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'This is pretty much my family here'

Now more than ever, friends are starting their own traditions during the holiday season

Heather Slaby (right) and friends give a toast at Trattoria Toscana during their annual pre-Thanksgiving dinner. Heather Slaby (right) and friends give a toast at Trattoria Toscana during their annual pre-Thanksgiving dinner. (Wiqan Ang for the Boston Globe)
By Irene Sege
Globe Staff / December 8, 2008
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The evening is not yet too loud to hear the jazz tribute to Fred Astaire piped into the cozy Fenway restaurant when Bruce Richardson opens the festivities with a founder's statement.

"It all started," he reminds those gathered at Trattoria Toscana, "with the tension I felt at Labor Day when my mother said, 'What are you doing for Thanksgiving?' I said, 'Wouldn't it be great if we could do Thanksgiving with friends without all the stress?' "

So, on Nov. 21, 1990, Richardson and Ellen Slaby, the girlfriend who became his wife, and their friend Ken Elmer went to Olive's in Charlestown, where they waited more than two hours to be seated, then dined on tuna and asparagus in cream sauce. Thus, a tradition was born. Every year Richardson, Slaby, Elmer, and an expanded group of friends launch the holiday season by dining out the Monday before Thanksgiving.

As the year unwinds with its usual flurry of family gatherings, traditions among friends can attain equally special status. In our mobile society of far-flung families, in the midst of a serious recession that could well limit holiday reunions, friends can stand in for family. Traditions among friends enjoy freedom from family history and obligations. They offer a welcome alternative to the strained relations some families suffer.

"The strength of friendship is because it's voluntary, there's a flexibility to it," says William Rawlins, an Ohio University professor of communications who has written about friendships. "It makes it that much more special when friends choose to perform a ritual. There's a real depth of connection that gets formed by choosing every year to do that."

For some groups of friends that might mean an annual holiday party. For others it's bundling up for a night of caroling. For the five couples gathered in this 28-seat Italian restaurant, the holiday season begins with a pre-Thanksgiving dinner, proceeds to the Yankee swap at Richardson and Slaby's house in Chestnut Hill the Sunday before Christmas, and ends with a "reject gift swap" at the South End condo of Elmer and Bob Carr the first Saturday of the new year.

The dinner begins, as always, with Jim Slaby, brother of Ellen, nattily attired, as usual, in a black suit and pocket handkerchief, standing to read the list of restaurants past. Icarus in 1996, when Elmer was working in Ireland and sent a bottle of Silver Oak cabernet to the table. Clio in 1997 - "Heather's first year," Jim Slaby interjects, Heather being the woman he wed in 2001, the year the group dined at Mantra. In 2008, with the economy in shambles, and most people, even in this well-heeled group, at least a little nervous, they opted for a neighborhood eatery more moderately priced than many previous choices.

The list is part culinary tour and part occasion for reminiscences. Mostly it's a map of enduring friendships, of time's passing measured in marriages and the arrival of children and the deaths of parents. Around other tables, these are sons and daughters, older sisters and younger brothers, mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles. Here, in a softly lit restaurant with bottles of Chianti in a rack on the wall, they're a table of peers where Richardson, a 53-year-old market researcher and the oldest in attendance, enjoys no rank above the youngest, Carr, a 36-year-old sales director.

"We don't have any baggage with these people," says Elmer, a 47-year-old human resources manager.

If friends are the family you choose, then this is a family of friends, some of whom see one another regularly and some of whom Elmer likens to "your favorite cousins who you see only at the holidays."

Elmer stands to unveil a new tradition. Redefining the concept of leftover turkey, he presents a wooden turkey from his last reject gift party, which, like the Yankee swap, is a bigger event than this intimate affair. Adorned in white plastic pearls and ceremoniously placed on the table, the turkey is inaugurated as mascot. "To the pearls," toasts Wendy Rovelli, 47, who designs data systems for a health plan.

Out comes the cheese course, aged parmesan and mild Gorgonzola served family style, and soon head server Santiago Lasprilla adds crostinis topped with chicken liver pate, spinach and sausage, and sauteed portobello mushrooms. He pours red wine and white.

"It's gotten past the point where it's about the food," says Ellen Slaby, a 51-year-old marketing director. "Now it's about getting together."

Food, nevertheless, remains a favorite topic, as when Moshe Elmekias, a 40-year-old real estate broker from the South End, wonders if there's anyplace like this in Concord, where Mark and Wendy Rovelli reside.

"I'm from Israel," says Elmekias. "Its culture is like Italian culture. Warm and temperamental."

"And very loud," says Mark Rovelli.

"Very loud," Elmekias agrees.

In this group only the Rovellis and Elmekias and his wife have children. Nobody has divorced, though before he met his wife Jim Slaby brought various girlfriends to the dinner. "The advice I would have given was, 'Don't buy green bananas and leave them in Jim's apartment, because you're not going to be around when they ripen,' " Richardson jokes. "We lived vicariously through him."

For Jim and Ellen Slaby, who have four other siblings, family and friends overlap. For Moshe and Cindy Elmekias, friends substitute for family. Moshe has a big family back in Israel. Cindy, 52, a marketing manager, is an only child whose parents died years ago.

"This is pretty much my family here," says Moshe. "For me, a large open table is a very easy place to be."

"I consider my friends my family," Cindy says.

Lasprilla brings plates of risotto with porcini mushrooms and gnocchi with Gorgonzola cream and toasted walnuts. He brings platters of sirloin in a balsamic vinegar glaze and roasted potatoes and grilled zucchini. He pours more wine. "This is like 'The Big Night,' " Richardson says. "The food keeps coming."

Elmer and Ellen Slaby catch up briefly on aging parents. The group is heavy on high-tech professionals who've weathered previous downturns, and more than one has attended past dinners unemployed. Now, although all have jobs and Cindy Elmekias just survived layoffs at her firm, they inquire about cutbacks and mention company parties canceled. Yet, overall, troubles garner scant attention. "We left all that outside," says Elmer. Instead, conversation revolves around travel, shared memories, and the holidays ahead.

Dessert is tiramisu, served amid good-natured groans about full stomachs but consumed nonetheless. If friendship, as experts say, strengthens the immune system and eases stress, then this is a healthy group indeed that applauds chef-owner Zamir Kociaj before departing.

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