‘People crave this — this togetherness, this community’
Most Tuesday evenings find Kevin and Tiffany Eyer hosting between 15 and 40 people for dinner at their Gentilly home.
Family members, friends, friends of friends, neighbors, their children’s school chums and their parents, business associates, tenants and potential tenants of the Eyers’ 14 Gentilly rental properties start showing up between 5:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. It’s rather like the United Nations — those assembled typically represent assorted races, ethnicities, religions and socio-economic backgrounds.
“This is not an RSVP affair,” Kevin Eyer said. “We never really know who is coming or how many. We just always make sure we have a whole lot to feed everyone.”
By 8:30 p.m. or so a teamwork effort will have left the refrigerator stocked with leftovers, the dishes washed, the kitchen gleaming, and the Eyers free to quietly enjoy the remainder of the evening with their children, Mark, 13, and Tera, 11.
“This is about the dinner, about sharing a meal and community. It’s not an all-night hangout,” he said.
While all-night hangouts may be verboten for the Tuesday evening gatherings, the Eyers’ musical proclivities — he plays guitar and mandolin; she, the upright bass; and there is a baby grand piano for whoever wants to play it — and those of their many musician friends ensure frequent and joyous, if relatively brief, post-dinner jam sessions.
“Weekend get-togethers are longer and more laid back, but Tuesday dinners are pretty wham-bam,” Tiffany said.
The couple began the practice of hosting weekly community dinners in 2002 just after Tera was born. “I wanted my mother to see my children grow up so we started cooking big Sunday dinners for whoever wanted to come,” Kevin said. “It just kind of took off from there.”
The couple rented an apartment to Wayne Clement just as they adopted the practice. They invited him to dinner and he’s been coming ever since.
“When Katrina wiped us out and we were exiled to Florida, it was our community that we longed for,” Tiffany said. “This is where we turn for strength. In rebuilding our house we built it, our dream house, specifically to do this.”
She says the weekly dinners and other frequent get-togethers comprise the backbone of their existence and that of the community.
“We’re committed to New Orleans in general and to Gentilly specifically,” she said. “I feel my role in society as a landlord is to provide nice homes and to build community. My friend Stacey named me the ‘Gentilly Honeybee.’ She says I pollinate the neighborhood. I am deeply honored by this title. I love to make connections and to network people together in ways that benefit everyone involved. I have come to call this ‘honeybeein.’ ”
Core members of the community group — Kevin and Tiffany Eyer, Christopher and Stacey Summa, Bettie and Donnie Summa, Daryl Pfeif, Maggie Carver, Klara and Dan Hammer, and Betty and David Eyer — alternate responsibility for the main courses with a rotation of enthusiastic guest cooks . Many guests show up with some kind of contribution — a casserole, a fresh salad, a bottle of wine, a loaf of bread, dessert — while others show up with the intention of joining the cleaning crew.
The dinners seem to work flawlessly with everyone present gravitating into the role where they can be most helpful: cooking, cleaning, making music, changing CDs, setting or clearing the table, pouring wine or water, entertaining children.
“It’s rather perfect,” said Stacey Summa. “It’s a microcosm of how things should be.”
Being the communal efforts that they are, meals are often all over the globe and foods do not necessarily “match.” A recent dinner featured a simmering cauldron of Moroccan goat tagine; a mammoth cast-iron pan containing a flavorful, fragrant cross between jambalaya and Spanish paella; dishes of cheesy baked ziti; someone’s homemade sunflower bread; someone else’s homemade stone-ground whole-wheat bread; a vegan salad; a nonvegan salad; and a great big homemade devil’s food cake because it was someone’s birthday.
“We put this together to share a meal,” Tiffany said, “not to necessarily dazzle one another with culinary skills although some do.”
One-pot wonders such as meatballs and spaghetti, beef stroganoff, various curries, red beans and jambalaya are popular as are platters of grilled meats compliments of Tiffany Eyer because, as community member Charles Ivy said, “That Tiffany is the absolute master of burnin’ up groceries on the grill. That girl really knows how to cook over a fire.”
“Why do we routinely spend a small fortune at the grocery on a Tuesday to feed 40 people?,” Tiffany pondered. “How did we get here? What does this all mean? This is what’s important to us. I would rather have this than a new car. People crave this — this togetherness, this community, a sense of belonging. Every week, I am amazed that all of these people will stop what they are doing and come here for a couple of hours because they want to be together.”