At an unassuming cottage surrounded by tall trees on all sides, a two-seater swing and cozy front porch welcome home “relatives” carrying Tupperware and instruments.
“Our group is the rennie-theater-hippie crowd,” vocalist Misti Bernard says.
Bernard, whose repertoire ranges from folk to 13th-century Spanish tunes, also makes her own jewelry. She and a number of other multi-talented Gulfport artists are regulars at a Tuesday-night shindig held in the bohemian bungalow of fellow creative Peter Suarez.
The crew aptly refers to its congregations as Family Dinners.
Originally held on Monday evenings, Family Dinners were developed by musician Carl Asch, who used to host the functions in an outdoor, sit-down-and-dine setting at his home along the water. According to Suarez, Asch wanted to organize a recurring get-together where friends could share a meal and socialize.
“It just breeded as a natural happening,” he says.
After it became apparent that moving the potluck-style dinners indoors would reduce weather-related cancellations and allow for better lighting, Family Dinners transitioned to Suarez’s pad. They’ve been taking place there for more than three years.
Bernard, who’s attended the soirées since the beginning, said the dinners are more casual than before, a lot less focused but in a good way.
With its nooks and crannies and eclectic art collection, the house seems built for Family Dinners and for the discussions they engender among like-minded virtuosos. Playwrights, musicians, community event organizers, dancers, Renaissance festival employees, authors and more flock to the weekly gatherings.
“It’s not a public-invite situation,” Suarez says. “That’s the family aspect.”
Suarez says five people was the smallest crowd he’s ever had, and 40 was the largest.
“The cast of characters that cycles through is amazing,” Bernard says.
What’s on the menu depends on how many people show. Three main dishes are typically offered, Bernard says, and she contributes soups, such as vegetarian chili and a cream of potato with portobello mushrooms, most of the time; she’ll even pop a pan of cornbread into the oven during the festivities.
Throughout the night, clusters of conversation are scattered about Suarez’s home. Groups brainstorm future projects and events, while some individuals branch off for quieter chats, or moments alone.
Actors will showcase scenes from scripts when they’re in town, and others will share what they’re working on, too. Bernard calls this “artistic show and tell,” and says the dinners serve as a think tank for expression.
Raised in a small town, Suarez says the parties reflect his belief in being open and being free. The organization of his home as a gathering place, a sanctuary of sorts, is intentional.
“I'm really not a barfly,” he says. “I tend to not go out, so I kinda set up my world in a way where people come to me.”
The music and dance “studio,” as Suarez refers to it, is set up at the front of his home. Equipped with a fireplace, a big record collection and a mirrored wall, the studio has seen many post-nosh jam sessions.
Since everyone is involved in a diverse mix of music genres, the jams are ever-evolving, Bernard says. They can range from old-school ‘70s rock to Spanish-flavored sounds to jazz to Tom Waits.
She recalls one dinner where the guests included a group of touring African musicians. The band’s fusion beats could be heard from the back patio as rock covers resonated out front.
Although Family Dinners tend to shrink in attendance during the summer when many of the regulars are “on the road,” Suarez says, they’ll often take place sporadically at different residences.
“[The dinners are] one of the things that bring Gulfport together,” Bernard says. “Gulfport’s really rare in that everybody knows everybody.
“It’s the very best of what you consider a bedroom community, with little pockets of social adventures.”