A new model for millennial philanthropy?
On Saturday night, about 100 people are expected to gather in a Greek revival mansion on Capitol Hill for a dinner that will resemble a giant potluck, with a half dozen dishes served buffet style over three hours. For entertainment, a band will play music.
The diners, loosely joined compatriots, many of whom do not know one another, will far outnumber the chairs and tables in the house. Most will stand, holding their plates.
The organizers of the dinner party will ask but not require their guests to pay for their meals. They will ask them to pay $15 to $20 if they can, more if they are able, less if they are not. There will be no tipping. Booze will be included.
Not quite a restaurant, and not quite a party, the event could be described as a night out with friends, although the word friends is used broadly.
The menu at last November's Eat for Equity. Photo: Eat for Equity.
Saturday's dinner will be the seventh hosted by Eat for Equity Seattle, the local chapter of a national, non-profit network of similar groups that host dinners four to 12 times a year. It's been a year since three likeminded acquaintances started the Seattle branch. (The original Eat for Equity started in Minneapolis six years ago and has since spawned nine chapters in every region of the country.)
“There are very few things as special as opening your home and sharing food with people,” said Elyse Gordon, one of the founders of the group and its principal cook. “I’ve personally come to realize how important food is in building community. It is a unifying way to say, 'I welcome you into my life, I value you.' The food is central to making people feel connected.”
Volunteers prepare bread and brownies for a January Eat for Equity dinner. Photo: Elyse Gordon
One of the newest chapters of Eat for Equity, the Seattle group hosts a dinner every two months in a different house. It is exploring the possibility of hosting smaller dinners in the off-months.
The modest proceeds from the dinners have gone to benefit causes chosen by the organizers. This year, the Lifelong AIDS Alliance, Seattle Youth Garden Works and Queer Youth Space, among others, have been the beneficiaries of these dinners, which have raised about $3,000 in total. Saturday’s dinner will benefit Eat for Equity Seattle itself; funds will help purchase kitchen equipment.
The group's profit margin, if it can be called that, is small and exists only because the materials and ingredients for the meal are donated or subsidized by patrons of the organization. Some are local farms like Hogstead Farm. Others are grocers like New Roots Organics and the Central Co-op. As charitable foundations go, Eat for Equity is small — barely on the philanthropy radar. This is charity for those who do not own evening gowns and cannot afford tickets to black-tie galas.
“It’s accessible to most people,” said Derek Broughten, another founder of the Seattle group. "Just about everyone can afford $15 to $20 for a plate of food, and it’s prepared with love, and it’s wholesome and delicious. We also realize for some, $20 is what they have to spend on food for the week. Whatever you give, you’re not just putting your money in an envelope, or entering your credit card number on line. This is more tangible than donating $20 to the Red Cross.”
The idea of a collaborative dinner, eaten informally and communally, in the name of a common cause only seems novel if all the eating out you have done has been in restaurants or at a friend’s dinner table.
Viewed another way, Eat for Equity is actually a variation of the ages-old ritual of expressing solidarity by sharing a meal. It is a variation of the Midwest church potluck, or the (extended) family pig roast, or the small-town New England clambake, and the Sunday dinners served in the various immigrant halls all over the country. In each case, everyone has a hand in procuring or preparing the food, bonds are created, traditions affirmed, needs filled. The church might need a new van, Uncle Louie a new barn, the Polish Hall a new piano. Small communities, families, have always found ways to provide for themselves.
Modern, urban life has dissolved or atomized much of that traditional, community structure. American cities are full of residents who arrived alone, who are untethered from families and childhood neighborhoods. We have disparate interests and priorities. Apart from football games and Seafair, we do very little as a single community. Each year, as the city grows, so do the number of newcomers who are indifferent to those football teams and pirate parades.
Of the five principal organizers of Eat for Equity’s dinner, four possess cell phone area codes from the other side of the country.
“We’re all trying to meet new people, so maybe transplants are more drawn to something like this than most,” said another organizer Jackie Dagger, who will help Gordon prep ingredients Friday night. From Vermont, Dagger moved to Seattle to attend graduate school at Antioch University Seattle.
Gordon, 27, grew up just outside of New York City and attended Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minn. She moved to Seattle three years ago to attend graduate school at the University of Washington.
Elyse Gordon, left, cooks for a March Eat for Equity dinner. Photo: Eat for Equity
She is a self-taught cook, reader of blogs and cookbooks, fond of hosting dinner parties. She has led the preparation of almost all of Eat for Equity’s dinners, scaling up recipes to feed between 50 and 70 people. Saturday’s dinner will be the largest effort of her life.
The featured entrée tomorrow will be a dish Gordon has cooked dozens of times, a stew of kale, squash, white beans and sausage. It’s healthy, hearty, and “a crowd pleaser,” she said. The sausage is being donated by BB Ranch, a local maker of artisanal, organic sausage that is gaining a fanatical following.
“We’re not trying to push the envelope,” Gordon said. “We’re not creating modernist cuisine. We want the food to be plentiful, healthy, and to reflect the season that we’re in.”
One volunteer is baking crusty, Italian style bread from a family recipe. Donated greens will go into a marinated kale and pear salad. The starch dish will be a farro salad with cranberries and hazelnuts. Gordon is also preparing braised cabbage, borrowed from a recipe from the popular blog Orangette, written by Molly Wizenberg.
Volunteers with baking experience have been tasked with making eight pumpkin pies, two of them vegan, two gluten free.
Gordon strives to have enough leftovers to feed volunteers and to leave the residents of the house with a few meals’ worth of food.
Invitation to all dinners is open, and word is spread through email and Facebook. While RSVPs are strongly encouraged for purposes of estimating materials, the organizers welcome anyone who shows up.
“What I always tell guests,” Gordon said, “and it always resonates with people, is that whatever brought you here, you have something in common with everyone here. Something about this spoke to you, something drew you here, and that’s a starting point all of you have. If you’re new to the city and you want to meet people who share your values and you’re excited about food, you should come to our dinners. I guarantee you’ll meet someone you’ll want to hang out with.
“I think what we do is contrary to what philanthropy has been doing in the city, but indicative of where it’s going.”