On Thursday, August 16, the Boston waterfront beneath the swooping glass facade of the John Joseph Moakley Courthouse was invaded by a throng of picnickers dressed in white and elegantly nibbling from white china plates.
Performance art? An extreme response to Zombie Flash Mobs? A cult?
Dîner en Blanc had arrived in Boston.
Dîner en Blanc (Dinner in White) first began in Paris in 1988 when Frenchman François Pasquier wanted to call together long lost friends by having them meet for a picnic in the Bois du Boulogne, the equivalent of New York’s Central Park. One requirement: They must dress in white so they could find each other in the crowd. The experience was so delightful, they repeated the picnic the following year, and every year after, inviting friends along the way until it bloomed into what it is today: A flash mob pop-up dinner society that draws more than 14,000 picnickers to a distinguished city landmark kept secret until minutes before the meal is to begin.
The combination of elegance and mystery under a midsummer’s night sky has proved so alluring that Dîner en Blanc has expanded across 5 continents to more than 15 cities worldwide. Paris itself featured three different dinners over two days this year.
New York’s inaugural event last year, the first in the US, drew 1,200 with 30,000 people on the waiting list. This year’s guest list has been expanded to 3,200 for their event on August 20. The Boston event on August 16 brought 650-700 picnickers down to the waterfront.
I received an e-mail in mid July – so nondescript that I almost overlooked it – with an invitation to become a member of Boston’s Dîner en Blanc. Dîner en Blanc uses a system of membership, guest sponsorship, and a waiting list to send out invitations.
I immediately thought of inviting my friend Lisa, a true Francophile. Lisa spent a year in France during high school, but more important she is half French – her father’s family immigrated to the US from France.
Lisa, of course, knew all about Dîner en Blanc and was beyond thrilled to receive an invitation. We immediately began to divvy up the details for meeting the evening’s requirements:
- Wear WHITE – this means no ivory, no cream or any other color will be permitted! (white shoes highly recommended)
- Dress ELEGANTLY – even VERY elegantly! Optional suggestions: white hat (highly recommended), white jacket, white mask, white gloves, white wig.
- Be mindful of your footwear – walking Boston streets (cobblestone) up and down subway steps, and walking on and across lawns are all part of the journey. Wear comfortable shoes that can make the trek with you.
What to bring:
- A folding square dining table + 2 white folding chairs;
- A white bag or a white picnic basket (or covered with a white fabric) containing your dinner items as the following items :
- white tablecloth and 2 white cloth napkin
- 2 white plates + 2 white plates for dessert (non disposable)
- 2 sets of cutlery (plastic prohibited)
- 2 glasses (plastic prohibited)
- 1 complete meal, including: 1 first course, 1 main course, 1 final course (cheese, dessert, etc)
- 1 white trash bag
- Vase and a bouquet (colored flowers are authorized)
- Battery operated votive candles
- Your cheerfulness
A simple picnic, mais bien sûr mes amis!
We could elect to either arrive by public transportation (the subway) or by bus, for a few dollars more. Anticipating that we would be highly uncoordinated trying to navigate a full picnic basket and two chairs and a table, I signed us up for the bus. My mom had just recently picked up a white plastic outdoor set that perfectly matched the required measurements and graciously lent it to us. With that large item checked off, we focused on more important things.
Such as, where to buy a white hat. And of course, a new white dress, très chic.
We met Zach, our group leader, at the appointed time in front of a cathedral in the South End and quietly filed onto the bus with a group of strangers all decked out in white. We were oddly shy, surprising since any passerby immediately lumped us together: “What is this, a wedding?”
Yes! And we are all getting married! That would have been fun.
I had a hunch we’d be heading down to the waterfront, and we did. As we wheezed our way through the downtown streets we passed clumps of people in white emerging from various T stations. Once we disembarked and lined up against a building across the street from the Barking Crab we watched as demure masses arrived in elegant white carrying tables, picnic baskets, balloons, and even a parasol. Ooo la la!
Eventually, we fell into line and rounded the corner to the courthouse. It was a beautiful setting. A green lawn stretched out to the boardwalk. Boats bobbed peacefully in the inky harbor water, lights twinkling. The sky was perfect, partly cloudy, 77 degrees, with no disturbing wind.
Lisa and I were flanked by other women also picnicking with their female friends. How did you hear about this? we asked. One person said, Twitter, another said she stumbled upon it on a website.
As we set up our tables, our votive candles, and bouquets of flowers, a cellist elbowed jazz riffs on a stage. We twirled our napkins overhead (a Dîner en Blanc tradition) and ate our five course meal as a French band called C’est Si Bon performed. Then came a DJ and we all got up to dance beneath giant white balloons hung from low branches in the trees. Si, c’est très bon.
Alas, one visual treat of Dîner en Blanc was omitted: No sparklers, usually held aloft to signal that the dancing will begin. Massachusetts doesn’t allow fireworks. Zut alors!!
At 10:30 came the call to pack up and just as quickly as we had appeared we vanished like wisps of white mist. Back on the bus contact information was exchanged along with suggestions to have a “reunion” with our table neighbors.
It was a huge undertaking to be sure (see the Boston Globe’s slideshow of the event here). To Angela Giovine, Wendy Goldstein, and Zach Taranto, the organizers of Boston’s event, we lift our white hats in gratitude.
Bravo! Encore, s’il vous plait!
And if you are still here and curious, this was what Lisa and I brought in our picnic baskets:
White chocolate mousse garnished with raspberry and mint leaf
Stilled Italian water