January 4, 2014

The Reviving Art of the Dinner Party. ~ Lennon Flowers

 “And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea.”

                                                     ~ Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time

I can’t remember her 50th birthday.

I presume we went to 518, an Italian restaurant in downtown Raleigh, whose $15.95 pear and walnut salad and spiral steel staircase then epitomized high-end dining in my world.

I presume she ordered that pear and walnut salad as I don’t recall her ever straying off the salad menu. I presume my brother and I gave her a pair of earrings or a Land’s End sweater, not yet having learned that two kids should mean two presents, but I don’t remember.

What’s interesting about that story now is not the forgotten gifts given or things said. To me, it’s the pear and walnut salad.

My sharpest childhood memories are the ones I can taste: the egg sandwiches she used to make my brother and me for lunch; omelets with the neatly folded edges that continue to elude my own attempts; the carrot-apple muffins that she’d send back to my dorm room and the beignets we ate that time we went to Disney World.

The seafood stew she made on Christmas Eve each year and the Campbell’s tomato soup and grilled cheese she’d make every time I was sick, the bread charred black in the middle.

I was 21 when my mom died: 21 years, 6 months and 24 days to be exact.

As I look back on the 11,334,240 minutes we had for memory-making, I’m struck by the fact that most of what I’m left with relates, in one way or another, to food.

I grew up in a place where character and upbringing are defined according to your preference in barbecue.

I have broken the ice with many a stranger by waxing poetic about the merits of the vinegar-based variety of my forebears, raised on the shimmering tobacco fields of eastern Northern Carolina.

When my brother and I get together for the holidays, it’s my mom’s seafood stew we make. When I want to get to know the neighbors, it’s her lemon thyme cookies I bake. When it comes to tying the knot one day, I’m hoping my family’s tricks with a pork butt will make up for whatever I lack in charm.

My mom’s cooking wasn’t something to be fetishized and it would have been of no interest on Instagram.

Canned peas were a staple in our family. For every memory I cling to, there’s another involving frozen fish sticks that I wish I could forget—relics of her days of single parenthood, when home-cooked meals suffered the first casualties.

With rare and welcome exceptions, the food on the table was more pragmatic than epicurean, but that wasn’t the point. The pork butt and the peas were simply excuses, marking the once daily occasion when we consciously put down all other distractions and seized the opportunity to hear and be heard.

Dinner is still on the stove when we arrive.

We stand around in the cramped kitchen, pouring glasses of wine and making introductions, our eyes roving about in search of a task. We know why we’re all here, but we’re nervous all the same. Carla, the one friend we have in common and our hostess for the evening, gives the contents of the cast-iron pot a final stir and announces it’s time to eat.

We carry our dishes out to the back deck, which is lit up with votive candles and a strand of white Christmas lights. There are flowers on the table and little bundles containing a single quote tied with ribbon in front of every seat.

We spoon heaping piles of saffron-tinted rice, mixed with mussels, shrimp, and diced peppers and tomatoes, onto our plates. There are five of us seated at the table. One woman is a friend of Carla’s from high school, another she met at a bar. There’s a friend-of-a-friend from college and me.

I’d moved out to Los Angeles that summer with a boyfriend, only to break up with him a couple of months later.

Carla joined the company I was working for the week after I did. She, too, had just moved to the city with her musician boyfriend and in a few months, she, too, would break up with said boyfriend. We became fast friends.

I was several months into our friendship, however, before we realized we had something else in common: on a midday coffee run, she shared that her father had died of cancer the previous January.

Three thousand miles away from everything and everyone I knew, I had yet to find a way to tell people about my mom. Our conversation on the way back to the office was the first time it felt natural to share that part of my story.

I find that I am craving candid and carefree time with the women and men who have walked those hallways late at night, she’d written in the invitation, who understand in that way the meaning of love and goodbye, who are using their experiences to springboard into richer, more honest and more open-hearted lives.

Without ever having put it into words, each of us had been craving the same thing: a chance to share a part of ourselves we usually kept under lock and key, to reflect meaningfully on life and life after and to do so away from the fluorescent lights and clinical atmosphere that defines most grief groups.

Wine poured, Carla raises her glass.

She explains that the paella is a family recipe; Carla’s dad, José, was a second-generation American whose grandfather grew up in Spain. The story of the paella somehow completes the process the wine initiated.

Tongues loosened, we raise our glasses to the evening’s chef, toast the parents who brought us together—and we’re off.

For years, the only thing that changed about my story and the telling of it was an ever-growing number; “my mother died of lung cancer X years ago,” I would say when there was no other way around it.

All too aware of the deer-in-headlights look that such a pronouncement would inevitably be met with, I became something of an expert in quickly steering the conversation to safer ground.

Here, however, our tales stretch out like saltwater taffy. Freed of the need to describe in a single sentence what has been the most important event in our lives, we abandon the memorized, exhausted lines and tell the stories we’ve long since buried.

We paint pictures of our parents and of the families—or the fragments of families—they’ve left behind.

We talk about where we are today and about how our parents’ absence continues to thread its way into our relationships, our work lives, and our beliefs about ourselves.

