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A Family Preserves a Treasured Tradition: "Wild Man Night"

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Steak and potatoes from the traditional Wiebenson ‘Wild Man’ dinner.
Jessica Gould
Steak and potatoes from the traditional Wiebenson ‘Wild Man’ dinner.

It's Friday night at the Wiebenson house. The steak is sizzling, the potatoes are baking, and things are about to get a little bit... wild.

"You eat with your hands," explains 8-year-old Tristan Wiebenson. "You build a fire, and when you're done eating, you growl,"

Tristan's grandmother Abigail says Wild Man Night began years ago, back when her sons were small and she had her hands full as a working mom.

"By the time Friday came around, I honestly didn't care what dinner was or who made it, or anything about it because I was really tired," says Abigail. "I had three children, and a full time job, and it was the end of the week, and I was done."

That's when her husband, John Wiebenson, or Wieb for short, offered to take over. But he wasn't much of a cook. In fact, he was more of a steak and potatoes kind of guy. So he would make just that.

"He would get five shrimp, steak, he would get five baked potatoes, and then he would get three comic books," Abigail says.

He hid the comic books, which the children would find as part of a pre-dinner scavenger hunt. Then they would sit down to eat. Utensils were purely optional.

"He would pour sparkling cider into the glasses and then he would propose a toast to an ancestor," she says. "And then we would toast and we wouldn't just clink glasses we would growl."

Wieb's son John says he was about 10 years old when Wild Man Night began.

"I always remember smashing the potatoes," he says. "It was a wonderful thing to break all the rules about table hood etiquette."

As the boys got older, the Friday night dinners only got wilder and wilder, with bonfires and bottle rockets. But John says there was also something sweet about the weekly tradition.

"I think it was just a great moment to pull us all together," he says. "It became almost the essence of our family."

After all, Wild Man Night was just one of the ways Wieb brought excitement and whimsy into the boys' everyday lives.

"It was Saturdays that included Metro adventures, when we would get up and just ride the Metro and see where it took us," John says. Wieb even remodeled the family's Dupont Circle rowhouse, transforming it into a veritable jungle-gym of wooden ladders and secret passageways. Abigail says it was just Wieb's way to make life better -- for his children, and for everyone.

"He was always a man who believed in the underdog," says Abigail.

Carrying on the Wild Man tradition

As an architect, Wieb did a lot of pro bono work for local schools and charities. He was especially devoted to Martha's Table, a nonprofit that provides food, clothing and educational opportunities to low-income families. In fall 2003, Wieb was helping out with improvements at the organization when tragedy struck.

"He had renovated several of the buildings there on 14th Street, and this was the last one," Abigail recalls.

The building had been a car repair shop, but he hoped to make it into a space for after-school programs. First, he had to clean out the basement.

"All of the things that people had taken out of the cars, the oil and the toxic things, they'd thrown into the basement," she says. "And so he had gotten lots and lots, gallons and gallons of that stuff taken out. And then he went again and the toxicity had come back and he was asphyxiated."

It was devastating for the family. But, if Wieb had taught them anything, it was to embrace life and enjoy the moments they had together. So several months later, when Wieb's son Derek got married, the family decided to host a Wild Man Dinner for the guests.

"We had a Wild Man Night for 110 people," says Abigail. "And it was wild, because just as everyone was getting seated, the heavens opened up and we had 110 people in the beating rain, fortunately under a tent. But it was a Wild Man Night."

Now, John Wiebenson carries on the tradition with his sons, Tristan, and Oliver, who's six.

"I hope they can understand that it's good to be a little crazy, know there's a time for that, know there's a way to do it, that's still part of the family, and part of a great tradition," he says.

So, most Fridays, John hides the comic books.

"Warm, warm, warm," he calls to the kids as they peek under couch cushions. "Hot. On fire. You found it. Amazing Spiderman!"

Then the boys sit down to eat. They smash the potatoes with the palms of their hands, and tear the meat with their teeth. Finally, when only empty potato skins and gristle are left, John makes a toast.

"To my dad who started this wonderful tradition that I'm very happy to pass on to Tristan and Oliver in their own wild ways," he says.

And on the count of three, the boys lift their glasses of sparkling cider and growl for their grandfather.

[Music: "In My Life" by Jason Falkner from Bedtime With the Beatles: Instrumental Versions of Classic Beatles Songs - A Lullaby Album]

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