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At these parties, everybody cooks, they share work, expenses, fun.

"Do you belong to a group that plans dinner parties as a cooperative effort?" When we asked Sunset readers that question a while ago, more than 300 of them responded by sending letters, snapshots, and menus of parties. Many of them told us why they enjoy cooperative dining.

"We have a lot of fun, make good friends, collect lots of recipes, learn new cooking techniques, gain confidence for our own entertaining, and eat sumptuously for a lot less than going out to a restaurant," wrote Susan Dickson of San Diego.

Such sentiments were echoed over and over. Love of food but lack of time to try new recipes often prompted the start of a group. By sharing work and expenses, groups are able to sample many more new dishes, entertain more often, and develop long-lasting friendships (one group has been meeting for more than 35 years).

Setting the date

Most groups involve 8 to 12 people, who meet 4 to 12 times a year (some suspend meetings during the summer). Many groups allow only members to participate; some regularly include one or two guests. Dates for dinners are usually picked at least a month in advance. Some groups reserve a regular date each month.

If they can't make it, members might ask someone else to take their place, or another member might ask guests. Larger groups sometimes have problems with no-shows. Some solve it by levying a fine, or by asking people to find a substitute or to send the dish anyway.

Choosing the menu

At least one to two weeks before the dinner, menus are planned. Most recipes come from cook books, magazines, newspapers. Sometimes an ethnic cook is asked to plan a special menu.

Cooks seem braver in numbers. When the responsibility is shared, no menu is too complicated, no dish too elaborate--from whole pigs roasted in the ground to Indonesian rijstafels.

Ethnic themes and regional cooking seem especially popular: Chinese banquets, classic French dinners, Middle Eastern feasts, local seafood and produce specialties. Food themes are often supported by decorations, costumes, music, sometimes entertainment (belly dancers were often mentioned). Some groups plan dinner around an activity--tennis, bridge, golf, movie or book discussions--which precedes or follows the meal.

Planning approaches

Most groups use one of these three plans.

Everyone brings a course. One popular plan is to assign courses to each couple or person. Guests might decide what dish to bring, or the hoest may assign specific recipes. Some groups insists recipes be new, while others pretest all recipes.

Each dish (enough to serve all) is brought to the host's home as complete as possible. When it's time for that course, the contributor finishes preparation, serves the dish, then clears the table. After dinner, all may help to clean up; some groups leave it to the host, whose role rotates.

All cook at the party. Other groups make cooking part of the party. The host shops for the ingredients and sets up cooking stations with ingredients, utensils, and recipes. As guests arrive, they're assigned a partner to work on one dish at a station. Each team prepares and serves the dish, then cleans their station.

Host does it all. The hosts rotate and each has complete freedom in planning and cooking the whole meal. When party plans get elaborate and the group large, the host may recuit guests to help.

Special parties

Annual parties are often planned to include families and friends: a Christmas progressive dinner, Fourth of July barbecue, or even camping trips--all done cooperative. Other special dinners might include one where men do all cooking, an award ceremony for the year's best recipes (some groups rate recipes after each meal), a trip to a wine-producing region or a new restaurant, even hiring a guest chef to cook. Each party becomes a memorable event, often recorded with menus and photographs.

The matter of cost

Receipts for food and wine are saved, then the total cost is split among members. Or guests pay for the dish they bring. Some groups pay a set free each time. Groups that cook together may collect money in advance to buy ingredients.
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Date:Feb 1, 1984
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