I’ll admit it: I really am more likely to bring my scriptures to church if I know I’ll get a cookie for it. At a wedding reception I eyeball the buffet before I even glance at the dress or the flowers or the groom. I like airplane food; I like rubber-chicken banquet food. And when I’m at the “maybe it’s time” stage of family planning, the prospect of postpartum meals from the Relief Society is usually enough to get me off the fence. (If I have a fourth child, I’m blaming Jen Broadhead’s Black Forest cake.)
That’s not so surprising, probably; who doesn’t like free food prepared and delivered by somebody else? Homemade and hand-delivered dinners constitute virtually all the formal service I’ve received at the hands of Relief Society sisters, and, for better or for worse, they also make up a large fraction of the formal service I’ve rendered. That’s not as meager as it sounds. When my younger brother was ill, we’d often return from school to a note on the kitchen table: Jacob had a nosebleed, a headache, a seizure; we’re in the hospital; do your practicing and be good kids. Night after night for months the Relief Society of the La Canada I ward put food on that table. After a few weeks, we noticed ourselves plating the same items three or four nights a week—lasagna, green salad, jello, and brownies—all of which were novelties in our kitchen, and all of which were consumed by a motherless clutch of kids, as hungry at the heart as they were at the gut.
When my oldest daughter was born, the stars wheeled backward and the cosmos disintegrated into disarray, as it does nearly every time a first child is delivered. The meals delivered by the Relief Society of the San Diego 13th ward, once they started arriving, pointed the arrow of time back toward dinner—where it has always pointed, and ever will—and, with protein, starch and vegetable, began to piece the universe back together. I looked forward to the predictability of the delivery, the few minutes of adult attention, the sunshine from my south-facing front door, as much as to the food itself. But it was the food, too, and I remember every bite of it: the Eastleys’ Lion House salad, Rachel Whipple’s tofu-veggie bake, Heidi Griffitts’ peanut butter chocolate squares, the frozen Marie Calender cobbler that Teresa Rizzo brought, with vanilla ice cream.
This time around, the sun and moon have, mostly, been parading as they ought, but the postpartum meals have been no less sustaining. We received eight meals, not consecutively, from the sisters of the Webster Groves ward, and among the eight we’ve hit all the major schools of Mormon cooking:
High Mormon Neoclassical: Roast beef, red potatoes roasted in olive oil, chopped salad with grilled chicken, pasta, feta cheese and olives, dinner rolls, and three-layer chocolate cake with whipped cream and cherries
Romantic: Spinach lasagna with garlic breadsticks and salad
Popular Mainstream: Chicken enchiladas made with cheddar cheese and cream-of-chicken soup, served with steamed broccoli
Genre Fiction: Tacos with ground beef, chopped lettuce and tomato, and sour cream
Minimalist: Penne with tomato cream sauce and green beans
Chick Lit: Chicken salad on rolls
Belle Lettres: Pasta baked with an eggplant-and-sweet-pepper marinara and italian sausage
Gothic: Lima bean curry
The funny thing about Relief Society meals is that they always taste good, every one of them. And they generate a inordinately generous volume of leftovers, especially the green salads: I’ve got about seven Gladware tubs of romaine in my fridge still, and at least three giant plastic thimbles of raspberry vinaigrette. When Christ distributed the loaves and fishes, Matthew tells us that the disciples gathered basketsful of excess, the broken meat speaking salvation in mute abundance. I wonder these days about the widow of Zarephath, with her handful of meal, her shimmer of oil: after the trial of faith, after the cake was made and delivered, did the barrel grow heavy at once? I like to think, maybe, that it did not, that every evening she scraped bottom, that every night she turned away from a rising panic and a mother’s despair in scarcity, that it was only in the mornings she found the meal and oil restored, a handful only, a shimmer, but enough: a trial of hope. I’ve scraped bottom a few times in the last weeks, and I know that rising panic, the shadow of that despair. Some nights the cruse is empty, except for a few fragments of brownie, a trace of sour cream, the scent of vinaigrette. And it is enough.