The Dinner Party is an American grassroots not-for-profit organization that was set up to help people host dinners in their homes for up to a dozen strangers, and the thing that connects everyone is an experience of significant loss.
Iselin Gambert’s mother died in 2012, and in 2013 she found herself drawn to the Dinner Party project, since when she’s hosted around 10 tables’ as the dinners are called. At present there are more than 250 tables in more than 100 cities worldwide, including Glasgow and London in the UK. Over 88 percent of attendees feel as if the experience has reduced their loneliness around their grief and loss.
“I’ve always been someone who wants to shed light on grief, which has always been a taboo subject for so many people,” explains Gambert. “And I was really looking forward to having the opportunity to create this space in my own home to talk about grief openly.”
The complication that arrived straight away, however, was that Gambert is vegan. ?
Vegan Dinner Party
“I decided right away because, as I’m vegan, and have a vegan household and kitchen, that I would host vegan meals,” she says. “It was something really important to me personally but also politically, ethically and everything else.”
The Dinner Party assigns 10 or 12 people to each table. There are no restrictions from the organization on what food is brought, only by the host. The meal is a potluck, where the host makes the main dish and then everyone else is invited to bring a side dish. The rule in the organization’s ‘covenant’ is a zero-tolerance approach to forms of discrimination around the table when welcoming others and discussing their losses. But that does not extend to animals.
“I had no idea who most of these people were,” explains Gambert. “And I had to email everyone and explain that it was going to be a vegan meal and they had to accommodate to that.”
Gambert is an academic living in Washington DC who also writes about vegan issues, such as the links between white supremacism and cows’ milk. Being in an urban area meant that most people at least understood what veganism meant.
“And everyone did. But I definitely felt there was this unspoken tension that I was imposing this on everyone else,” she says, “and that I was limiting their ability to bring what they wanted. A lot of times people will bring a dish to the dinner party that represents the person who died in their life: their loved one’s favourite dish. And suddenly I wasn’t allowing people to do that. I was imposing upon them my demand that they’d have to adapt the recipe or something.”
The links between food, family and cultural practice are perhaps some of the most emotive and memorable aspects of many people’s lives, and parents, grandparents and siblings are often remembered, and loved, through the connections made with and over food, perhaps especially when that ‘food’ is made from animal bodies. As the famous French philosopher Roland Barthes wrote in the essay Toward a Psychosociology of Contemporary Food Consumption food ‘sums up and transmits a situation; it constitutes information; it signifies’.
This was a difficult experience for Gambert, who wholly recognised the difficulty that many would have in not being able to bring the dish they were expecting to bring – and therefore, the stories those dishes would instigate in relation to the person whom they were grieving.
“I don’t think anyone didn’t come to my house because of this restriction, but people were, like, ‘Oh I don’t know if I can make anything edible’ and there was a lot of comments about how the meal would be sub-standard because it was imposed on them that it was vegan,” says Gambert.
“Of course not everyone who comes to a house for these dinners wants to have that imposed upon them when they’re grieving. And that is an imposition. And it is an element of heaviness of an additional layer of politicism that not everyone wants. They just want to come and bring their grandma’s egg salad and enjoy the meal.”?
Grief on the menu
The difficulty for Gambert was, as many vegans would be able to appreciate, was the idea that the dinner party project was encouraging conversations around grief with the remains of animals on the menu.
“I felt it was important to have my particular meals around grief be vegan, because I feel really strongly that there’s a disconnect, and something really jarring, in having a group of people come together to talk about grief and loss and suffering, and to have the food on the table be the manifestations of grief and loss and suffering, in this tangible way, as the flesh of animals who have experienced these things,” she says. “And I thought: how could anyone want to do that? To me that’s a total disconnect.”
As well as hosting dinners, Gambert became involved in helping fundraise for the Dinner Party. But, because of issues around veganism and other matters, she has stopped hosting. Instead of finding it a place to comfortably share her own grief at the loss of her mother and a boyfriend at the age of 24, Gambert began to find the ‘tables’ an emotional drain.
“In trying to have those conversations with people at the dinner, and with the founder of the non-profit, who I was doing work with around bigger fundraising events,” she says, “I really began to struggle. I sort of don’t want to impose my veganism on others, but I kind of do, as well! I think if people can open their eyes and see these different connections then their lives will change.
“And I really struggle when something I see so clearly is dismissed easily by so many other people. Especially when it relates to grief, which is one of the most profound and emotional experiences we have, and to be unwilling to explore we might be a part of a grief experience for another living thing because we’re killing and eating that other living being really frustrates me with this project. I struggle with it, and it’s so personal to me, and it takes energy away from me that I have to impose this vegan thing on others. I want to do this, be provocative, and make people think. But it is a drain.”
