PORTSMOUTH — Barb Eyster admits she misunderstand the assignment at first: A black and white-themed al fresco dinner?
“I got confused,” said Ms. Eyster. “I thought that meant the food had to be black and white and I was stressing out about it.”
Unable to find many recipes with that color scheme, she considered making icebox cookies — sandwiches made of chocolate wafers and Cool Whip, then stuck in the freezer.
“But then Debbie gave me a dope slap,” she said.
That would be Debbie Oliveira, who along with her husband Paul hosts an annual potluck dinner on a beach overlooking Mt. Hope Bay near their Common Fence Point home. They set up a long table with elegant place-settings as guests enjoy five-stat meals while watching the sunset near the Mt. Hope Bridge.
Each year has a different theme — sometimes two, which led to the confusion at this year’s dinner Saturday night. Guests were asked to wear black and white and bring a dish from a country they’ve visited.
“The first year was your own nationality,” said Mr. Oliveira, who made a Portuguese dish for that dinner.
“Last year was an Asian theme. On another year, it had to be a dish from a country that began with ‘P’ or ‘D’ (Paul and Debbie),” said Ms. Oliveira.
Of course, nothing’s written in stone. On Saturday Ms. Eyster and her husband, Kurt, stuck with all Aquidneck Island-grown ingredients.
“We actually used Manny Botelho’s cucumbers and I made a cucumber-onion cold salad and a tomato-basil cold salad,” she said, adding there was a valid excuse for taking liberties with the theme.
“We’ve been moving and my life is chaos,” said Ms. Eyster, whose family recently relocated from Portsmouth to Westport.
(Another couple brought a Hawaiian dish. No one seemed to care about that breach in protocol, either.)
The dinner themes, however, don’t matter as much to the 20-plus friends who attend each year as does the setting and the people with whom they break bread.
“I really look forward to seeing the people who show up here, and Paul and Debbie are such good old friend from way back that I just enjoy any sort of function that they put together,” said Paul Hoover, a Bristol resident who’s come to all four al fresco dinners.
The dinners are also special, he said, because he’s always had a strong connection to nature.
“I really like to enjoy the environment that the meal is in. It adds so much to the food, just to see the sun changing colors as it sinks down, watching the moon rise up and smelling the air as you’re laughing and talking with people,” Mr. Hoover said.
Ms. Eyster agreed.
“I think it’s kind of cool that Debbie and Paul are inspired to get everybody together and sit an a beautiful space that hundreds of people walk by all the time and maybe never think about. Taking something so formal and placing it in a casual setting is very beautiful,” she said.
Guests also relish the challenge of preparing dishes inspired by the hosts’ themes — and anticipating what everyone else made.
“I enjoy working with a new food that I’ve never tried before and looking up and finding something because I enjoy cooking,” said Mr. Hoover.
Borrowed the idea
The Oliveiras got the idea for the dinner-on-the-beach five years ago, when they were invited to a similar al fresco meal in the same neighborhood. Since they were unfamiliar with most of the other diners, however, they decided to host a dinner for their own friends the following year.
It’s an all-day affair, the couple says.
“We start cooking at 7. I try to do dishes that don’t require a whole lot of work right before you eat,” said Ms. Oliveira.
“Then I’ll load up the trailer, pull it down here and set everything up,” said Mr. Oliveira.
The most work, however, comes the following morning — dealing with the trash, washing dishes and returning chairs and other items borrowed from friends.
Their friends are grateful for the gift. One guest described the annual dinner as “the most elegant setting in the most nurturing space with the most amazing friends and the most delectable food.”