52 Sundays of dinner gave MS sufferer hope and a book title

03/29/2012 12:00 AM

03/28/2012 1:36 PM

Ronda Giangreco woke up following a day of wine tasting in 2008 and knew something was terribly wrong. Her entire left side had gone numb, and doctors diagnosed her as having had a stroke.

The next day, her right side was numb as well. After a spinal tap and a number of other tests, her condition was confirmed: late-onset multiple sclerosis.

It's one of the most frightening afflictions a person can face. According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, about 400,000 Americans have MS, a chronic disease that can have devastating effects on the central nervous system.

The diagnosis sent Giangreco through a number of drug regimens and the prospect of never walking again. By 2010, she found her solace and most soothing therapy via her tastebuds: by hosting a series of Sunday-evening dinner parties at her Sonoma home.

She recalls that year of hosting 52 consecutive Sunday dinner parties in a new memoir, "The Gathering Table: Defying Multiple Sclerosis With a Year of Pasta, Wine & Friends."

Next Thursday, Giangreco will appear at Time Tested Books in Sacramento.

"I might not walk through 2010, but I'm going to the kitchen," said Giangreco, remembering her motivation for starting the dinner parties. "A big bowl of pasta and wine, and friends who were just an email away proved to be a very powerful combination."

Giangreco spent her career as a journalist and always had a passion for food. As a teenager, she took a class in bread making by James Beard, the American chef and author for whom the prestigious James Beard Foundation Awards are named. She'd also learned the finer points of making pasta and other dishes through cooking classes in Italy.

The MS diagnosis was especially bitter. Her husband, Michael, lost his mother to MS when he was just 16, and facing MS again shook everyone.

"I asked where his mother found her joy and how she coped with the disease," Giangreco said. "Every Sunday they went to Grandma Giangreco's, and he said 'That was the one time they could get my mom in the car.' They'd have a big Italian meal, and eat and drink wine and yell at each other. I said, 'Let's do that. Let's reprise that good memory of you with your mother by having Sunday dinners.' "

Giangreco decided to take the idea many steps further. Her goal was to cook and host one dinner party a week for 2010 – 52 Sundays in a row. The idea sounded good and noble on paper, but the reality was often taxing. Through the year, Giangreco went in and out of remission from MS, and on some Sundays her energy was tapped.

"One week I was coming home from the emergency room at noon, and had eight people coming for dinner at 6 p.m.," said Giangreco. "Yes, sometimes I scaled back. The appetizer was maybe a nice cheese and nuts, and sometimes dessert was store-bought ice cream. But most of the time, I was able to put out a nice dinner."

The kind of food served was actually secondary. The focus of the weekly feasts was on friendship and sharing life experiences. The dinner table turned into more of a storytelling circle, and the Giangrecos posed a series of questions to get the conversation flowing.

"We'd ask, 'What was your most memorable kiss?' or 'When were you most afraid in life?' " Giangreco recalled. "People shared marvelously funny memories. There were times when everyone at the table was in tears. It was about much more than just food."

Sue Young savors the memories of those dinner parties. A friend of Giangreco's, Young attended a number of the Sunday feasts and relished the welcoming atmosphere, not to mention the homemade ravioli and rabbit ragu.

"Besides the great food and meeting different people, it brought people out of their shell," Young said.

"Each person had a chance to think about things they never think about normally. It was thought- provoking and interesting to hear other people. Maybe doing these dinners helped change her mental attitude."

By the end of the year, Giangreco's guest list had grown from six to 170 on her email list. They came from a variety of places in their lives. Some were going through divorces or losing homes in the financial downturn, while others were in happier places.

"The laughter, the camaraderie, the solidarity – it was an enormously healing balm," Giangreco said. "What the MS diagnosis did for me was bring into sharper focus the need to tap into that joy and part of me that was most essential, and enjoy it while I had the capacity to do so. It's a message all of us should listen to: Do what you love, reach out and make yourself happy."

Giangreco has been enjoying eight months of remission from her MS. If her health continues to hold, she plans on traveling during 2013 to work on a second book, already titled, "A Gathering Across America."

She knows the specter of MS looms in the background but credits her dinner parties for keeping her soul strong and ready for new challenges.

"There are some things you can't cook your way around," Giangreco said. "I got lucky, and I'll never know if these dinners helped me stay well longer. I just know I'm in a much better place than the doctors thought I'd be."


What: The Sonoma-based author will appear at Time Tested Books to talk about "The Gathering Table: Defying Multiple Sclerosis With a Year of Pasta, Wine & Friends" and to sign copies of her memoir.

When: 7 p.m. next Thursday

Where: Time Tested Books, 1114 21st St., Sacramento

Cost: The event is free. The book costs $14.99.

Contact: (916) 447-5696, http://thegatheringtable.net


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