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Faced with a debilitating and life-threatening illness like multiple sclerosis, not many people would respond by throwing a dinner party. But Ronda Giangreco did — and not just once, but every Sunday for a year. In the process, what began as a challenge to herself and a way of defying the disease became something much more — a series of dinners throughout 2010 that brought together old friends and new and built a lasting community of love, support and laughter.

She has chronicled that memorable year in a new book, “The Gathering Table,” a memoir of the joys and tribulations of a year filled with plentiful helpings of pasta, wine and friends. It is named for the large, square table she and her husband Michael bought shortly after they began the project.

“Cooking has always been my passion,” she explained. “I love everything about it. It’s where I find my joy, so it’s understandable that the first place I’d run to for solace would be a kitchen.”

In the summer of 2008, Ronda suddenly developed a series of strange symptoms, including migrating numbness, balance problems, bouts of tremors and crushing pain. After weeks of tests and fear, the diagnosis finally came: late-onset MS.

Overnight, she had gone from being a healthy, carefree woman in her early 50s to one whose days were spent coping with illness and a body that no longer behaved as expected.

Ronda and Michael (a former publisher of the Napa Valley Register) met and married in Napa in the 1990s, but had since moved twice for his career, first to Tennessee and then to Auburn, Calif. In 2009, while she was still learning to deal with her symptoms, his employers eliminated his job, but offered him a new position running a wine country publication based in Sonoma. It meant a difficult move, but it also brought them back to an area they knew and loved, where they had many supportive friends.

By the end of 2009 they were settled in a cozy new home in the town of Sonoma, Ronda was coping with her illness and chronic pain, and life had stabilized somewhat. Then a visit to the doctor destroyed her complacency.

In a discussion about renovations they would need to make to the house to accommodate her, the doctor mentioned changes in the kitchen and told Ronda that she could be using a wheelchair within a year.

“When I thought about all the things I might lose, that was one of the things that scared me most — that I might lose the ability to cook,” she said.

Faced with the possibility of only one more year of mobility, Ronda conceived an audacious plan.

Despite her physical ailments, she set herself a monumental task, planning and cooking 52 four-course meals for her husband and six guests. And she would take no shortcuts in her Italian-style Sunday dinners. Bread and pizza dough would be made from scratch, as would the ravioli and gnocchi, the homemade ricotta that often started the meal and the gelato that ended it.

“Making something easy is no fun,” she said. “The fun is in challenging yourself to make something hard.

“And if you crash and burn, you just pour more wine,” she added with a laugh.

Before she became ill, Ronda, who says she is “Italian by marriage,” had spent a week on Italy’s Amalfi coast in spring 2007 studying and cooking with well-known chef Liberato Urru of I Quattro Passi, and had returned again that fall to study more. The trip was a gift from her husband, who may have had an ulterior motive.

“Michael’s gift to me was to go to cooking school in Italy because that’s what he wanted me to cook. He wasn’t going to send me to learn Chinese cooking,” Ronda joked.

While she didn’t grow up, as Michael did, looking forward to weekly Sunday dinners at grandmother’s house, she shares his love of Italian food and came back from her studies with new enthusiasm for the

cuisine (as well as a very heavy suitcase full of olive oil). She immediately threw a dinner party to show off what she had learned, and the dishes from Italy were soon a part of her regular repertoire.

So she already had the recipes and skills, and was an experienced hostess who loved to entertain. But her Sunday dinner plans presented another challenge in addition to her health issues. A quick calculation showed that even with some friends coming more than once, 52 dinners would require hundreds of guests. They had many friends, but not enough to populate every meal. Undaunted, she and Michael started putting out the word, welcoming friends of friends and even inviting strangers who crossed their path. Some were wary of an invitation from someone they barely knew, but others took them up on it and became part of their ever-widening circle.

“Of the 135 people who came, maybe half were people that we didn’t know before, who became friends. And for the most part, they’ve stayed good friends. We have an army of friends behind us now. It’s amazing,” Ronda said.

Another challenge was the cost. Ronda found she was spending $100 or more on each meal. At that rate, the year of dinners could cost them more than $5,000. Michael raised a red flag, but he could see how important the project was to Ronda. So plans for a vacation were jettisoned. “We’re deciding to put our money in friendships this year,” Michael told her.

“It’s the best investment we ever made,” Ronda adds.

