“Friends are the family we choose for ourselves.”
A wise woman named Edna Buchanan coined those insightful words that many of us have come to live by. It is an especially poignant sentiment during the holidays and particularly on Christmas Eve.
These dinner guests are a diverse group, coming together through the dinner’s host, Robert Fenninger, owner of FENZ Restaurant and a consultant in the restaurant/hospitality industry. From past and current co-workers to childhood friends, and those whom he has collected along the way through doing philanthropic work in the community and partnering in business, some have been enjoying the tradition for as long as 25 years. Now, a fully grown-up second generation joins in making the happy pilgrimage to Bob’s historic downtown Lancaster row home, meticulously decorated for the holidays.
Furnished in 18th- and 19th-century antiques and an impressive collection of artwork, both vintage and contemporary, Bob’s home is made even more opulent with lush holiday flowers and greenery in bounteous amounts. “I have traditionally chosen to work with cut amaryllis, hyacinths and peonies with lots of magnolia greens,” says Bob. “The Christmas ‘tree’ is an assemblage, made on-site with clipped assorted greens, fruit and long-collected tiny ornaments, formed on an antique topiary frame anchored by Oasis floral foam.” The perfect size for the tidy space of an 1885 city home.
Classic cocktails are the drinks of the night, paired with Bob’s curated menu of simple but luxe hors d’oeuvres with a European flavor: Jamon Iberico (the ultimate cured ham, a treasure of Spanish cuisine); triple crème cheese, Manchego; Spanish anchovies in sea salt; and a splash of caviar. As the cocktails dwindle, guests hear the festive pop of a Champagne bottle from the kitchen, and the group gathers for a toast before dinner.
As bob’s collection of friends-become-family has grown, the antique dinner table’s space reached its limits about three years ago. Trimming the guest list was unthinkable! So, the Christmas Eve celebration became a progressive dinner, moving from cocktails and hors d’oeuvres at Bob’s to the spectacular red dining room of up-the-street neighbors Skip Bickert and Andy Zimmer. A few Christmas carols, loudly echoing across Musser Park, and we’re there.
Having devoted 30-plus years to their careers as restaurant manager and pastry chef, respectively, Skip and Andy savor this special night, a brief pause in the holiday party season, to be at home. Their lavishly decorated home is decked indoors and out in sparkling, oversized snowflakes, shimmering ornaments and mercury glass. The center of the long dining table for the 14 guests is lined with sky-high arrangements of white branches and holly berries. The sumptuous treats of Bob’s traditional menu are staged in the kitchen as we find our seats, uncork the wines, and anticipate chapter two of another memorable Christmas Eve together.
Lobster and Shrimp Salpicon (a Spanish term meaning medley) begins the feast, followed by Italian Roast “Porketta” with savory garlic and rosemary seasoning, classic potatoes Dauphinoise and green bean and carrot bundles. Conversation rises as more wine is poured, and everyone takes a pause before the refreshingly light Limoncello gelato is presented.
Traditional English “crackers” – which date to the Victorian era – are part of the post-dinner festivities, where the guests link arms around the table and pop the pseudo-firecrackers. The enclosed trinkets are scattered across the table, exchanges are bargained, and everyone gets to wear their not-so-flattering paper crowns and look the goofiest they’ve been all year. But who cares? We’re friends to the end.
It’s All in the Details