SANTA BARBARA, CALIF. — If you're new to Toby Morris's neighborhood, don't expect him to greet you with a casserole. He's more likely to rush over with a warm pot of homemade tomato sauce and a spoon, eager for you to taste the latest creation from his organic garden.
At first, Pete and Katherine debruynkops, whose backyard is separated from that of Toby and his wife Stacey by a tall fence, didn't know what to make of this. While they were sunning on lounge chairs or yanking weeds from their own garden, Mr. Morris would suddenly appear, insisting: "You've got to taste this!"
But then they got to know him and his cooking. "Toby is a gourmet extraordinaire," says Mr. debruynkops, grinning as he sops up with bread the last bit of sauce from a plate of lamb osso buco, which Toby served to a gaggle of neighbors and friends on a recent spring evening.
His wife is no slouch of a cook either. While Toby prepared the lamb, Ms. Noss tossed a salad of just-picked lettuce with a homemade Dijon-vinaigrette dressing, accented with blue cheese and the innards of plum tomatoes, which she had stuffed with green beans as a separate side dish.
The back patio looked primed for a Mexican fiesta: They had lit a chiminea, a Mexican-style fireplace, for warmth and candles for light, and set tables with colorful mismatched plates and striped tablecloths. A thatched-roof palapa was in view, and salsa music beamed outdoors, enhancing the Yucatan-style atmosphere.
For these neighbors, this was just another dinner party among friends. They get together often, not only because they enjoy one another's company, but also because it makes life a little easier to share the load during a busy week.
While Toby and Stacey often host, the group also meets next door at Nancy Steele and Peck Euwer's home or at Katherine and Pete's for a meal now and then. Or any one of them might simply pop over to borrow a cup of sugar or a handful of fresh basil or cilantro. And with four children and one cat among them, they frequently swap sitting time as well.
With all this shuttling to and fro, they have even installed a gate in that tall fence, affectionately called the "friendship gate." Such neighborliness is rare in these fast-paced times, and this group knows better than to take their conviviality for granted.
"At one point, we thought about moving," says Ms. Steele, "but where else could we find a neighborhood like this one? If we move to the next town over, we might as well move back to Virginia." So instead of buying a bigger home to accommodate their growing family, she and her husband decided to stay put and build an addition.
The debruynkops are also expanding their home. "We wouldn't think of leaving," says Katherine. Stacey and Toby, who have lived in their single-story home for 17 years, aren't going anywhere either. "Before we moved here, three friendly, vivacious girls from the local university shared this house," she says. "It has always had a happy-house feel about it."
But they do leave their happy house for a month each spring to settle into another one on a Caribbean island. In fact, the day after this festive gathering, they are headed to the tropics. But first, there's talk about those lamb leftovers.
"The back door will be open," Stacey announces to the crowd, "so help yourselves to whatever's left. And don't forget to take fresh herbs from the garden!"
1 head of green- or red-leaf lettuce, trimmed, washed, and dried
1/4 pound of mesclun greens, washed and dried
Handful of radishes (about 5), washed and cut into quarters or thinly sliced, depending on preference
In a large salad bowl, place pieces of green-leaf lettuce. Spread mesclun greens and radishes on top. Dress with vinaigrette (recipe at right), and toss.
Serves about 8.
1/4 cup red-wine vinegar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons minced shallots (optional)
2 tablespoons blue cheese
1/4 cup minced tomatoes
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Whisk together the vinegar, salt, and mustard. Slowly add the olive oil in a stream. Add remaining ingredients and whisk mixture well.
Makes 1 cup. Refrigerate remaining dressing.