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MCDM Student hosts a Death Dinner

[note: as part of the University of Washington MCDM Course COM 592 each student generated their own death dinner and documented the results.]

“For the devoted cook, and especially for the true host, few pleasures can compare with the intellectual satisfaction of planning a notable meal.” – Robert Farrar Capon, The Supper of the Lamb.

There is certain rapture in planning a successful event. Whether I am throwing a carefully planned dinner party or simply having a few close friends over to play board games, I love to entertain. So, when we (the class) were told that one of our deliverables would be planning and executing our own individual death dinners, my eyes lit up. I immediately began to think about what kind of dinner I wanted to have. There were a thousand ideas running through my mind. Would it be casual or semi-formal? Would I reveal the intended topic of conversation beforehand? What would I cook? I had so many ideas, but I knew one thing for sure: I would take my time and carefully plan the evening.

The first thing I had to figure out was whether or not I was going to include any information about the reason behind my dinner party. I decided to keep it a secret and I wouldn’t say a word. I took an intimate approach with my invitations. Rather than creating a Facebook event, sending a group email or mass texting my guests, I hand-made individual invitations. I wanted them to be meaningful, carefully constructed and reminiscent of simpler times. My initial inspiration came from one of the designs I had seen when CIVILIZATION came to present potential designs for the death over dinner site. This image was a half circle alluding to a dinner plate flanked by a knife and fork and from there, my design began to come together and the result, I hoped, would be inviting and intriguing. The paper I used was handmade in India. It was gift from my mother, and in using it I felt as though I was able to bring a part of her currently-residing-in-California spirit to the party. I wanted to dye the paper a more earthy tone and did so by soaking it in a combination of three of my favorite teas. In thinking more about the construction of the invite, I decided to pair the Indian paper with squares cut from an aged map of Washington and to sew them together with embroidery thread. I also began to think more about the design. I wanted it to be simple yet complex and make a recognizable connection to the dinner table. I also wanted to incorporate embroidery into the design. This idea, paired with my original inspiration from the Civilization image, yielded my design: a simple fork intricately embroidered on the front. Once the coloring process was done, and the paper was drying, I dusted off my typewriter and started to experiment with the text. I used a typewriter to give each invitation a unique quality. I knew more or less what to say, but hadn’t quite settled.  After a few tries and a glass of wine (or two) I had it. I typed the message I had crafted onto the swatches of map and the only thing left was to bring together the components and take a step back to enjoy my handiwork.

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IMG_3881 I hand delivered the invitations to each of my intended guests and thoroughly enjoyed the look of surprise and mild confusion each of them had as I stood at their respective doors.

Then came the menu. When I was deciding what to cook, I thought about something I had read in The Supper of the Lamb. “Never cook anything for a formal dinner that you have not cooked before. No matter how good you are….” Though the author made a valid point, I also thought about all of the amazing meals I had made in the past by taking a chance on a new recipe.  In the end, I compiled a menu based loosely around dishes I had prepared in the past. It was now only a few days until the dinner party. At this point, I had received all of the RSVP’s and my friends began to ask questions. I was being secretive, and they wanted to know what about. When one friend asked me why I was having the dinner party, I responded with “I want to talk to my closest friends about something that nobody really talks about, but everyone should” to which she responded, “Are we going to be talking about what we want done if one of us were to die?” She knew, just from the statement I had made, that we would be discussing something having to do with death and dying.

As the tension rose, I made the decision to give my guests something to go on. I sent them all a few things to read, an NPR interview to listen to and a video or two to watch. The subject matter of these included topics such as feeding our corpses to mushrooms,  when prolonging life is worth than death, mortality in comedy, and other end-of-life themed topics. This not only prepared them for the conversation we were going to have but also provided a unifying theme to begin dialogue (a trick I learned from class). On the day of the death dinner, I woke up and headed to the farmers market, knowing that I wanted all of my ingredients to be locally sourced. As I perused the array of fruits and vegetables available, I began to create the menu. After I had all of the ingredients I needed from the market, I hopped on the bus, went to the International district to pick up some fresh tofu from Than Son Tofu and then started to make my way home, unquestionably stopping for some wine on the way.

Once I arrived home and unloaded my groceries, I took one look around and decided that the state of my apartment was not conducive to a dinner party. I rolled up my sleeves and started moving furniture around. When I had finished, the space felt much more welcoming than it had before. It was time to start cooking.

The menu: Tofu Scramble sautéed with broccoli, cauliflower, yellow and red bell peppers served with Long Grain Brown Rice. Warm Kale Salad with roasted golden beets and red onions. A crisp mixture of wild and spicy greens, dill, red onions and cherry tomatoes served with a raspberry vinaigrette and of course, a variety of red wine.

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I took my time and made sure to pay close attention when preparing my dishes. I knew my friends would be able to tell how much care I took with the evening and that they would love it. Dinner was set for five o’clock pm. By five fifteen we were all seated around the table and I let them in on why I had invited them over. They (as I suspected) had no problem with the topic of conversation and we jumped right in. We ate, drank and talked for a little over an hour. In that time, I became privy to stories about my friends and how death had touched each one of their lives. I learned that one friend had seen her grandfather take his last breath. I found out that another’s mom had been diagnosed with cervical cancer and, although she survived, the experience brought her loved ones face to face with their own mortality as they fought to keep their mother/sister/friend alive. I also learned heard the story of when my best friend had painted her grandmother’s nails with glitter polish in the hospital before she died and how much she loves having that memory as the last with her grandmother. She also shared with us that she did not get the same sort of experience with her grandfather; he was lost to Alzheimer’s long before he died and was barely even the grandfather she knew and loved anymore.

We talked about our lives and how our experiences with death had made us more comfortable with our own mortality. We told each other what each of us might want for ourselves when we die. None of us had the same answer. One friend wants to be buried straight in the ground, one wants to be cremated and the other decided that she might want to go with the “mushroom burial suit” a la Jae Rhim Lee. My guests and I were already a close group of friends but this dinner was a learning experience for everyone involved. It gave us the opportunity to show new sides of ourselves to one another, to talk about something that we otherwise may have never have spoken about and to open up in a way that we had not done before.

February 5th, 2013