When my sister and I were little our parents introduced us to a fairy named Penelope. She was about the size of a thimble, with translucent wings and a flower crown atop her tiny head. She appeared exclusively at mealtimes to helpfully sweep up the crumbs that fell beneath the table or clear our plates of food uneaten. During dinner my father might say, “You seem to have left some food on your plate. We’d better ask Penelope to come finish it for you.” Or, “Oops. You dropped some crumbs on the floor. Thank goodness we have Penelope to take care of them.” Penelope was always a welcome visitor, making mealtimes more fun.
At a certain age I realized that Penelope was probably a figment of our collective imaginations. Thankfully we have a real food fairy in our family: my mother. But instead of cleaning our plates and gobbling up our crumbs she gifts us with a cornucopia of blessings. Her love language is food, and boy is she fluent.
During my childhood delectable aromas constantly wafted through the house. On Sundays I would find her standing at the enormous island in the middle of the kitchen, chopping veggies or pounding chicken breasts, while Turandot or the Ring Cycle poured from the built-in speakers above the double-wide Sub Zero fridge and freezer set. There were thrilling experiments in pasta making (I loved watching her thread sheets of dough through the hand-cranked pasta machine, sending particles of flour into the air) and bread baking (particularly memorable was a braided bread sculpture of Adam and Eve, complete with doughy fig leaves, to celebrate the wedding anniversary of close friends). And every birthday cake was made from scratch, my favorite being a textured calico cat creation when I turned four. She even made the dinner for me and my high school boyfriend on prom night, at our request, since we preferred her cooking to any restaurant fare.
Her culinary generosity continued well into my adulthood. When the twins were six, and the three of us were diagnosed with celiac disease, my mom learned to bake gluten free treats in order to ease the pain of losing our favorite baked goods and breads. For years the top shelf of that double-wide fridge was crammed with fifteen kinds of gluten free flour and a sourdough starter she battled for months in an attempt to create a worthy substitute for a gluten free baguette. Sadly, the uncooperative starter was eventually thrown down the garbage disposal.
Several years ago, when chronic illness forced me into bed for months on end, my mom regularly drove across the Golden Gate Bridge to bring us nourishment. I had adopted an extremely restrictive autoimmune diet, and she spent hours laboring to make dishes that excluded all grains, dairy, eggs, nuts & seeds, legumes, nightshade vegetables, certain spices, and sugars somehow palatable. She was an absolute saint.
And she hasn’t stopped. Even now, during this worldwide pandemic, when by rights she should be focused solely on keeping herself and my almost 90 year-old father safe and healthy, she drops off dinner for a dear friend and neighbor almost every evening, and still manages to occasionally sneak over the bridge to deliver my family her home cooked meals. She and I meet in the parking lot of a restaurant in Mill Valley, our cars parked several meters from one another. I gather bags from her trunk and replace them with the empty containers from our last exchange. This might not be considered an essential outing, but it does provide great comfort to our family and is one of the only ways I get to see her in person right now. And I can feel her love in every batch of enchiladas, in every spoonful of Caribbean pork stew, in every sticky barbecued sparerib.
Who needs a Penelope when we have my mom?