Host Your Own Dynamic Dinner Dialogue with “Feast of Reason”

Made By Us
(History) Made By Us
8 min readMay 16, 2022

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An inspired addition to your table — and your citizenship— from Monticello

Food for Thought

Is there a peculiar food combo you love that others find strange? What ingredients do you think are essential for our country to function? Which two people do you think most need to sit down across the table from each other and share a meal?

Great discussions are a bit like delightful dinner parties — they benefit from careful planning and leaving just enough room for the magic to emerge. This year, Civic Season brings you early access to a new kit which supports the conversations that often get side-stepped but are more important than ever: The Feast of Reason from The Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Monticello, the historic home of the third president of the United States near Charlottesville, Virginia.

Dining Room; photo by Sequoia Designs © Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello.

We can’t make progress without discussing the most important issues we face as a nation right now. But let’s be honest: how many of us feel comfortable wading into conversations about politics and religion? Raise your hand.

As a National Historic Landmark, a United Nations World Heritage Site, and a Site of Conscience, Made By Us founding partner Monticello has got you covered, as they carry on and reinterpret traditions that have had profound impact on our past, present and future. With support from The New York Community Trust — The Peter G. Peterson Fund, the Feast of Reason card deck helps you navigate the strong opinions many of us hold about “civic issues” so that breaking bread together can bring us closer.

Whether you’re gathering for Juneteenth or July 4th, with a picnic or a BBQ, debates at meals are inevitable, especially today. The good news: these conversations can genuinely widen the lens on how we understand how we got here, what matters to each of us, and where we can go together. When Thomas Jefferson convened people around the dinner table for debates and discussions, the United States wasn’t an idea everyone agreed upon — and as an enslaver advocating for independence, he brought his own significant contradictions to the table. Nearly 250 years later, we’re still wrestling with who we’ll become as a nation, as a society, as a world — in coffee shops and around the kitchen table.

The United States has always been a work in progress, shaped by the many people who pitch in to help us live up to the vision shared in the Declaration of Independence. And that doesn’t just mean the people on the front lines at marches or drafting legislation (If you haven’t discovered your own civic superpower yet, take this short quiz and get started!). Our story is also shaped by the ways we live, work, play, and grow, prepare and eat meals.

Ready to dig in?

Host Your Own Dinner

The role of creating space for brave discussion and curating guests who can each grow from spending time expanding their perspectives is important work that can also be fun and delicious. Thomas Jefferson understood this and hosted dinners known for stunning food and sparkling conversation. As with many dinner parties of the time, skilled laborers grew, prepared, and served those meals.

For Jefferson’s dinner parties, whether in New York, Washington, or at Monticello, much of that work was done by enslaved laborers and highly skilled enslaved chefs, like James Hemings or Edith Fossett. Hemings was definitely “in the room where it happened” when Jefferson hosted his most (in)famous dinner party in New York City and featured in the musical Hamilton. Fossett was chief cook at Monticello for seventeen years. Their experiences are important reminders that debates about self-government and equal rights are never abstract or theoretical, and you’ll find their contributions to American cuisine are shared in the card deck.

Rather than a typical gathering, where there might be multiple conversations happening simultaneously, a Feast of Reason relies on everyone participating in one conversation. We used a similar version of this concept, a Socratic Dialogue, as a key research tool in shaping the inaugural Civic Season. This year, Monticello is sharing their cards as a way to support incredible conversations, where you get to share your own ideas and learn about what your guests think — not to convince anyone of your opinion!

A sampling of prompts from the Feast of Reason kit

You can hold a potluck or bring the cards to a picnic or meet up for pizza. Or, try some of the recipes from Monticello! The goal is to start with simple Appetizer questions, as a warm-up, and move on slowly to Entree and Dessert questions. If things get heated, anyone can use a Back Burner question to change the tone or request to move on. But ideally, everyone answers the question before you put another one to the group.

Here are a few of our favorite questions to draw from:

Toast

  • Thomas Jefferson famously said, “Knowledge is power, knowledge is safety, knowledge is happiness.” May we use our knowledge to build power, safety, and happiness for all.

