I am in love with side dishes. I choose entrees based on what comes with them. I go to steakhouses because I want the mashed potatoes and the piping hot rolls. I am not a vegetarian: I just love sides. I always have.
In my early twenties, I discovered that inherent in this love was a way of giving and sharing that remained long after the meal was over. I was a graduate student in London, working on a master’s degree in creative writing. It was Thanksgiving and our poetry professor, Penny, invited her American students over for the holiday meal. We all loved Penny. She wasn’t much older than we were, yet she was our mentor and surrogate mother: she taught us how to turn our angst into art, graciously received us when we showed up uninvited and in tears, listened patiently, and gave us sherry, roasted almonds and the kind of advice that sent us back to our rented flats certain everything would be fine.
And it always was. What could I bring Penny to show my thanks? Wine? Flowers? Chocolates? None of the usual hostess gifts seemed personal enough to express the love and gratitude I felt and wanted to convey. I wondered what my mother would do. I missed her. She had sent me a ceramic pumpkin-shaped covered dish in honor of the holidays and I knew she’d bought one for herself, too, and that she’d be using it to serve her famous stuffing. And then my homesickness produced a solution: I would make my mother’s baked stuffing in my new ceramic pumpkin.
When Penny opened the door, I thrust my gift at her. “You made stuffing!” she said, her smile widening as she took my offering and breathed in its earthy aroma. “These smells remind me of my mother,” she said. “She passed a few years back. She had a pumpkin dish just like this—she used it to serve soup.”