By the time the meal is done, it’s 2 AM.

Michelle, a nurse, has to be up at 6 and the rest of us likewise have a full Monday ahead of us, but it doesn’t matter. We pile into Carla’s room and fall asleep side by side, reveling in the best blind date any of us has ever had.

We continue getting together, usually once a month, always over dinner and always in the privacy of someone’s backyard or dining room.

As we grow more comfortable with our own stories, we discover we aren’t as alone as we’d thought.

Soon friends and acquaintances who’ve lost moms, dads, sisters or brothers are asking to join.

There are no prescribed themes to the meals, no need to raise your hand to speak. We talk about our jobs, our love lives and the usual life crises of the 20- and 30-something urban set. Our stories now known to one another, we talk mostly about where we are and where we’re headed.

There’s an intimacy to each gathering, and the food begins to take a backseat—an expression of care and a way to set the mood, but something that’s secondary to the people around the table.

On the other side of town and unbeknownst to any of us, Laurel Lewis also began exploring the power of food as a social lubricant, likewise using it as a way to tackle subjects that are otherwise taboo.

Laurel lost her husband at the age of 27, when his helicopter went down in a military operation. A nurse by training, she was moved to use her own experience to help others faced with their own mortality or with that of a loved one.

She became a hospice nurse and enrolled in a master’s program in spiritual psychology. She wanted a way to take death and dying out of the closet, to literally make it “a part of the dinner conversation.”

She began hosting “Death & Dying Dinner Parties” in 2010.

Strangers are invited to participate in a rich and uncensored dialogue on death and dying, sharing questions, concerns and ideas about the topic in order to ease the fear we attach to one of life’s few guarantees. There are few rules: participants are asked to refrain from interrupting and advice-giving, and are reminded that the conversations are meant to be creative and exploratory rather than therapeutic.

To Laurel, food offers an escape hatch—with something else to do and focus on, you’re under no pressure to speak. “If we took the food away, it would change the entire dynamic,” she says.

Laurel and others like her are working to turn that which has long been implicit about food—its ability to satisfy not just empty stomachs, but our shared hunger for connectivity—into the explicit focal point of a meal.

Such experiments are popping up across the country. “Thank You For Coming”, an experimental art and food space in Los Angeles, hosts a different artist residency every month, wherein selected artists explore and execute ideas for sharing food.

In Seattle, there’s One Pot, founded by famed underground-restaurateur-turned-food-activist Michael Hebb, working to resurrect the shared meal and explore the rituals of the common table, in collaboration with today’s top taste- and culture-makers.

He’s held dinners in the median of a freeway, bringing together local government officials, farmers, and artists, and recreated the classic Greek symposium (from the Greek symposiun, which means to drink)—a popular social gathering in which members of the aristocracy would come together over food and drink to debate ideas and booze themselves silly.

In Washington, DC, there’s TableTribes, which convenes strangers from intentionally diverse backgrounds for dinner-party discussion on a theme revealed only shortly before the dinner bell.

While some projects are chef-led, many shy away from connoisseurship by design: the primary goal is to make this kind of exploratory dinner party accessible for the casual cooks and ordinary eaters among us, so anyone can accomplish what seders and salons have done for centuries.

Each is part of an emerging renaissance, fueled by people who are less interested in what we eat, then in how we eat and why we eat.

It’s about using food not as an end, but as a means—as a way of connecting to the person who put it on our plates, or to the person across the table.

And it has more to do with my mom’s approach to cooking than with the newest creations by Chez Panisse.

A year ago, I hosted my first Thanksgiving. Ten of us crowded around the dining room table. My brother was there, along with a few who didn’t have family meals to go home to and others who’d merely elected to save on airfare.

The menu was a smorgasbord of family recipes and new discoveries: my stepmom’s Pepperidge Farm white bread stuffing, a slow-roasted turkey, a squash casserole, the requisite pecan pies and that most Californian of additions—a raw vegan pie, the fitting contribution of a friend from Berkeley.

As I dutifully deployed my mom’s secret to cranberry sauce—substitute wine for water, and otherwise follow the instructions from Ocean Spray—I wondered where she’d acquired it. Was she the first to experiment, or did she pick up that trick the same way I had, passed down through generations of women before her?

As we scatter to distant mega-cities and try to recreate the familiar in foreign lands, it’s food that serves as our personal native tongue, our way of introducing ourselves and the people and places whose imprints we carry with us. It’s food that creates new experiences worth remembering, and then stays wedged in the far reaches of our memory long after everything else has filtered out. It’s food that ties us to the living and to the dead.

As I cleaned up the 17 hours of accumulated wreckage in the kitchen that night, I had a surge of that kind of sentimentality we reserve for special holidays and late nights after one-too-many drinks.

Dinner isn’t just the thing you do with family; it’s what creates it.

A modified version of this article originally appeared in the inaugural Spring 2013 issue of The Intentional, available online here.  

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Assistant Editor: Bronwyn Petry
Photo: Dinner Series ~ Flickr Creative Commons, Pixoto

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