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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.

 

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28 Wonderful responses to “Last Meal”

  • Jonathan Brill

    Thank you for getting this idea out there.

    Like you, my last meals with my father were hamburgers. He truly loved them. I miss him and remember him every time I eat one.

  • Bill McBride

    This is a wonderful thing to do for hospice families.

    I remember making beef bourguingon for my father’s last meal with my family. Although he was unable to speak, his enjoyment of the meal and his time with his granddaughter was more than evident.

  • Marissa

    We just celebrated our dear friend’s 90th birthday – there were 20 of us gathered around the table, swapping stories and laughing. Dave, turning 90, sat at the table with sparkling eyes and a perpetual grin as he savored a 12-ounce, blue-rare rib eye.

    Thank you for sharing this article.

  • James O.

    All these people; the restaraunteurs, caregivers, and the teams that pull all this together — these people are the Hands of God.

    • arlene h.

      I am so moved by your characterization….People..the Hands of God. I am caring for a 92 year old at home, but am very familiar with Hospice. I will see what I can do locally to create such a program….thank you Ruhlman and everyone for inspiration. Blessings to all.

  • Angelo

    Hi Michael,

    Do you think this is something that somehow adept amateur cooks could be involved in? I love cooking for people and after reading this article, I don’t know that anything could make me more fulfilled than aiding in meal prep for hospice patients and families. I would love to get involved in something like this and channel my passion for cooking and good food.

  • Mary polak

    I’m a hospice nurse and have been at some of these dinners. The families are so animated during these, sharing, laughing , talking. It is wonderful for all of us to see.
    Thanks cleveland Chefs

  • Liza

    What an amazing idea! Do you know of any other cities that are currently doing something like this in So. Florida? Or perhaps there is someone I could contact that might be able to point me in the right direction. This would be a wonderful and amazing opportunity to give back. Thank you so very much for sharing this story. L

  • Jennifer @ Emulsified Family

    I love this. I have so many great memories with my Mom from around the dinner table . . . lots of laughing and sharing what went on in our day. I love that chefs are coming along side hospice care to do this for families. What a great idea!

  • Ali

    Thank you, what a beautiful thing…the last meal I cooked for my father was Kasha Varniskes.
    Going to see if I can get involved or get something like this going here in Maine!

  • Gary

    Dad passed away a couple of weeks ago at age 98. was in Hospice care for about the last month. The last few weeks he wasn’t eating much. but the week before we brought homemade fresh blueberry pie. the man always did have a sweet tooth. he blew thru 2 slices like it was no bodies business. we had coffee to wash it down just like always.

  • Denise Cox

    Would anyone like to make a Facebook group to discuss this? Who’s doing what, where and how? I have loved cooking for beloveds who were caring for those at the end of life as well as helping friends figure out what their loved ones can eat. Here in Memphis at St. Jude Children’s hospital, there is a garden and a chef (not a food services manager, but a real chef) who makes it his mission to create food that even the sickest kids will eat. I’d like to be part of the discussion to see how to bring this concept to the larger community.

  • George craig

    My dad passed away earlier this year.
    Unfortunately the last non puréed food he had before he passed was chicken strips and tater tots at the local hospital. (Oh how awful much of that food seemed to be and fairly unhealthy.) he was getting softened food due to dictates of speech therapist/swallow test which minimizes opportunity for many in their final days. They can’t even have water or liquid that doesn’t have some thickening agent in it. So it limits options for them.

    At least I can hold the memory of making a chicken soup with broth from scratch before he went to the hospital stay from which he would not come home from. I hold that close to my heart and will always cherish the opportunity to have cooked many homemade meals for him in his last years.
    Hearing chef Keller talk about cooking the last meal for his father during an npr story made me cognizant to try to include love and care into the meals I prepared for him.

  • Elveith

    I had the honor of cooking the last two meals my mother had while she was in hospice care at home. Unfortunately her last days were new year’s, but I cooked the things we always had – broiled scallops on New Year’s Eve, and pork and sauerkraut for New Year’s Day (old PA Dutch meal for luck in the new year).

    While she had a little bit of each, I can be honest and say those meals were as much about what all of us were dealing with as they were about her. What these chefs and volunteers are doing is incredibly important. It not only gives the families a moment to catch their breath, it also supplies a focus point to lock in a positive memory at the end of a very long road.

