Family's communal Sunday dinners mirror Parisian open-door feasts

Maureen Dumbaugh of Mt. Lebanon wasn't sure how'd she cope when her youngest daughter left for college a year ago.

Many parents enjoy the freedom that comes with being an empty-nester. But she worried it would leave her out of touch.

How, then, to stay connected?

When you love to cook as much as Mrs. Dumbaugh does, the answer is simple: hold a community dinner party.

She and her husband, Jack, got the idea from their oldest daughter, Mari, who while studying in Paris in 2005 attended such an event in expat Jim Haynes' salon. In the early 1970s, the Louisiana-born writer/actor/world traveler started an open-door Sunday night supper club as a way to introduce travelers in a strange city. It's been a hit ever since, sometimes drawing upwards of 100 dinner guests of all ages, nationalities and professions.

Anyone is welcome to attend; you simply e-mail or call to have your name added to that week's list. Guests are asked to leave a donation in an envelope. Profits go to various charities and social and artistic projects. To date, more than 135,000 hungry travelers have stepped through his (now famous) doors.

Mari was so impressed with the meal that she urged her mother, a flight attendant, to get on Mr. Haynes' guest list the next time she had a Paris layover. In April 2007, Mrs. Dumbaugh did exactly that, and like her daughter, experienced a "fascinating" evening of dinner and conversation.

"Now, every time I'm in Paris, I have lunch with him," she says.

The Dumbaughs' dinners, started in March, are held the last Sunday of each month. Following in the tradition of Mr. Haynes' soiree, you don't have to know the couple or bring a dish; an e-mailed reservation and dinner-time donation (most give about $20) gain you entry into the supper club.

You do need a love of good eats -- the meals are typically gourmet -- and a sense of adventure. We're talking about breaking bread with people you might not know.

Mrs. Dumbaugh admits that her husband thought she was "nuts" when she started playing around with replicating the Sunday suppers in Pittsburgh. But it's something, she says, she felt "destined" to do.

Guests gather in the lower-level family room, and the crowd often spills outside onto the patio, where a firepit not only keeps fingers and toes warm but encourages couples to sit and have a conversation. Dinner is served buffet style, and eaten atop a tablecloth-covered pool table.

The Dumbaughs have reconnected with old friends such as Jim Godish of Collier, who last year moved back to the area after nearly two decades in Washington, D.C. The best man at their wedding, he's been to every dinner and even serves as volunteer bartender. As he puts it, "It's a chance to meet a whole lot of new people."

Neighbor Carol Bilec, who's been to every dinner but two, is another who has used the monthly meals as a way to catch up.

"It's been really exciting, and so interesting," she says. "It's even led to some of us getting together outside the venue."

Ms. Bilec has had so much fun that she was host chef for a "salad evening" earlier this fall. (She cooked the chicken at home on the grill, then reheated it in the Dumbaughs' kitchen.) Other guest chefs have included Claudio Masci, who cooked for Abruzzi's in the South Side before it closed, and Dave LeFebvre of Mt. Lebanon, who guest-cheffed in October.

By day, Mr. LeFebvre works in the pharmaceutical business; evenings and weekends, the 35-year-old father of one is an accomplished cook with a blossoming catering business. To be able to showcase his talents while fitting some socializing into his busy schedule with wife, Megan, then, was an opportunity not to be missed.

Neither, it turns out, was the buffet dinner he whipped up in October, the proceeds of which were donated to Macy's Come+ Together campaign. Appropriate to the season, it paired a luscious pear-and-chevre mixed green salad served inside a carved-out pumpkin with manchego mashed potatoes, a cinnamon and garlic-infused chicken stew, and roast pork loin stuffed with Fuji apples and cranberries. For dessert, there were miniature pumpkin pies, bite-sized chocolate cakes and chocolate-covered strawberries.

"Cooking is a passion of mine, and I love to try new things," he says.

