The Endless Table: How recipes can keep your memories alive

Story highlights

  • Top chefs shares their stories of loss and food in the digital cookbook: "The Endless Table: Recipes from Departed Loved Ones"
  • The cookbook aims to encourage people to talk with their loved ones about end-of-life wishes
  • Dinner parties can be the perfect setting to begin the discussion

(CNN)Chef Jody Adams' father Thomas knew his health was declining when he could no longer complete the New York Times crossword puzzle.

The Brown University rare books librarian had never let physical limitations stand in his way, but when his brain stopped working the way he wanted it to -- at age 87 -- he knew that he needed to prepare for the end of his life.
    Adams' parents discussed his end of life wishes during a quiet, private evening before her mother, Virginia, let the rest of the family know. Thomas had decided to receive hospice care at home and in November 2008, the entire family gathered at his home in Providence, Rhode Island to care for him by his bedside.
    Adams did what she knew best -- she cooked for him.

    Food is love

    Adams, a famous Boston chef, had learned how to rejoice in food as a child from her father. .
    Even though her mother did most of the cooking, he was known for a few mainstays, such as delicious cornmeal pancakes and the perfect mayonnaise, made from a supposedly top secret recipe -- Adams later learned the recipe was verbatim from "The Joy of Cooking."
    Although her father's appetite was waning, Adams kept cooking for him until the end. He particularly loved the cream of mushroom soup recipe she had created just for him.
    "I've always known the importance of food through bringing people together and nurturing them, but I also learned that food can be enormously healing," Adams said.
    "This was how I could say goodbye with love. I put all of myself into that soup."
    Her father passed away on December 1, 2008. While the family felt the deep impact of his loss, nothing had been left unsaid and her father died the way that he had wanted to, surrounded by his loved ones.
    "We were all very present with him and it allowed him to let go and know that he was forgiven and he was sent off surrounded by love and warmth," said Adams.
    "It showed me that death can be as important as birth, and as beautiful. Through my father's death, I learned so much about life."
    Adams recently shared her story of loss and food in a digital cookbook, "The Endless Table: Recipes from Departed Loved Ones." She was one of 20 top chefs to share their stories relating to death in their families.

    A recipe for discussion

    The stories -- and recipes -- for the cookbook were collected and edited by Ellen Goodman of The Conversation Project and Michael Hebb of Death Over Dinner.
    They both reached out to chefs they knew, or were acquainted with, like Ina Garten, Jose Andres, Tom Colicchio and Christopher Kimball to ask for their contribution and were amazed by the memories the chefs were willing to share. They shared everything from treasured family recipes to vignettes of personal loss, which inspired Goodman to each share a family recipe, and story, of their own.
    Many of the chefs had in fact already had these kinds of conversations with their loved ones and shared how liberating it was. They also revealed that making the recipes of their deceased loved helps maintain their memories and a connection to them. This was the aim of the project.
    As well as maintain connections, Goodman and Hebb want their cookbook to encourage people to have end-of-life discussions with their loved ones before it's too late.
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    Goodman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, co-founded The Conversation Project when she lost her mother to dementia, unable to know what she really wanted in the end when Goodman was faced with making choices on her behalf.

    Co-founded

    Both Goodman and Hebb have since given TED talks on this subject highlighting how conversations that may seem intimidating, uncomfortable or even scary over a normal and soothing occasion like dinner can break their taboo.
    "For some, talking about death is like letting it in the room," Goodman said. "The end of life isn't just a medical thing that happens, it's a human experience. People aren't dying the way they want to or having their wishes honored...so having a conversation like this is a gift you give your family."
    To make things easier, the cookbook also contains a guide on how to approach talking about end-of-life wishes, compiled using advice from both health experts and families who have had successful discussions.

    Time for a toast

    April 16 is National Healthcare Decisions Day, which has inspired Goodman and Hebb to encourage families across the country to use the week as a chance to host a dinner party.
    They want the occasion to be used to toast one another, honor people who have been lost, and for families to talk about their own end-of-life wishes -- because it's always too soon until it's too late, Goodman said.
    Hebb, a former restaurateur, came up with the idea for Death Over Dinner when he struck up a conversation about mortality with two physicians on a train. This led to a class Hebb taught at the University of Washington in 2012 -- The Table of Truth: Reimagining the Dinner Table as Digital Media -- and soon grew into a social campaign.
    To date, over 100,000 dinner parties inspired by Death Over Dinner have taken place across the country.
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    The diners begin by going around the room and acknowledging someone who has passed away and had a positive impact on people's lives, and raise a glass in their memory. The group can then decide how to progress in a "choose your own adventure" style approach, depending on who is in the group and the intention of the conversation. Based on the intention, they can work from a series of prompts provided by Hebb's website.
    A popular prompt asks what someone would do if they knew they had only 30 days left to live: How would they spend it, where are they, who are they with and what about the final day and hours of that day?
    "Vulnerability begets vulnerability. People who have nothing in common reach a common ground almost immediately around this topic," said Hebb. "It's people looking inside themselves within a group setting."
    Hebb has seen the dinners change the relationship between a parent and a child as they each reveal things they've never told anyone else. "It's not that people are afraid, it just needs a proper place. So just honor it with the space and time that it needs," he said.
    Jasper White, a fellow Boston chef, also shared his recipes and memories in the digital cookbook and opened up during the project to stress that every death is not a tragedy.
    "Love never dies," said White. "Neither do recipes, and it's a wonderful way to remember someone."