From Alejandra Owens. You can find her at her food blog, One Bite At A Time. Alejandra also writes for City Eats DC, a Food Network site, where you can book dinner reservations. Follow her on Twitter at @frijolita and email her at alejandra[AT]borderstan.com.
It’s the most outrageous, awe-inspiring dinner party you’ll never be invited to — and you probably won’t be able to buy a ticket either. I had never even heard of the DC Progressive Dinner before, so when my friend Russell emailed to ask if I’d be a food judge for the 2012 annual dinner, my initial response was, “Sure, but, what is this thing again?”
This year’s dinner benefitted the Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League (SMYAL). The non-profit organization works in the D.C.-metro area and its mission is to “promote and support self-confident, healthy, productive lives for LGBTQ youth ages 13-21 as they journey from adolescence into adulthood.”
Where to Start?
How shall I describe the event? Let’s start with the format, perhaps? Three teams: appetizer, entrée and dessert. Fifty people per team, mostly gay men. Each team is judged on three categories: food, theme/decor and performance.
This year’s Progressive Dinner was held at three different venues (none of them private homes, too small), including an unused warehouse and even Town Danceboutique. The teams competed in each of the three categories at each venue. There really aren’t any “invites” or perhaps just a few — it’s just the teams and a smattering of people who are judging (like me).
At first I thought, “Okay, this sounds pretty basic.” I figured I’d bop around with my fellow judges from row house to fabulous row house where I’d nibble on some fancy snacks, sip a cocktail or two and enjoy a little dinner theatre.
“Progressive Dinner started about eight years ago with a group of 30 guys who were looking to do something different. It has evolved a lot from that simple dinner to include fundraising and more,” Bradley Schurman, founding member of DC Progressive Dinner, told me.
Evolved a lot would be an understatement. I never expected to see a svelte “Hermaphrodite” (appetizer team’s theme was The Olympiad) disrobe to reveal a clam shell and pearl bikini (not to mention he was sporting 5-inch gold glitter heels). Or watch a tall, lanky Asian Tinkerbell (pictured above, dessert team’s theme was “Neverland”) immerse her face in a pile of fairy dust while wearing an itty-bitty tulle skirt! Nor did I expect to eat the best homemade madeleine I’ve ever tasted and be plied with luscious wine drinks, home-brewed beer and wicked potent shots.
Committees and Months of Planning
As anyone who’s ever tried to host a dinner party for more than four people knows, cooking for a crowd is no small feat. Cooking for a band of 150 raucous, costumed gay men who have been performing complicated dance routines in hooker heels all night is a challenge of a whole other level. More than four months of planning these teams of 50 means breaking the planning and work into subcommittees wherein menus are planned, costumes are designed and built, and spaces large enough to handle the crowd and embody the chosen theme are procured.
Abandoned warehouses and nightclubs are transformed, home kitchens turn into well-oiled catering machines turning out tomato bisque by the gallons, roasting thousands of cubes of root vegetables. There are no rewards for teams who outsource their work — originality and a Drag Race-style flair for do-it-yourself is where winner takes all.
What started seven years ago as a small, traditional, progressive dinner amongst friends has evolved into a fanciful event where participant and attendee alike can escape into a whole new world. Then the 2008 recession hit and it was a game changer.
“For the most part, we were all well-employed and felt that giving back to our community was the one component that was really lacking,” said Schurman. “In light of the very public teen suicides in the past years, our decision to fund SMYAL, the Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League makes the event even more rewarding.”
No Room to Grow
Every judge who was new to the event asked the same question, “Why not open the event to a larger audience?!”
In a town drowning in over-priced events that don’t quite deliver, DC Progressive Dinner is a rare gem. “At 150 people we are already bursting at the seams. We do most of the fundraising at the front end, so we can enjoy the evening in the end. There has been talk about opening it up to a larger audience, but I’m afraid that could destroy something that is really special to us,” said Schurman.
Until then, you’ll have to find a friend who’s already participating and see if you can join the team. See, you’re all in or you’re all out. According to Schurman, “The best part of progressive dinner is that it is a lot of work that always pays off.”
The stakes are quite high, and though everyone is definitely in it for the fun, friendship and charitable cause — they make no bones about wanting the glory too.
As one member of a losing team said to me at the end of the night, “Mm. Mm. Wrong. Like when Jennifer Hudson lost American Idol.”