It may seem a little strange, the idea of going out and having a good old time, drinking wine and eating food, in order to help the victims of a natural disaster. I touched on this briefly earlier this year, when the tsunami spawned a flurry of benefit dinners, and it was as true then as it is now, but we are used to feeling decadent compared to people who live on the other side of the world in countries much poorer than our own. In the case of Katrina, no matter how poor the worst affected of the victims are, we recognize them as our neighbors and fellow citizens, and to think of them drowning and starving and losing their homes–well, it just doesn’t seem quite appropriate to respond by going out and stuffing ourselves and getting tipsy.

On the other hand, the restaurant community, apart from a few owners and developers, is not a hugely wealthy group of people, and in many cases food and wine are all they have to give. Looked at in that light, it is quite heartening to see the gargantuan effort being put forth by many of the area’s restaurateurs in order to help the victims of Katrina. We all do what we can, so if you were inclined to go out to eat anyway, or if you only go out once or twice a year, here are a few ways to make that meal count for more than just pure enjoyment.

PANZANELLA in Carrboro is taking the unprecedented step of donating all proceeds of their benefit dinner on Monday, Sept. 26 to victims of the hurricane. That means everything–not the profits, not 20 percent, but everything. And they have a little help from their friends. A number of bands (mainly jazz) will be playing live at the restaurant that evening, and many of the area’s beverage purveyors have donated wine and beer for the event, including the HAW RIVER WINE MAN, MUTUAL DISTRIBUTING CO., TRYON DISTRIBUTING CO. and the CAROLINA BREWERY. For $35, you’ll get a New Orleans style buffet meal plus wine, beer and live entertainment. Dancing is encouraged. Tickets can be bought from Weaver Street Market at the customer service desk.

Starting tonight and running through Oct. 18, LUCKY 32 in Cary and Raleigh will be bringing back their New Orleans menu, which has been popular in the past. A portion of the sales from this menu will be donated to the Red Cross for hurricane relief efforts. Also, on Tuesday, Sept. 27, Lucky 32 will join restaurants around the country in Restaurants for Relief, a program in which restaurants nationwide will donate 10 percent of dinner sales to an organization called Share Our Strength, which will pass it on to anti-hunger agencies working with Katrina victims. On top of this, Lucky 32 is working with the Southern Foodways Alliance and the James Beard Foundation to offer jobs to restaurant workers displaced by the hurricane.

On Sunday, Sept. 25, GEORGE’S GARAGE in Durham will be offering free coffee, beignets and jazz from noon to 5 p.m. in exchange for any donations to relief funds that will be there to accept them.

On Monday, Oct. 3, A SOUTHERN SEASON is teaming up with three of the Triangle’s best restaurants to offer a cooking class, the proceeds of which will go to Katrina’s victims. The details on this class are not set yet, but so far Ben and Karen Barker of the MAGNOLIA GRILL, Andrea Reusing of LANTERN, and Brian Stapleton of CAROLINA CROSSROADS at the Carolina Inn will be participating in the class. For more information, call A Southern Season at 929-7133.

These are not the only restaurants giving their time, energy and resources for the sake of Katrina’s victims. Last Sunday, STARLU in Durham hosted a benefit dinner with guest chefs from all over the Triangle, including envoys from restaurants such as ENOTECA VIN, POP’S, VIN ROUGE, ZELY & RITZ and UNDERGROUND. As with the tsunami, young local chefs have been at the forefront of the restaurant relief effort, proving that they are a strong and conscientious community, and one that should make us proud.

And if having a good time doesn’t seem like quite enough to give in such troubled times, most of these events will have representatives from relief agencies on hand, ready to take additional donations. In other news Andrea Reusing of LANTERN was selected as one of five chefs from around the country to participate in Niman Ranch’s fifth annual hog farmers’ awards dinner, which was held Sept. 17 in Iowa. Each year, Niman Ranch, the country’s premier natural meats producer and distributor, honors its farmers with a thank you dinner and awards ceremony, and asks five chefs to create, prepare and serve a dish using Niman Ranch products.

Joining Reusing was her brother and chef de cuisine at Lantern, Brendan Reusing, as well as guest chefs Paul Canales of Oliveto Café and Restaurant in Oakland, Calif.; Bruce Sherman of North Pond in Chicago; Trish Cyman of Devil’s Thumb Ranch in Colorado; and Jeff Jackson of The Lodge at Torrey Pines in La Jolla, Calif. Reusing’s dish–“Crispy Five-Spice Cured Pork Belly with Pickled Local Vegetables”–will be available on the Seasonal Tasting Menu at Lantern through the end of September.

Amy Tornquist of SAGE & SWIFT catering company has been selected to run the cafe at Duke’s new Nasher Museum of Art. The museum opens Sunday, Oct. 2, and the cafe will focus on dishes created with local and sustainable produce. The Southern-influenced dishes will be Mediterranean in style, highlighting nearby farms and artisans in a series of small plates. Renowned architect Rafael Viñoly designed the museum, and the cafe is situated under the glass and steel roof of the building, creating a dramatic dining area featuring indoor dining and outdoor seating overlooking the sculpture garden.