The Memorial Dinner Party
With busy lives and jam-packed schedules, many of us barely have time to sit down to eat most nights, much less sit around a large table with friends, so when we heard about The Dinner Party, a non-profit that organizes community potluck dinners at different hosts’ homes all around the world, we were intrigued. When we learned that everyone around these tables has experienced significant loss, we were moved. Founded in 2010 by Lennon Flowers and Carla Fernandez, The Dinner Party creates unique, supportive spaces in which to talk about loss—a subject that has, unfortunately, become seriously taboo in our culture. Food and a shared table not only connect us to those we share it with now, but also to our past; it turns out to be an extremely powerful tool to help deal with grief.
We were invited to one of these dinners at a beautiful house in the Angelino Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles. Everyone at the table brought something—an appetizer, drink, main course, or dessert—and shared the story of the person who brought them there, as well as the significance of the particular dish they brought. Most dishes were family recipes; others were inspired by the lost friend or family member, and some were just whatever the person had time to throw together before rushing out the door. After the initial introductions, people were encouraged to speak from their hearts and share (or not share) whatever felt right. There were no rules or talking points, no schedule or set questions to discuss—simply a community of people joining together to break bread and honor the loved ones they have lost. While all the food was quite good, we got the recipes for (and stories behind) four of our favorites from the night.
- Veggie Paella!
Sitting down to
dinner in the barn
Lennon Flowers Co-Founder & Executive Director
My mom never strayed off the salad menu. It didn’t matter if that salad was “taco salad” from Taco Bell: When faced with that particular set of choices, she was as predictable as they come. She wasn’t an adventurous cook: At home, “salad” meant romaine with Newman’s Own dressing, and sliced tomatoes and cucumbers if we were really feeling fancy. But she was a busy working mom who valued the dinner table and the chance to check in. One of the many telltale signs that I am my mother’s daughter: a certain devotion to the salad menu, and a certain love of the dinner table.
February will be ten years since she died. She never made it to California. I was vaguely familiar with the existence of pomegranates, but don’t recall trying one until I got out here, and I was mystified by the sight of a persimmon when I first spied one at the farmers’ market. I think now about all the things that have changed, and all the things she missed, what she’d recognize, and what would come as a total surprise. That salads could come in so many different colors and flavor patterns, that romaine would one day be less a staple than a memory? One thing I can say with confidence: Her ordering habits wouldn’t change a bit.
Sara Fay Host
My dad died five years ago of leukemia, and when he died, our family’s business went too. My mom and dad worked together: My dad was an estate planning lawyer and my mom was his paralegal. For years, they balanced business and home. I can’t explain how they did it except to say they were perfectly matched. One of the things I really admire now about my parents’ marriage was how they separated life in the office and our home life. Sometimes they marked that separation with a cocktail. After I left home for school, I started hearing more about my dad’s new interest in mixology. In the fall, he’d fix my mom and himself a pomegranate martini (yes, this was the late 2000’s). Sometimes they would split a beer or open some wine. But in the summer, they were often drinking rum and tonics. They taste better than you might think—very refreshing, a little bit sweet, and slightly tropical. I drink them to mark the beginnings of summer and of vacations. Always make a toast, and as my dad would say, drink in hand: “Get it in ya.”
Alexandra Decas Host
This is a recipe that my mom started making a few years before she died. My father’s side of the family owns a cranberry business, and my mom and I always had to hide the fact that we don’t care for them (sorry, Dad!). Thanksgiving was particularly tricky to navigate around. I’m not sure where she got this recipe from, but we loved it and were eternally grateful for it because it’s incredibly sweet and not tart, which is what we always had a problem with. This pie was present at every family gathering until she passed away, mostly for our benefit, and I continue to make it all the time—especially around the holidays.
Sica Schmitz Host
The food that most resonates with me when thinking about my father is French toast with strawberries and whipped cream, something we enjoyed often for breakfast, lunch, and even dinner. It was a recipe passed down from his father, both of whom passed away within a few months of each other. However, I didn’t think that would be the best dish for a community meal. Instead I wanted to bring something new that has evolved since my father’s death, just as I have.
His whole life he always adored avocados (he even was a partial owner in an avocado farm), and the entire rest of our immediate family hated them, me included. I used to watch him cut open avocados and eat them with a spoon, and totally cringe. Whenever my meal had avocados I would pick them them off and put them on his plate, which he would happily accept. It became a family joke, his weird affinity for avocados. However, since his death, as I’ve changed, so has my taste. I started eating them now and again, thinking fondly of how they made his eyes light up. I moved from tolerating them, to enjoying them, and eventually ended up adoring avocados, much to my surprise. I now eat them all the time on everything, and think of how much he would laugh if he knew that I finally figured out that he was right. I never made this recipe when he was alive, but with his love of pasta and avocados, I know he would have adored this one.