ARTICLE BY: ANN AMATO
Ann Amato is an ever-changing work-in-progress thanks to improving health. She’s a horticulturist who specializes in seeds with a background in arts management and publishing. She’s been a therapeutic foster parent, an ESL instructor, and she blogs at: Amateur Bot-ann-ist. Currently, she works part-time at Cistus Nursery and sells her own seeds at Milton’s Garden Menagerie on Etsy.
“My house just happens to be in my garden.” It’s what I say to people, and for the most part, it’s true.
Long ago this became a motto for me. The joke though was that there was no garden at all when I first moved in. There were only a handful of about 6 kinds of plants and that was it. The place was barren. Before I even moved in I was planting plants in the garden that were transplanted from my old rental. The whole point to purchasing the house in the first place was for me to make a garden.
Long before I started cooking my dinners my ex-husband and I had jokingly considered the idea. A popular Portland restaurant at that time had been started by a couple who’d cooked dinners in their home. We laughed that we could do it too. After all, he was a chef and I was no slouch but my health was poor. It was a dream, and while my garden grew, that marriage did not.
Years later the underground dining idea came up again after a trip to Italy with my second husband who was born and raised there before moving to Portland when he was 9. Upon our return I needed a sudden surgery from an injury I’d sustained years earlier. Afterwards, while recovering, I tried and tried to think of creative ways to pay the bills. Creating an underground dining experience seemed like the way to go, and as crazy as the idea was at the time, it worked. Over time I paid off the surgery, but it took time, and it was a lovely experience.
Dinners were advertised to friends on social media and I posted my meals regularly in a secret dining group on another social site. (It’s still the system I use today.) Folks pay in advance to hold their seats and last-minute cancelations are discouraged. Since I can only feed 10 people at a time, it’s important to carefully plan. Most dinners are a mix of friends and strangers, but there are more repeat customers now as well as private dinners that my friends request I host in my home for them.
It’s not that I earn a lot of money from any of this. I truly enjoy cooking, and this has enabled me to do more of it. As someone with severe chronic health issues due to a rare autoimmune disease, this has been a freeing experience. Gardens should not only please the eye, but they should please the other senses too. To me, that’s what my dinners allow. All along I had planned on creating a garden that would transport us all away from our daily lives. Looking back at where I began, I think I did a decent job. I also inadvertently brought folks together and that really pleases me. I like doing that, but this was in an unexpected way.
When I first moved into my house it was a clean slate. Having next to nothing as a budget for gardening, I got creative. In my mind, I imagined building basic furniture and having big family dinners like we’d always had when I was growing up. I had always spent every holiday with loads of family, extended family, and “homeless for the holidays” folks. I wanted to open my home too, but I didn’t know how.
I don’t have the money to be as generous as my parents, but by requiring a set donation from guests it has worked out well. I often cook my 4- or 5-course meals over several days and do all of the shopping, planning, and cooking. Many of the dishes are made from scratch since I advertise my homestyle Italian cooking that way. I keep changing the menu to keep it fresh and I like to make them regional.
I let folks know that what they can expect at dinner is the feeling of dining with Italian-American friends. From there, folks arrive. Yes, it’s often awkward, but they begin to open bottles, the dishes slowly come out of the kitchen, and before I know it there’s laughter, folks coming in to talk to me in the kitchen, and so many wonderful conversations occur.
It was my perseverance that created the refuge I have today. It started from my chronic illness, but it’s expanded far beyond where I had hoped. Underground dining is not for everyone, but for this gardener, it’s created a whole new way to look at my plants and to see the spaces I create. I value them so much more now.
Featured photo at the top of the post by Ann Amato.