Which brings us back to the original concept behind the Dumbaughs' Sunday night dinners: food and good company.

"I just love the idea of keeping people connected," says Mrs. Dumbaugh.

The next Sunday Night Dinner will be held Dec. 27. For more information or to reserve a seat at the communal table, visit

Recipes: Sunday night dinners
Black Bean Soup with Cumin and Cilantro

This vegetarian soup is included in a cookbook that was inspired by Jim Haynes' Sunday night dinners in Paris. In France, Jim Haynes writes on his Web site, spicy foods are not very well received, so hot peppers are served on the side.

  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 1 pound onions, diced
  • 1/2 pound carrots, diced
  • 1/2 pound celery, diced
  • 2 ounces garlic, chopped
  • 3/4 pound dried black beans
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin
  • 1 tablespoon ground coriander
  • 1 cup port wine
  • 1/2 bunch cilantro, chopped
  • 1 cup creme fraiche or sour cream
  • Salt and pepper
  • 3 limes cut into small wedges
  • Bottled hot sauce or 1 can of jalapenos, chopped

Heat oil in heavy large pot over medium-high heat. Add onions, carrots, celery and garlic and saute until softened but not browned.

Mix in beans and spices. Add water to cover by about 2 inches and bring to boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer until beans are tender, stirring occasionally, about 2 1/2 hours, adding more water if necessary. Season with salt and pepper.

For a smooth soup, puree the beans in a blender or food processor.

Reheat, stirring and add the port wine, and one bunch of cilantro. Thin the soup with water if it is too thick. Bring just to the boil and simmer a few minutes. Add the cream. Check the seasoning, adding more salt if necessary.

Bring soup to simmer and serve with separate bowls of lime wedges and jalapenos or hot sauce. Can be prepared ahead, if kept refrigerated.

Serves 25.

-- "Throw a Great Party: Inspired by Evenings in Paris with Jim Haynes" by Mary Bartlett (iUniverse, $16.95)

Apple Cranberry Stuffed Pork Loin

  • 8 Fuji apples, peeled and rough chopped
  • 2 tablespoons cinnamon, divided
  • 2 tablespoons nutmeg, divided
  • 3 tablespoons brown sugar, divided
  • 11/2 cups dried cranberries
  • 3 sprigs fresh rosemary, rough chopped
  • 5 cloves minced fresh garlic, divided
  • 4-pound roaster pork loin (not tenderloin)
  • 2 tablespoons kosher salt
  • Cracked pepper to taste
  • 1 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 3 cups apple cider (not apple juice)
  • 3 cups chicken stock
  • 14-ounce can whole-berry cranberry sauce

Peel and rough chop apples

Toss apples with 1 tablespoon cinnamon, 1 tablespoon nutmeg, 1 tablespoon brown sugar, dried cranberries, 1/2 of the chopped rosemary and 2 minced garlic cloves. Set aside.

Place pork loin in roaster pan, fat side down. Cutting lengthwise across the entire loin, create a cavity in which to stuff with apple mixture. Be sure not to cut loin into two halves.

Once cut, stuff as much apple mixture into the cavity as possible. Reserve remaining apple mixture for later.

Tie pork loin with cotton cooking twine (3 or 4 ties is sufficient). Sprinkle loin with kosher salt and cracked pepper. Dust exterior of loin with remaining cinnamon, nutmeg, brown sugar, rosemary, minced garlic and cloves. Scatter remaining apple mixture evenly around loin in roaster pan.

Pour apple cider and chicken stock in roaster pan until it comes half way up sides of loin. Cover with foil and place in 375-degree oven for 5 hours or until the meat is tender and moist and comes apart with a fork.

Let meat rest covered for 15 minutes after it comes out of oven.

Top with whole-berry cranberry sauce.

Serves 8 to 12.

-- Dave LeFebvre, Mt. Lebanon

Gretchen McKay can be reached at or 412-263-1419.


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