The kitchen at Alan and Lois Sands' East Boise home becomes a hive of activity when people start to show up for a recent dinner party - one of five theme dinners that this fun-loving group of five couples holds each year.
"It's hard sometimes to come up with five dates when we can all get together. We're busy people," Merine Heberger says, as she places a smoked kokanee cheesecake appetizer on the counter next to some open bottles of Idaho wine.
She and her husband, Roy, are original members of this gourmet group, which has been going strong for more than 30 years. The other members are Chuck Blair and Signe Sather-Blair, Sam and Dorothy Mattise, Bill and Colleen Mullins, and Alan and Lois Sands.
On this night in March, these close friends gather once again for another dinner party, this one aptly themed "Made in Idaho." The menu includes savory salmon cheesecake, grilled leg of Lava Lake lamb, Basque-style roasted potatoes, North Idaho spoon bread, mixed greens, asparagus, and chocolate cake (made with russet potatoes), served with a scoop of Cloverleaf Creamery ice cream.
"We haven't done an all-Idaho theme before. It was fun gathering all the local wines, beers, veggies and meats," says Alan Sands, a semi-retired wildlife biologist who works with sage grouse and other upland game birds.
The Sands joined this Boise-based gourmet club about 10 years ago.
"We were the late-comers to the group. We felt lucky to get in. These people have become such great friends," Alan Sands says.
After enjoying the cheesecake and a glass or two of wine, the group makes its way to the dinner table for a bombardment of Idaho-inspired dishes.
Once everyone finds their place at the table (and spouses can't sit next to each other; that's one of the group's rules), they raise their glasses for a toast.
"Well, we got 30 years together and we are all still alive, and we mostly have all our parts. Here's to another 30 years," Chuck Blair exclaims, then everyone clinks glasses and begins to pass platters of food around.
The conversation quickly turns to reminiscing about some earlier dinners, especially the inaugural get-together.
"Remember our first dinner?" Chuck Blair asks the group.
He's referring to a sea bass dish with a white wine-butter reduction sauce that didn't turn out so well.
"That one flopped. It was probably our most ambitious dinner. I remember Roy and Merine almost killed each other over the dessert (a dish they were responsible for bringing)," Chuck Blair recalls, as the table bursts with laughter.
Over the years, this loquacious group of foodie friends have put on around 150 theme dinners from around the globe, including Best of Baja, Greek Cooking for the Gods and The Basque Table, to name a few, with recipes culled from various cookbooks and personal favorites.
Of course, food and drink is the focal point at the well-planned dinner parties, but the ties that bind these friends go well beyond the dinner table.
These culinary shindigs started in 1983 when a group of newcomers to the Boise area decided to gather several times a year for themed dinner parties.
"They (members of the group) tell me it was my wife and I who came up with the idea. I can't remember exactly how the whole thing came together," Chuck Blair says.
The original members of the group included Roy and Merine Heberger, Chuck Blair and Signe Sather-Blair, and Sam and Dorothy Mattise.
Chuck, Sam and Signe met while in graduate school at South Dakota State University, where they all studied wildlife biology. Sam was the first in the group to earn his master's degree, and he soon moved to Idaho to work with wild horses, a job he retired from about a decade ago.
Chuck and Signe, both retired wildlife biologists as well, who fell in love in graduate school, moved to Idaho after Sam saw a posting for a job and told Chuck about it, at which point, the new couple loaded up the car and headed west.
These young colleagues met the Hebergers (Roy is also a retired wildlife biologist), and the gourmet club dinners were launched. Bill and Colleen Mullins were soon brought into the fold.
"Roy and I met at a professional society meeting. One night, after an event, we were sitting around having beers, and Roy volunteered to help sod the yard at my new house. Our relationship kind of grew from there," recalls Bill Mullins, the only native Idahoan in the group, who retired as a water-quality biologist in 1999 to pursue a career as a wildlife photographer.
Right away, the gourmet club established rules for continuity's sake, a set of guidelines that are still followed to this day. Most importantly, they all make time in their busy schedules to get together in December to plan the upcoming year's dinners.
"We make these dates sacred. We are committed to doing this, and that's what makes it so successful," said Dorothy Mattise, a retired nurse.
Once the dates are knocked out, each of the five couples is responsible for organizing their appointed dinner, which includes gathering the recipes and assigning one dish for each couple to bring.
"No matter how your dish turns out, you have to bring it anyway," explains Merine Heberger, who serves as the group's secretary, so to speak, a task she's good at due to her former career as a corporate administrator.
Last year, the group celebrated 30 years together with a trip to the Oregon Coast, where they rented a vacation home at Manzanita for five days. They all had fun playing at the beach and gathering foodstuffs for a big seafood dinner.
"The guys chartered a boat to go fishing, but they only caught one fish. It was a $600 salmon," jokes Colleen Mullins, an air-transport nurse in Boise.
Their feast included (one) king salmon, shrimp, steamed crab, cioppino (tomato-based seafood stew) and pan-seared crab cakes.
"It was an excellent dinner. We had a wonderful time. The house had a beautiful view, and the sunsets were gorgeous," Merine Heberger says.
Traveling and playing together have always been a cornerstone of these enduring friendships. The group takes whitewater-rafting trips in Idaho nearly every summer, and many of them have traveled together elsewhere over the years.
"We have a pact to raft until we are 80," Dorothy Mattise declares.
Besides rafting, fishing is another activity the group enjoys doing together. The guys wish they had brought Signe Sather-Blair on the boat in Oregon because of her prowess as an angler.
"Signe could catch a fish out of a toilet bowl," quips Bill Mullins, referring to a trip they took to the Kenai River in Alaska a few years ago. "She landed a 67-pound salmon up there. We could have used her on the boat on the Oregon trip. "
Some of these close friends have even traveled abroad in recent years.
"Several of us did a three-week trip to Peru," Chuck Blair recalls.
The trip to South America spawned a few theme dinners when they returned, many of which featured root vegetables, a staple of the Peruvian diet dating back to Incan times and beyond.
"Markets down there have lots of potatoes, about 20 different kinds in all sizes and colors," Chuck Blair says.
"We even had guinea pig at someone's house in Peru, but we didn't repeat that one here."
Recently, in April, the group met again for another dinner party, this time at the Hebergers' house. The theme was The Gathering of Friends, an apropos name, to say the least.
The globally inspired menu paid close attention to the spring season. It included guacamole shrimp; ginger-glazed salmon; wild rice with asparagus; spinach, strawberry and pecan salad; rosemary bread; and chocolate-covered strawberry cream puffs.
The menus have definitely evolved over the years, as everyone in the group has become more proficient in the kitchen. But most of the members are amazed that the dinners are still going strong, with no sign of slowing down.
"I don't know if we ever imagined 30 years ago that it would go on this long," Chuck Blair says.
James Patrick Kelly, a restaurant critic at the Idaho Statesman, is the author of the travel guidebooks "Moon Idaho" and "Moon Spotlight Boise." He also teaches journalism at Boise State University.