Why you should throw a dinner party to talk about death
When her father was dying, Jody Adams made him soup. A fan of cream of mushroom since she was a little girl — she admits to loving the canned variety — the chef-owner of restaurants Rialto, Trade, and Saloniki developed a version rich with heavy cream and stocked with a variety of mushrooms that she thought he might enjoy. And he did. Until he couldn’t eat even that.
The recipe appears in an e-cookbook called “The Endless Table: Recipes From Departed Loved Ones,” a collaboration between two organizations, the Conversation Project and Death Over Dinner. April 16 is National Healthcare Decisions Day, and this weekend the organizations are encouraging people to host dinners to talk about death — specifically, how they would like to be cared for at the end of their lives. (According to recent surveys, nearly 75 percent of people in this country say they would prefer to die at home, but only 25 percent actually do.)
Former Globe columnist Ellen Goodman started the Conversation Project five years ago, after caring for her mother for several years leading up to her death. “She had a long, slow decline,” Goodman says. “We had talked about absolutely everything except how she wanted care at the end of her life.” Michael Hebb founded Death Over Dinner in Seattle in 2012 with a “Let’s Have Dinner and Talk About Death” campaign. “Death Over Dinner struck a chord,” Goodman says, inspiring dinners across the country. So a couple of years ago she approached Hebb about joining forces, to combine “our tools and their spirit and ideas.”
“The Endless Table” is the result. Edited by Goodman and Hebb and beautifully photographed by Annie Musselman, it contains recipes from 20 celebrated chefs, food writers, and culinary professionals from around the country, with New England well represented. Each contributor has written an essay sharing the connection between the dish and the friend or relative it recalls.
Adams says she didn’t hesitate when Goodman asked her to contribute. She believes the project “reminds us that we all face the death of loved ones. The emotional process we all go through is different. I feel incredibly fortunate because what I do as a cook allows me to feed and nourish people. Before my father’s body shut down, cooking for him was what I could do.”
Having the cream of mushroom soup recipe in “The Endless Table” is meaningful to her. “I know that good recipes that take care of people have a life of their own,” says the chef. “I’m so happy to be a part of it.”
“I hope someone will pick up this book and read it and it will change their life,” says Steve DiFillippo, chef-owner of Davio’s. His recipe for Kobe meatballs and marinara sauce was inspired by his Italian grandmother, who fed him and taught him to cook. Today the generational roles are reversed, as DiFillippo cares for his aging parents, delivering food from his restaurant to their home every day. “My mom can’t cook anymore. My father’s Italian. He’s pretty particular,” says the chef.
DiFillippo is asked to contribute his time to multiple events and causes. He chose to participate in “The Endless Table” because, he says, “I looked at [the parent organizations] and thought . . . this is powerful.”
Though not typically associated with Italian food, Summer Shack chef-owner Jasper White was also strongly influenced by an Italian grandmother. In his “Endless Table” essay, he credits paternal grandmother Aida Padagrosi, who emigrated from Rome, with inspiring him to become a chef. The baccala (salt cod) salad she prepared as part of the antipasti that began most holiday or special occasion meals was always one of his favorites. “I think dishes tie us to our past,” White says. “It’s a beautiful way to remember people that we love.”
By commemorating his grandmother in this book, “I get to be with her again,” says the chef. “I really believe that food is love.”
“Our goal is to normalize end-of-life conversation,” says Goodman. “If you bring it to the table, it brings a kind of warmth to it. That’s what a good dinner party is about.”
“The Endless Table: Recipes From Departed Loved Ones” is available for download from lulu.com ($8.99). More resources for hosting a dinner and discussing end-of-life care are at www.deathoverdinner.org and www.theconversationproject.org.