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.”
Penny is still teaching poetry in London and this year I hope she serves the Roasted Pumpkin-Apple Soup in the ceramic pumpkin I left with her as a gift. She tried to refuse it but I would not let her: when she held it to her chest and leaned over to kiss my cheek, I knew I had given back something precious, and perfect.
I am still obsessed with sides. This year, wherever I go for the holidays, I’ll be taking these make-ahead sides in the marvelous, affordable serving pieces pictured here that author and entertainment expert Karen Bussen has selected for them. Whether I bring the mixed green salad spiked with sweet-tart grapefruit segments or the ultimately comforting yet upscale Layered Mashed Potato & Mushroom Casserole or the slightly sweet and fragrant Fig-Anise Rolls, I’ll be paying it forward, giving something back, making, sharing and then leaving memories—in beautiful dishes or baskets—behind.