  • Lynell

    Thank you so much for this write-up. I just spent the last two weeks co-caring for my 87-year old mum and each morning I ask her what she wants to eat that day. I try to make her “comfort food” or tastes that are familiar to her before she had Alzheimers. I sometimes mix in some of my new dishes but I noticed that she eats more of what is familiar to her. I feel she is with me and connected to me even for just a few erratic moments thru the food I make for her.

  • Brianna

    When my Nana was in hospice care, i would go and sit with her and just tell her all of the things that were going on in our home. One day i was telling her that i was canning pickled beets. She had not eaten in days. Her eyes lit up and asked if i might bring her some. Of course, i ran home and got her some. .. she devoured the whole jar. It warmed my heart to see her enjoy that food that i had made. The next day i brought her a slice of homemade pie. .. this went on for days, every day i would bring her another yummy food. It was a beautiful thing for both of us.

  • Katie

    Bless you, folks — for giving such an important gift so selflessly..

    Like so many others, last summer I made one last lemon meringue pie for my grandfather — he only managed a few bites, but it was the only thing my mom hadn’t had to coax and wheedle him into eating.

  • EMC

    This is such an important topic. I witnessed the life wonderful food can bring to the ill and their family. Shortly before my Dad passed from pancreatic cancer, I made a huge lobster dinner for he & my mother’s 39th anniversary – their honeymoon in Maine was the first time he had ever had lobster. The man had hardly eaten in weeks and he devoured every bite of a 2 lb. lobster with homemade mac & cheese, corn on the cob and Sticky Toffee Pudding for dessert! And the rest of us that were assembled there still talk about the memory of that meal and what a fun restorative time we had. Because the food at the hospital was so poor (and they wouldn’t give him seconds), I began taking meals in to him – lamb meatballs with bulgur salad, homemade pizza and my family had our meals there in the hospital. It was the time of day my Dad looked forward to the most. Food & cooking has the magic way of grounding us while also elevating us. It’s not elitist to cook – his last meal ever was a pork roll with cheese on an English muffin.

  • Dave

    This is just a great story, a great initiative and so heart-warming. Michael, you should consider a career in writing :) You captured so many feelings of so many people who can relate to this.

  • Bryan

    What a beautiful article. Thanks for sharing. In the article the picture of the man shaking hands with the woman sitting at the table is my uncle with his beloved aunt. She was an incredibly special woman in his life and I didn’t attend this dinner, but I heard all about it and I know it was an incredible day for everyone there. Unfortunately, as one would expect his aunt has since passed and I would love to find a way to get a print of that beautiful photo for him. Michael is there any way to contact you to try to obtain the original file to print? As you may imagine, you captured an incredible moment that will never be repeated. Thank you.

  • Allen

    My grandfather loved thick cut orange marmalade on his toast with a cup of good coffee in the morning.

    I used to bring him a jar whenever I went to England or Scotland, they were much darker in color and had better flavor than the American versions.

    He showed me how to make my first martini when I was in my early twenties, just scare it with the vermouth and drop an olive in. So sophisticated.

    He was an very kind, educated man who loved to tinker, fixed everyone’s televisions – for free, back when you could work on them. He had been to Africa and Alaska, great sense of humor and good natured. To me, he was a man of the world.

    I remember when he was in an assisted living home, driving with my father to visit him, I could sense it would be one of the few times I would ever see him again.

    During our visit, he was bewildered, in a sort of daze, not sure who he was talking to.
    I smuggled a jar of orange marmalade jam and a martini into the home for him, he saw the jam and took a small sip of the martini and cracked a joyous smile.

    I mentioned I would return for a visit with my wife, he smiled at that, and I had every intention of doing so, bit he passed away before I could get there again.

    I think of him every time I have good dark thick cut European orange marmalade and a proper martini.

    That little familiar smile, I had taken for granted, seen so many times before, that was all I needed to warm my heart.

  • Ohiogirl

    Food is so huge.

    As my mom was declining, being able to choose her food and have the tastes she missed gave her such joy. I cooked bacon at her request and smuggled it in to her newly home that happened to be kosher.

    Then when she hit hospice (far too quickly for me) being able to give her bites, just bites of what she wanted – a buttered bagel, ice cream, gave light as the darkness closed in.

    Then when she hit her final days, her facility was amazing, trying to make sure the family ate, providing snacks, having a 24 hour cafeteria as you never knew when you could get away.

    By then I could not, would not eat. But knowing that folks cared enough to make sure food was always available, and to offer, repeatedly? That fed my heart.

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