A hundred or more people flock to an agreed-upon, often spontaneous location, one they learn about by word of mouth. They are strangers, or friends, or friends of friends. You might see them, as young as babies in their mothers' arms, as old as 80, spread across a Minneapolis lawn or salsa dancing on the other side of a foggy window. Wondering what draws them there yields a simple answer to the simple question -- what ever draws guests to a party?
Food, of course.
Eat for Equity, an incorporated group currently seeking nonprofit status, hosts the monthly benefit dinners together with fearless Minneapolitans who volunteer their homes for the parties.
The menu themes match a charitable cause chosen for that month's fundraiser -- like when they served chicken breast pot pie and curiously shaped mounds of mashed potatoes during a benefit to fight breast cancer.
July's meal was Mediterranean, a theme chosen for no particular reason by organizers as this past month's benefiting organization was Eat for Equity itself. Starting last year, the group began annual dinners for the Eat for Equity general fund, which pays for plates, forks, cups and other supplies necessary for the feeding of 150 people -- so those costs need not take away from another organization.
But in its four years in Minneapolis, the group has raised more than $30,000 for other causes, some nearby, such as Minnesota Food Share, and others far away, such as the work of relief organization Oxfam America in El Salvador or Partners in Health's efforts to help victims of the Haiti earthquake.
All this by asking for a donation of $10 to $20 per person, a sum that gets you food, drink, dancing lessons and an overall good time, partygoers say.
July dinner guests spread throughout several large rooms and a generous green lawn at "Shaker's Castle," the 19th-century mansion belonging to Eat for Equity proponent Shaker Rabban, 28.
The meal included homemade pita bread with hummus and tzatziki, a Greek sauce made of yogurt, cucumber and garlic. Beef shawarma constituted the meat course, served with an artichoke, chickpea and red pepper tagine over couscous. Guests washed it down with mint tea or beer donated by a brewing club and topped it off with a lemon anise popsicle.
"I would pay top dollar at a restaurant for the food. It's absolutely delicious," said guest Emily Rumsey, 31.
These dinners are more than charity events, guests say. They're more than meals.
The events attract supporters of organic, local and sustainable food, ingredients that Eat for Equity organizers use as much as possible.
So to some, like 24-year-old Keaton Miller, Eat for Equity events are social soirees, a must-attend mark on monthly calendars, a kind of hipster gathering.
"It's kind of a see-and-be-seen thing," Miller said. "It's a great way to stay a part of the young Minneapolitan scene."
Stephanie Wieland, 27, attended July's dinner as an Eat for Equity newbie, but ran into four people she knew, each from a different social circle. Another, Georgia Rubenstein, 26, said Eat for Equity has become a networking opportunity without the pressure, "a great place to connect with young professionals."
And despite the emphasis on youth, gray-haired guests also stake their claim.
"We stick to our own salt mines and don't come up for air very often," said Bret Byfield, 56. "It's really exciting to see this kind of engagement."
Founder Emily Torgrimson, a native of Lanesboro, Minn., lived in Boston during her college years, in a cooperative house with 23 other women. She was flipping through a recipe book once when it was her turn to cook and saw jambalaya. As it was the fall after Hurricane Katrina, Torgrimson thought she should make a New Orleans-style meal and ask everyone to throw in a buck or two for the disaster victims.
One hundred people came to what would become the first Eat for Equity dinner.
She returned to Minneapolis after college and continued it here, first in her own home, drawing about 40 people. Four years later, and now held at bigger houses throughout the city, the events consistently attract as many as 150.
The $10 to $20 suggested donation makes it approachable for newcomers and accessible for those who want to return every month, she said. By shopping creatively and using seasonal ingredients, organizers are able to keep expenses to about $2 per person. The rest goes to charity.
A friend in Boston continues bimonthly dinners there. Another moved to Portland and launched Eat for Equity in that city. Soon, they will pop up in Santa Cruz, Calif., and Seattle, where people who attended dinners elsewhere are planning their own.
Torgrimson said Eat for Equity disproves stereotypes that young people are apathetic and not interested in donating.
"Young people are anything but dispassionate. They really want to be involved in their giving," she said. "They don't want to just send a check. They don't just want to go to a black-tie dinner."
She said when young people can nominate an organization they believe in, or even contribute their talents in nonmonetary ways such as cooking or brewing beer, they are more engaged.
Guests of the July dinner agree that Eat for Equity provides specific giving opportunities that appeal to them.
"I'm interested in the combination of altruism and hedonism," said Bill White, 23. "You help someone by enjoying yourself."
Sam Bardwell, who is on the board of Eat for Equity, also appreciates the enjoyment that guests experience while supporting a charitable cause.
"When we're raising money for people who are suffering, there's a lot of emphasis on the idea that we should suffer," he said. "But another alternative to suffering is celebrating in their honor."