You are not afraid to talk about death.
I am going to hold this candle against the prevailing windstorm.
I’m not saying this just to be provocative, but because I believe it is true. I trust you, and I trust your strength. I know how extraordinary humans are; I have broken bread with too many people to be convinced otherwise.
I believe that you want to talk about your own inevitable death and those people you have lost.
Why wouldn’t you? Who told us we shouldn’t or couldn’t have these conversations? And whoever said that death is not proper dinner conversation?
I think it is time we asked that idea to leave the room. Ask the butler and the white-gloved servants to finally pack up their things, including the idea that we can’t talk about death, and walk out the front door, liberated.
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross once said, “It is the denial of death that is partially responsible for people living empty, purposeless lives; for when you live as if you will live forever, it becomes too easy to postpone the things you know you must do.”
To talk about our own mortality and the mortality of our loved ones is to talk about life. Death is the great mirror. It should not be fearsome or morbid. It is how we are able to understand this ineffable thing called life.
As my fellow islander Michael Meade so poignantly states, “The role of a fully realized human being is to arrive at the door of death having become oneself.”
So let us remember our loved ones who have cooked for us—let us make their food and sing their praises and share their wisdom. Let’s all have the most difficult conversations we could ever imagine and delve deeply into what it means to be on this planet, cooking and feasting together. And, most importantly, let us live lives that people will celebrate after we have gone.
There is something both primal and intimate about the act of feasting on food and rich conversation. We share stories like heaping platters of warm pasta and pass traditions along to the next generation like salt to flavor their lives.
Memories and menus are bound together in our emotional makeup, whether it’s the hot dog at Fenway Park or the iconic turkey at Thanksgiving. Even in our fast-food culture, we associate feasts and the people we love—and those we have lost—in an endless table of remembrance.
I still remember the time my father dared me to slip that first oyster down my reluctant throat. I remember making cheesecake with my mother using a recipe that supported two generations of cardiologists. And most of all, I remember my grandmother making the proverbial chicken soup, attacking the chicken with the ferocious enthusiasm that was her hallmark cooking style.
Even when families are scattered and distracted by every type of technological intruder, the dinner table is still the stage for real, intimate, and open conversations. And so with this cookbook, we invite you to break bread and taboos to talk about dying.
When we started The Conversation Project, we knew that too many people were not dying in the way that they would choose. Too many survivors were left guilty, depressed, and uncertain about whether they had done the right thing for their loved ones. It seemed that everyone had a story—a story of a good death or a hard death. The difference was often whether they had their wishes expressed and respected.
We knew that we could make it easier. These conversations shouldn’t happen in the ICU. Decisions shouldn’t be left to a harried EMT or a doctor you’ve never met. You should decide in concert with the people you chose to speak for you if you can’t speak for yourself. We need to talk at the kitchen table, before there is a crisis.
These are often seen as hard conversations. They are as tender as love and loss. We stumble and postpone them and assure ourselves that it’s too soon—often until it’s too late. But we can open this up; we can make this a feast of honesty, using stories and recipes as our utensils, talking and eating together, and making this a first course of intimacy and warmth.
Dinnertime conversation? You bet. The chefs for this dinner party, like the rest of us, have stories to tell. Some of those stories are about comfort food itself. Some are about a recipe attached forever to a personal memory. For Chris Kimball, memories of his suffragist and farming mother are as much a part of his creamed summer corn as is the butter. Jody Adams remembers cooking “her heart out” and feeding her father mushroom soup as he lay dying. Kathy Gunst shares the peach pie that was a gift to her dying neighbor.
We invite you to choose one of these or share your own recipes, to tell stories, and to think easily, deeply, and with humor and honesty about this one universal experience and its humanity. In return, we promise comfort along with comfort food.