life. Even the seemingly mundane countries have offered a bounty of delicious dishes. I didn't have high hopes for Norwegian food or South African fare, but I was blown away by a delicate fish pudding and melt-in-your-mouth collard greens.

Starting your own dinner club is pretty simple, and you can make your own rules. Some clubs take food tours of big cities. Others get together to prepare meals they will serve to their families later that week. Still others have the host prepare everything for the guests. Whatever style of dinner club you choose, just remember to invite people you enjoy eating with. - Renée Davidson


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