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Dinner as an Act of Love: Meet “The Dinner Party”

Posted on: February 26th, 2015 by Bri DeRosa

At The Family Dinner Project, we understand that “family” doesn’t always mean parents and kids. The following is a guest post by Lennon Flowers, co-founder of The Dinner Party, an organization with a mission to transform life after loss from an isolating experience into one marked by community support, candid conversation and forward movement. And it all happens over dinner.
We continue to be impressed and inspired by the work Lennon is doing, and we imagine you might be, too.

“No one who cooks, cooks alone. Even at her most solitary, a cook in the kitchen is surrounded by generations of cooks past, the advice and menus of cooks present, the wisdom of cookbook writers.” – Laurie Colwin

Photo courtesy of TheDinnerParty.org

Photo courtesy of TheDinnerParty.org

Nightly dinners in. Expensive dinners out. Birthday cakes.

Canned peas and broccoli, casseroles and spaghetti, plain lettuce dressed with olive oil and balsamic: Staples of our nightly sit-down dinners. The one time we ate at The Angus Barn, then the pinnacle of fine dining, long before Raleigh was to find itself on Top Ten Lists. The chocolate cake she made for every birthday, smothered in chocolate butter cream icing, whose fluffy interior I still haven’t been able to replicate.

My mom wasn’t a food connoisseur, or a particularly laudable cook. Yet she implicitly taught me something that humans have known and practiced for millennia, across cultures and geographies. Those nightly dinners, I see now, were her quiet form of protest against the televisions and soccer practices that threatened their extinction. The fancy meal out, whose occasion I’ve long since forgotten, suggested to my teenage mind a causal relationship between money and love: If you love me, then we will eat at a place we cannot afford. The birthday cakes, too—all were manifestations of the same idea: Food is more than the nutritional sum of its parts. It is an expression of love and care.

It was that idea, more than any other, that led to the accidental birth of The Dinner Party.

My mom died at the age of 53, my senior year of college. I moved to California a few years later, and within a few months, a friend of mine, Carla, invited a handful of women and me over for dinner one night. All of us had lost parents, and, with rare exceptions, none of us had ever really talked about it. There wasn’t an agenda, and we weren’t looking for a support group. We wanted a chance to talk about the parents we’d lost without killing the conversation, to connect with other people who got it, and who were navigating the same milestones. We wanted to reflect honestly and openly on the unique ways in which that experience continued to color our career decisions and relationships and the people we’d become and the people we wanted to be.

>We kept getting together, always over potluck dinner parties. Sometimes we’d bring family recipes recovered from ancient index cards. Other times, we’d test out an experiment from our favorite food blogs, or improvise with whatever ingredients were lying about in our kitchens. Just as with those dinners growing up, each dish and the dinner itself became an expression of love–for the people we’d lost and for each other, and, not least, for ourselves.

Our table grew, and today, there are over 60 Dinner Party hosts and 40+ Dinner Party tables in more than a dozen cities and towns. Each of us has experienced significant loss, but more than that, what we share is an interest in turning sources of isolation into sources of connection, and using dinner tables to do it.

We are living in what has been dubbed the Age of Food. Amidst the rise of molecular gastronomy and gourmet food trucks, however, are a growing number of individuals and organizations whose obsessions are not with the food on the plate, but with the conversation, community, and sense of connection that can emerge around the table.

Earlier this month, I sat down with Fay Johnson and ten others, for a dinner of roasted root vegetables and braised oxtail over a bed of handmade pasta. The dinner was part of a series called Deliberate Discourse, which began when Fay posted on Facebook, asking if anyone else wanted to carry the online conversation that had emerged around the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown offline, outside a protest setting. Dozens of people responded. And so Fay began hosting dinners across the country with groups of men and women, white and black, immigrant and US-born, for conversations about race and equality in America.

The handmade pasta had been carefully rolled out over the preceding two days. After a round of exclamations and utterances of “OMG, so good,” we dove into the conversation. We shared our own experiences of racism, and the conscious and unconscious prejudices we harbored. We talked about systemic racism and oppression, and the actions large and small that we could do to confront it. We listened.

While the subject was different from anything I’d tackled over dinner before, and the talents of the evening’s chef far-exceeded my normal potluck contributions, the whole experience felt familiar: from the care that went into making it, to the dozen people who chose to share some of their most private feelings and experiences, and to listen openly and without judgment as others shared theirs. The food on the plate wasn’t the point. But I’m willing to bet the conversation couldn’t have happened without it.

This, too, I realized, was dinner as an act of love.

Lennon is a writer and social change strategist, and the co-founder and Executive Director of The Dinner Party. She’s written for YES! Magazine, Forbes, Elephant Journal, Open Democracy, EdWeek, and GOOD. She lives in Los Angeles.