When my niece was born, I wanted her to stay tiny forever. At 5 lbs., 7 oz., she was too delicate for newborn clothes and her days in the NICU gave us time to find preemie clothes that fit. Three years later, when my nephew was born weighing 4 lbs., 9 oz., we dressed him in the Cabbage Patch clothes our mother had made for our dolls when we were children. When they were about six months old, my niece and nephew traded clothes with Paddington Bear, much the same way my mother had done with me at that age. There is a picture of me, at the age of six months, wearing Paddington’s blue jacket, yellow hat, and yellow plastic boots, and he is wearing mine. Cora and Henry have joined the tradition and we laugh at how silly it is that the children wear doll clothes. But Henry did not grow at all between the ages of six and nine months, his epic vomiting having not lessened since birth, and diagnosis finally came that he was allergic to dairy and eggs. With my bright, cheerful nephew, stuck in fraction-digits of growth percentiles, my wish for smallness seemed to come true as he literally stayed tiny for longer than he should have, even as his second birthday brought a new diagnosis of a growth hormone deficiency and he began daily shots he will need until he is eighteen.
When pumpkin became a term of endearment is a matter of debate, offset from sweetness, from sugarplum, honey, love bug, even the salty-ness of peanut, the food names we call each other, the tasty and the sweet, the foods that give us the most visceral pleasure, the greatest joy, the fullest sensory experience. My littlest pumpkin, my littlest peanut, my nephew, just turned three. For the last two Halloweens that followed his allergy diagnosis of dairy, eggs, and peanuts, his parents have taken to the social media trend of painting one of their pumpkins teal to signify a peanut-free space for other kids who have allergies. He was a giraffe for Halloween, trailed by the family black Lab Marley dressed as a lion, embarrassed as only a big dog can be. It was a week after my mother was diagnosed with cancer, two days before she was scheduled for surgery, and we concentrated on the sensory pleasure of candy, the day before I lost myself in the food metaphors of cancer, the infusions and drug cocktails, the cabbage-sized tumor and the port they inserted in her chest, before the Halloween pumpkin imagery turned into Thanksgiving pies that would herald the beginning of chemotherapy, before all that bright cast iron started appearing on thrift store shelves and I began cooking for my mother against the feeling that food had become something to be feared.
Penelope Pumpkin is my two-quart Le Creuset cocotte, pumpkin-shaped and pumpkin-colored, small and bright and ridiculous and dramatic. Is it too much to say that I love this pot, the kind of visceral happiness that should be reserved for people, not inanimate objects? And yet: I love this pot. At this point I admitted my cast iron collection—a thrifted stockpile of vintage cast iron in shades of Descoware and Le Creuset and Cousances, each with its own absurd name—might have gotten out of control, but I’d long wanted something small and beautiful that could live on the back burner and make small quantities of soup for one person. So I set Penelope there, cheerful in that flame color, comical in her scalloped shape and offset handle, something joyfully satisfying in her smallness. When I discovered Smitten Kitchen’s recipe for Parmesan broth with white beans and kale, it was a turning point in learning that vegetarians can have broth just as good as the beef or chicken I was making for my parents, stock for those days after my mother’s chemotherapy when she has trouble eating, has trouble chewing and swallowing against the mouth sores, against the dead belly feeling. Making stock for her became a weekly ritual and I became jealous of it, in a way I had never before done as a vegetarian.
When the recipe called for half a pound of Parmesan rinds, my frown was nearly audible, such a large quantity of such a small thing. Further down the recipe, she said one could ask at the cheese counter of higher end grocery stores—and they’d just opened a fancy new Hy-Vee around the corner. Blissful in my ignorance, I asked the woman at the counter and she handed over exactly what I wanted. After several frustrating trips with the same question, I discovered the secret hiding place where they put the Parmesan rinds if they have any. I have been successful enough lately that I can be generous with the broth, to bring my sisters quart jars of it, just because.
Lia Purpura, in “On Miniatures,” writes, “Miniatures offer changes of scale by which we measure ourselves anew. […] You are large enough to hold such things fully in hand. You obtain all the space around it. […] Whether we are, in relation to them, omniscient or companionably small beings, miniatures invite us to leave our known selves and perspectives behind.” It is Decorative Gourd Season in Minnesota and elsewhere, Halloween moving into Thanksgiving. Our kitchen table boasts a basket of miniature pumpkins and squashes not designed for eating. It is the season of miniature candy bars we can eat in one bite, a completeness consumed. A theory of small children and pets: they are naturally sweet and when they sleep, their sugars warm and condense, making cheeks and paws and little fingers irresistible to nibbles, as if delight takes on bright flavor.
I consider and reconsider the idea that the body recognizes something that shouldn’t be there and reacts. In the case of dairy and eggs, Henry’s eczema erupts into raw, bleeding sores that look like someone has taken a cheese grater to that perfect, soft, baby skin; he has an Epi Pen in case of peanuts. I remember my friend’s daughter’s peanut reaction when her grandfather kissed her with lips that had eaten a PayDay bar hours before leaving their shape on her cheek. Such a small thing to be so dangerous. I try to remember that the body knows what it’s doing, even if it’s overzealous and tries to kill the spider with a flamethrower. My mother’s body is doing the same thing: though her body didn’t recognize those tiny cancer cells as a thing to fight, we’re trying to find that line between killing cancer cells and putting her in the hospital because the treatment is too harsh.
We are directed to introduce small amounts of dairy into Henry’s diet as we babysit. He’s very fond of string cheese. My mother does not like cheese and she never has, though she ate macaroni and cheese with us without a single complaint. Not long ago, she told me she does not like the way cheese squeaks against her teeth, much the same reason I object to fresh mushrooms. She can tolerate cheese if it is part of a recipe and I return to my childhood memories of bright orange cheese, the Colby and the Cheddar and the Velveeta, which ring for me now in the same pumpkin-orange as Penelope who makes Parmesan broth against the chill of November. It makes me wonder about the ways our brains process sensory information, what’s pleasing to us and what we cannot bear. I still remember the first good cheese I ever had, Irish white cheddar, sharp as glass, made in the Aillwee Caves south of Galway, Ireland, where I studied in college. I was not impressed: it was too far from the sweet, bland cheeses of my childhood, where the options did not offer more than Velveeta or the dust in the green can.
At home, the Parmesan rinds I’ve been hoarding and freezing go into a cheesecloth and two quarts of water. Penelope Pumpkin is a perfect size for this recipe, the perfect shape, the way that I can turn her lid just a bit, offset from the scallops of the pot, that kind of satisfaction you only get when encountering the right tool for the task with the correct amount of expertise. After several hours, the house takes on the most spectacular scent, a rich kind of sharpness, what the most potent love must taste like in those moments where we are most helpless, deep in sleep or fear. Eating our feelings is pejorative, something shameful in this desire to find comfort in food, but I find delight in the fat from the melting cheese having woven itself into lace-like bubbles on the surface, slightly darker than the darkening broth, and eating my feelings seems healthy and desirable, the movement back into murmurs of pumpkin and honey as my nephew fights against sleep in my arms.