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Photo by Donna Turner Ruhlman

 

With all this talk about the home cooked meal with family—is it an elite foodie construct, a romantic ideal that make parents, moms in particular, guilty, or a source of spiritual calm and power in an increasingly busy and chaotic world—I offer this story from Cleveland about the most important meal ever, originally published in the magazine Finesse.–MR

The last meal I shared with my dad, a little more than 12 hours before he breathed his last, was burgers on the grill. He loved them, and he’d been grilling them for me well into adulthood. He couldn’t have been hungry, but he dutifully ate two bites of a loaded-up rare burger. It must not have been easy, and we—grandkids, ex-wife and daughter-in-law—complimented him. Straining to keep his eyes open, he said the burger was good. Same time the following night, he was gone.

When we wrote Ad Hoc At Home, a family-style cookbook, Thomas Keller opened the book with the last meal he cooked for his dad—barbecued chicken, collard greens, mashed potatoes and strawberry shortcake—because meals are about family as much as they are about food, and last meals are important. Both of our dads died at home under hospice care—and anyone who’s experienced hospice knows that it is among the most valuable fields of medicine and care. But many families find themselves in hospice facilities, waiting, crying, talking, trying to comfort and to be comforted. What they don’t and can’t do is enact the most calming, loving and embracing act of all: to cook a meal and share it with each other. In a hospice facility, this fundamental ritual of our lives is either prevented or very difficult.

In April 2008, at a conference of hospice directors, William Finn, who ran a hospice in Buffalo, spoke with Mark Maynard-Parisi, senior managing partner of Blue Smoke (a part of the Union Square Hospitality Group). Maynard-Parisi explained that as part of USHG’s charitable work, they brought weekly meals to the hospice of Beth Israel, a few blocks from their offices. Finn went to see it in action.

Finn loved what he saw, and knew he could do better. Maynard-Parisi ran restaurants, not the hospice. Finn, though, ran his hospice. So when he returned to Buffalo, he brought in local chefs to cook the food on premises, serve the food on real plates with real silverware, and serve wine. He flew Maynard-Parisi in for the first “Dinner To Remember,” and Maynard-Parisi was blown away.

“They were doing it better in Buffalo than we were doing it in New York,” Maynard-Parisi said. “We planted the seed, and Bill set the bar so high,” he added, noting the beautiful table settings, plates and silver, music, lighting, wine. Bill had created a complete dining experience. “It’s a wonderful thing,” Maynard-Parisi said.

H-2So when Finn moved to Cleveland to take over the country’s sixth largest non-profit hospice, Hospice of the Western Reserve, he called me to ask if I could connect him with chefs who might be interested in helping recreate what he’d started in Buffalo.

I complied, Finn got it running at a 40-bed facility, and I didn’t think much more about it until Finn asked for more help creating a similar program for another facility on the other side of town. To make sure I hadn’t gotten my chef friends into an onerous task, I emailed one of the first chefs I’d contacted, Derek Clayton, aka Powder, a dynamite cook and right-hand man of Michael Symon, and for many years chef de cuisine of restaurant Lola who currently oversees the company’s many restaurants.

“To me it was almost the perfect ‘event.’” Derek wrote to me. “Sometimes events that we do under the guise of charity are a little disheartening with the amount money it takes to put on versus the amount of money that ends up in the charity’s hands. This was the opposite. Just good food and families having dinner together, no auctions and crazy ticket prices.

“The reality is that hospice is something we all are going to be touched by in some aspect or another and I would like to think that something like these dinners makes at least a small difference in that process. We have signed on to do another in August or September. Thanks for helping to put this together.”

I had to see this for myself, and brought my wife to photograph the night Chef Clayton would be there.

“I wanted to keep it homey,” Clayton said, describing the menu: braised short ribs “pot roast;” braised carrots; fingerling potatoes; cipollini onions; cavatelli pasta with corn, tomatoes, basil, cheese and pine nuts; heirloom tomato salad with feta and red onion; arugula salad; Ohio peaches with prosciutto, burrata, basil, and sliced almonds; and cake and cookies for dessert.

Finn oversaw the evening proudly. “For a lot of people this will be their last meal together,” he said. “I know the power of being together. They may not be able to eat a full meal but they want to smell it and taste it.”

“It’s a beautiful thing,” said Will Johnson, who was helping to take care of his wife’s father. “It relaxes you. And to be around a lot of people who are going through the same thing as you? You can only cry so much, so this is a battery charge. The meal, it’s out of love.”

His sister-in-law, Denise Cook, whose father was too ill to join them, said, “It’s a blessing; it gets family together in a home atmosphere and we come together as a family. This a blessing, especially right now.”

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Above left, Derek Clayton, aka, Powder, with his cooks from Lola. All photos by Donna.

 

James Crowley couldn’t leave his bed and so the meal was brought to his room, where his son and daughter-in-law, Bill and Becky, sat with him. Becky said James hadn’t been interested in food, but tonight he was alert and devouring the short ribs while we talked.

“Going to restaurants is something we always did as a family, but we had to stop when he got sick. So this is great. And we’ve always wanted to go to Lola but have never been,” said Bill, who looked hollowed out from exhaustion, as he sipped a glass of red wine and watched his father eat.

That this service is for the entire family would have once surprised Maynard-Parisi, whose idea it was to deliver meals to Beth Israel in Manhattan. “At first, I thought no, this is about the patient,” Maynard-Parisi said. “But then I realized that for every ten patients, there were 50 family members. Some had stopped their jobs to help care for a parent full time and were not taking care of themselves. They have to eat, and not fast food.”

When asked how he thought of the idea, Maynard-Parisi said his father had been a grief counselor for hospice and so he had been raised with stories about how important hospice was. Eleven years ago, he was speaking with a diner—a regular guest at Union Square Café—who worked for Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. It dawned on him then: “I’ve got a restaurant,” he thought, “and they have a hospice.” For him it was a no-brainer.

“Taking care of our community is one of our [restaurant group’s] core tenets,” he said. “We all operate in a community and we believe that by taking care of the community, the community takes care of us. It’s ‘caring capitalism.’”

Back in the kitchen in Cleveland, as Clayton prepared a special-order pasta dish for those who didn’t eat bacon, he said, “I have a lot of associations with food and family. I sat down with my family every day for the first 18 years of my life. I don’t know if I was always happy about it then, but I recognize now how important it is. So for me to be able to make meals for a lot of families, serve a lot of families, it’s important.”

© 2014 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2014 Donna Turner Ruhlman. All rights reserved.