Appetizers

  • Introduce yourself and share — your name, where you’re from, and a favorite childhood food — and where do you call home now?
  • What food do you eat when you’re stressed?
  • Is there a peculiar food combo you love that others find strange?

Entrees

  • What food do you think best represents your family, state or country?
  • What is something about the United States that doesn’t make sense to you?
  • What ingredients do you think are essential for our country to function?
  • What role has food played in your civic identity?
  • What is your “recipe” to strengthen democracy for future generations?
  • What does the government owe us and vice versa? Does the government owe the same things to all people?
  • What makes you proud of your country?
  • Is there a beloved recipe that has been passed down to you? Have you altered this recipe? Was this a contentious decision?

Dessert

  • Which two people do you think most need to sit down across the table from each other and share a meal?
  • What did you hear from someone that you disagree with, but want to let simmer in your mind?
Looking for a tasty treat to end your meal? AMERICAN HERITAGE® Chocolate offers some fantastic ideas! These gently spiced treats are a sophisticated twist on the chewy chocolate chunk cookie guaranteed to please the kid in us all. Get the full recipe.

Back-Burners (if things heat up!)

Let’s let this pot simmer a little and turn up the burner on another question (move to another prompt)…

You can check out how this unfolds, LIVE, at the Civic Season Feast of Reason at the Kickoff Party on June 12 with a group of thinkers and leaders in the food world.

Do the Dishes — and Dish

Hosted your meal? Share your experience in the Civic Season Zine to shape this emerging tradition, and read about others’ perspectives. Or sign up to record a StoryCorps conversation at the Atlanta History Center location here or catch us on the West Coast as part or our mobile tour here (or online!) to add your vision and your personal history to the record, archived at the Library of Congress.

This graphic visualization of our three research conversations became the jumping off point for the rich landscape we are exploring in the inaugural Civic Season. Art by: Corrina Keeling (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

Civic Season itself emerged from conversation and many points of view on what this new tradition could become. No matter which cards you draw, or if you feel moved to add your own, you’ll come away with inspiration on how to forge a collective future and more confidence to use anything from your favorite chocolate to an odd family recipe as an entry way into civic participation!

Ready to learn more or take action? Find activities for you during the Civic Season.

More on The Many Hands Behind the Cards

At Monticello, we wanted to create an opportunity for people to have conversations about civic life around a meal. Jefferson’s example of hosting dinners for Congressmen several times a week was an example, but so were the countless times we have all experienced greater empathy and appreciation for someone when we broke bread together.

An important inspiration for this deck was a lunch curated by Alice Waters for participants in 2017 Citizen University national conference. Serving lunch required the cooperation of a table of 12 or so participants who did not know one another. The conversion was modeled on the Chicago Community Trust’s On the Table program. The program provides a “listen to understand another, and learn from each other’s experiences.” We thought about how we could apply this idea to conversations around civic engagement in a way that lowered the barriers and made the conversation feel more enjoyable and open.

We based the questions in the toolkit on the “arc of dialogue” model, first developed by Tammy Boardman and David Crampt and utilized by the Coalition of the International Sites of Conscience. The arc of dialogue begins by asking questions of participants around a shared experience (in this case, food and civics), using questions that move from basic community building to sharing experiences specific to the person and moving from there to learning from others’ experiences. The final component offers opportunities to synthesize what is learned and reflect on a shared sense of community.

We have done user testing with educators, with our own “Monticello Young Advisors” group of millennials and Gen-Zs, and staff in these age cohorts. We plan to launch a more robust online tool for using the cards and provide card decks in the near future.

This toolkit was not only intended for millennial and Gen-Z audiences, it was built by them. Laura-Michal Balderson, a Monticello tour guide, project assistant, and polymath, put together the core questions in this toolkit and performed a great deal of user-testing. Laura-Michal also gathered a rich collection of digital assets on Monticello’s website as a companion to this project, The Art of Citizenship. Tasha Stanton, Manager of Special Projects, managed all of the ever-growing deliverables to make this idea reality. She continues to manage timelines, budgets, resources, and contributes lots of creative ideas and insights to improve this toolkit. Tasha has coordinated several FOR dinners to test this design and more are in the works. Artwork is by former Monticello staff member and fantastic artist Madeleine Rhondeau-Rhodes.

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