"Sharing food with another human being is an intimate act that should not be indulged in lightly."
— MFK Fisher
It's Sunday night and the time is inching toward 6 o'clock. The doorbell will start buzzing any minute, but Ronda Giancreco is still busy in her Sonoma kitchen. With 49 dinner parties behind her so far this year, she has the cooking timed like a performance, executed with the kind of apparent ease that comes only with practice.
Within an hour eight guests will be enjoying creamy homemade ricotta with parmesan and herbs on warm bread — Giangreco's signature appetizer — before diving into a generous plate of rabbit ragu served communally over home-made pasta made less than an hour ago.
The wine will be flowing, the conversation humming and Ronda Giangreco will be one meal closer to a goal that seemed impossible one year ago - to host 52 dinner parties in 52 weeks for eight people a week, making every bite from scratch with fresh ingredients.
It was a resolution she took on, with the support of her husband Michael, after learning she had late onset multiple sclerosis and might within a year lose her mobility. In deciding how she would make the most of her time, it got down to one question: What activity would she miss the most? The answer was clear — cooking for friends.
Inspired by the comforting Sunday dinners she grew up with, the 56-year-old Sonoma woman, who worked in advertising sales and publishing, resolved that during 2010 she would cook up a big Italian feast once a week for friends and family. Last December, she and Michael sent out a mass e-mail to everyone in their contact lists, extending an open invitation to their table. A seat would be saved for the first eight people who responded by Saturday night. She acknowledged that the random guest list might lead to some "interesting pairings," but that would all be part of the experience.
"When I was diagnosed with MS a year ago, I thought my days as a hostess were over," she wrote Jan. 4 in her first entry on her blog, &‘52 Dinners.' "I have decided that I cannot let that happen. Even though I have times when I struggle with fatigue, pain and balance issues, I have vowed to stop fearing the future and plan for health rather than illness."
Giangreco has loved to cook since she was a teenager growing up in Los Angeles, where her father worked as a stuntman and her playground was a film studio backlot. She honed her skills in recent years by traveling to Italy, twice taking classes with top chefs. But what started out as a year-long cooking challenge in January became over the course of 12 months something more significant.
"It really became more about the people who came," she reflects, 51 successful dinner parties behind her and one left to go. "We had such reactions and we were able to touch people in ways we didn't ever expect we would be able to."
There was the widow grappling with grief that Giangreco had to pester to come. "Afterward, she wrote me this note that said it really changed how she looked at life. If that's all that happened over the whole year, that's enough. It meant the world to me to make her smile."