OIOpening up about grif aOpening up about grief can be helpful (Photo: Adobe. Do not use without permission)
Fighting with family?
Gambert fully understands the experiences of those who are touched by grief but who, being carnists in a non-vegan world, can’t comprehend that for her, she feels grief for the billions of animals who are both symbolically and quite viscerally present on most people’s plates. Indeed, her mother was one of these.
“I was very close to my mother,” she says. “But one of the tensions between us, and something I struggle with since her death, was that she never understood my veganism. She felt it was incredibly impolite to go to someone’s home and if they had made a dish with animal products in it to then not eat it. She said, I raised you to be more polite than that.
“So for the first five years of being a vegan I would do that. I would eat the non-vegan sweets my mom made for me. Because my mom was sick and dying at the time, I just felt like I can’t fight this battle right now, around the veganism.”
Beyond dietary restriction
Gambert says the leadership of the Dinner Party wasn’t interested in creating making the entire project go vegan or to have project-wide discussions about the intersections of eating animals and grief. Gambert suspects the leadership thought those actions would be too limiting and too imposing on people .
“The reply was that it was great that I’d thought about it that way, but only for me,” she says.
“There will be other tables which are gluten-free or nut-free, and for the project itself, I think veganism is just another dietary restriction for them, and there’s been no deeper discussion among the non-profit management that veganism is something quite unrelated to allergies or dietary restriction.”?
Ecogrief for other species
The Dinner Party has recently extended its activities into hosting a ‘table’ around ‘ecogrief’ and ‘breaking bread for the loss of places, species, and the planet’ in the wake of the 2018 UN Report that stated we have only 12 years left to avoid catastrophe.
The table was held at Eagle Creek canyon, following the devastating fires of 2018 that swept across the western states of America.
As Fernandez wrote about the experience, scientist Ashlee Cunsulo defines ecological grief as ‘the grief felt in relation to experienced or anticipated ecological losses, including the loss of species, ecosystems and meaningful landscapes due to acute or chronic environmental change’.
Fernandez continued, in reflecting on her own grief at seeing the devastation: “My episode in the redwood grove? Not just a case of feminine hysterics. It was something that we’re probably going to be feeling a whole helluva lot more of as we learn not just how to stop climate change, but how to adapt to life on a warmer planet.”
It appears this ‘ecogrief’ does not extend to the animals being served up at these dinners.
And yet this ‘ecogrief’ is of course not so far away in kind or degree from what vegan psychologist Clare Mann has identified as ‘vystopia’, the anguish of being a vegan in a non-vegan world and continually experiencing the loss of other species, and individual animals, through our normative human practices, such as eating other animals as food.
The Dinner Party did not reply to requests for an interview or to answer questions for this article.
For animal activist Mark Westcombe and cofounder of the new Animal Think Tank, it is important for vegans to be able to assert their wishes not to dine with those eating the bodies of nonhuman animals. Mark has taken and is an advocate for the Liberation Pledge, a statement of intent to not dine with others eating animals, or in places where animal body parts or secretions are served.
“The Liberation Pledge was important to me for two reasons,” explains Westcombe, who wrote a letter to his family, friends and all his colleagues too explaining his decision. “My social crowd all challenge sexism, homophobia and other -isms, so for me to be consistent as an anti-speciesist and do the same as I do with other -isms I had to challenge speciesism, and that meant asking those around me not to eat animals in my company.
“And because I realised we all do it a bit already, none of us would stick around if someone was eating a ‘pet’, so how could it be okay to stick around when someone ate another animal? So I took the pledge and it’s been just amazing, really empowering, it’s sharpened my thinking, my communication skills, my vegan conversion rate, and bizarrely reduced the grief and made being vegan easier!”
Sharing grief as a vegan
“It is a radical act to allow grief to touch you,” says Gambert. “It is a radical act to have those conversations, and to turn up to a dinner where the stated purpose is to talk about grief. And those conversations on a mass scale aren’t happening. There is a shift, it is happening more, but like veganism it is still on the fringes and these vocabularies are still being developed.
For Gambert, in a world where grief and loss remain taboo subjects, the work that the Dinner Party has done in bringing together people in safe spaces to discuss such things is very welcome, and has been recognised widely in the media. However, its failure to adequately respond to concerns and criticisms raised by vegans remains a stain on its otherwise important intentions. Is there an answer?
“Would it be a solution to just create a version of this dinner party only for vegans, to talk about grief?” asks Gambert. “Part of me is drawn to that, but I struggle with the idea of further isolating the vegan community. It can be amazing to create safe spaces for our vegan community, but when does that become the act of building walls, not reaching across different boundaries to try and connect. I can’t tell, would that be the right thing to do or not?”