The good times around the table kept her going, but the book reveals the trials and tribulations of pulling off a dinner when pain, exhaustion and the “brain-fog” of MS are making you all thumbs in the kitchen. Not all went smoothly, but Ronda learned to relax the high standards she set for herself, realizing that good conversation, laughter and fine wines ensured success even when the gnocchi were less than perfect. Michael did his part as host, keeping the wine flowing and the discussions going with fun and provocative questions.

It was a difficult year, but a joyous and successful one. After a lifetime of building a reputation for coming up with ideas and starting projects with enthusiasm but then abandoning them, Ronda thought this one might be no different.

“I never thought I’d finish 52 dinners,” she said. “And I’m sure no one would have thought less of me if I had quit.”

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But she persevered nonetheless. Now, with not only the dinners but also a book completed, she has left at least one problem behind.

“I’m going to have to stop defining myself as the Queen of Unfinished Projects,” she said. “I’ve corrected that flaw.”

More than a year after she completed the dinner project, Ronda is delighted to still be walking with the aid of a cane, rather than needing a wheelchair. She and Michael continue to entertain about once a month, although the recipe repetition of preparing 52 dinners had at least one negative consequence. These days, Ronda has zero interest in making her own ricotta, mixing up potato gnocchi or rolling out pasta, though she still enjoys pizza making.

She and Michael are continuing to eat well, however. The dinners have inspired others, and many of the Giangrecos’ guests are now returning the hospitality. “The offshoot of the project has been that so many people have picked up the baton and run with it that our calendar is filled with invitations. Michael and I are enjoying other people’s cooking these days,” she said.

While she is cooking less, Ronda is as busy as ever. Despite continued MS flare-ups, including one that sent her back to the emergency room last week, she sends out a monthly newsletter (sign up at

TheGatheringTable.net) and is planning her next book, on gathering tables across the country.

Her current focus is in working with the National MS Society in its efforts to defeat the disease: She’ll be a featured speaker at gatherings in Tennessee and Connecticut and making personal appearances at the Bay Area MS Walks in April and May. Locally, she’ll be at Copperfield’s in Napa for a book signing on May 5, 1 to 3 p.m., and will be giving a lecture and cooking demo at Ramekins cooking school in Sonoma on May 9.

 

Rabbit Ragu

Ronda Giangreco

Ronda made this ragu for her fourth dinner, and repeated it frequently enough that the butcher at Sonoma Market started calling her “the Rabbit Lady.” However, if you are squeamish about eating bunnies, you can substitute chicken, she said.

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

2 Tbsp. unsalted butter

1 (1/4-lb.) piece pancetta, diced

1 Tbsp. finely chopped fresh sage

1-1/2 tsp. finely chopped fresh rosemary

1 (3-lb.) rabbit, boned and cut into

1-inch pieces (1-1/2 lb. boned)

1 medium onion, chopped

1 medium carrot, chopped

1 celery rib, chopped

1 cup light dry red wine, such as pinot noir

1 (14-oz.) can Italian plum tomatoes in juice, drained and chopped

1-1/4 tsp. sea salt

1/2 tsp. coarsely ground black pepper

Heat oil and butter in a 12-inch heavy skillet (2 inches deep) over moderate heat until hot but not smoking, then add pancetta and cook, stirring occasionally, 2 minutes.

Add sage and rosemary and cook, stirring, 30 seconds.

Add rabbit and cook, stirring occasionally, until rabbit is no longer pink on outside, 2 to 3 minutes.

Add onion, carrot and celery and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 5 minutes.

Add wine and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until liquid is reduced to about 1 cup, 10 to 15 minutes.

Add tomatoes, sea salt and pepper and simmer, stirring occasionally, until sauce is thickened, 5 to 10 minutes.

Serve over fettucini or soft polenta.

 

Fresh Ricotta

Ronda Giangreco

Ronda cites Michael Chiarello as one of her inspirations; in fact, his cookbook “At Home with Michael Chiarello” is the only one she keeps in her kitchen. She learned her method of making ricotta from him.

2 quarts whole milk

2 cups heavy cream

1 Tbsp. salt

2 cups filtered or bottled water

1/3 cup fresh-squeezed lemon juice

1 tsp. grated lemon zest

In a large pot, mix together the milk and cream. Dissolve the salt in the water and add it to the mixture.

Bring the mixture slowly to a boil, then quickly turn off the heat and add the lemon juice and zest. Curds will begin to form.

Allow the mixture to rest for a few minutes before gently scooping the curds out with a slotted spoon, putting them into a cheesecloth-lined colander. After the ricotta has drained for a few minutes, it is ready to eat.

You can serve it as is or layer it in a casserole with fresh herbs and grated Parmesan and bake it to create a warm, fragrant spread.

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