“Oh, thanks but I’ll be hot air ballooning over the Kalahari.”
Instead, her face lit up, making it, if possible, even more beautiful than before, “Oh, that would be just wonderful! What shall I bring?”
We did that dance: “Oh, no you don’t have to bring anything.”
On Thanksgiving Day, a full hour before the appointed time, while I was still setting the table, unstopping the powder room toilet, and thinking about a shower, the doorbell rang. Balancing four, large Pyrex baking dishes and a Gucci shopping bag, David ushered Barbara into the kitchen. Today’s outfit, aquamarine wool shimmering with subtle golden threads had an Armani look about it, most likely because it was Armani. Matching head and footgear completed the outfit. Who on earth would wear a hat and spike heels to dinner at our house? Obviously someone who thought arriving early to dinner an hour early was o.k. Oh well, a nice hostess gift from Gucci would go a long way toward mollifying me.
“I hope you don’t mind my coming a teensy bit early. These need to bake for exactly thirty minutes in a three hundred and fifty degree oven. And then these toppings get sprinkled on.” The only oven in my kitchen was fully occupied by half-cooked turkey that wasn’t going anywhere for at least two hours. I assumed she was handing over the job of finishing her dishes to me since I was better dressed for the task.
When I got back to the kitchen my mother, was basting the bird.
“Who is that very attractive young woman in the living room talking to your father? Have you ever seen such a beautiful complexion? Do you suppose she listened to her mother and kept her hands off her face when she was a teenager? Do you think that’s an Armani suit? What’s in those casserole dishes?”
Only the last question was worthy of a reply, but I didn’t have to bother; my mother was already lifting a corner of the foil.
“Oh my God! She peeled the whole thing back. Who brought this?”
“The woman who kept her hands off her face.” I moved in for a closer look.
Bits of what might have once been a green vegetable were mired in a gooey swamp of beige sludge.
“This has a name?”
“Don’t be snide. It’s Green Bean Casserole,” pronounced my mother, in a reverential tone. It was one of the very first things I learned to make as a young bride. I think the recipe was on the back of the Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup.”
So much for secret family recipes.
“Where are the cans of fried onion rings?” My mother looked around the kitchen. “It’s the essential ingredient, surely she couldn’t have forgotten them.”
I shrugged. Maybe this meant we didn’t have to serve this atrocity.
“Maybe you have some in the pantry…” She was off before I could tell her that along with snake meat and chewing tobacco, canned onion rings would be on the list of foodstuffs absent from my pantry.
“Oh, here they are!” She emerged, brandishing the Gucci bag. “What cute packaging.”
“There’s enough here to serve fifty people,” I protested, as my mother slid all four dishes into the oven. “Everything else is going to get cold.”
No one complained that the rest of the food was lukewarm. Our friends, relatives, and the designated ‘widow and orphan’ moved through the buffet line oohing and over every dish. I noticed there was a logjam at the ‘vegetable’ station and smirked, assuming people were carefully carving out tiny helpings while making a show of eager anticipation. Having tasted a spoonful, I imagined someone with a palate stuck in the fifties might wax nostalgic, but my family with their predilection for fresh vegetables, homemade cream of mushroom soup in which mushroom, not salt, was the flavor would surely turn up their noses.
“Mom, do we have more of that stuff?” asked Max, pointing to the empty casserole. People are wanting seconds.” Back in the kitchen I counted three empty casseroles, while at the dinner table I saw Barbara, seated next to and in animated conversation with my eighty-year-old father. Was it his hearing impairment that made it necessary for her to lean so close, or something else? Here was a man with a full head of hair, entertaining stories to tell, and an ego that relished attention. My mother at the far end of the table, blissfully (or tragically?) unaware, was spooning up another forkful of Green Bean Casserole. A cautionary tale was in her immediate future.
After everyone went home, (my mother’s leftovers tucked into the Gucci bag), David and I regarded the catastrophe of dishes.
“I can tell Barbara won’t be invited next year,” he said with uncharacteristic insight. “Your mother was sort of rude to her.”
“Oh, how so?”
“She asked for your Dad’s office number because she needed someone to write her will, and your mother told her his practice was full.” David sighed, “Guess that means we won’t be eating her secret recipe ever again.”
“You actually liked it?”
“The concept is interesting, but I think it would taste a lot better made with real ingredients and a lot less salt.”
“Is it worth an emerald necklace?”
“No, but I’ll scrub the pots if you do the dishes.”
Who could turn down an offer like that?
1 can (10 3/4 oz.) condensed cream of mushroom soup
3/4 cup milk
1/8 tsp. black pepper
Combine soup, milk and pepper in a 1 1/2 qt. baking dish; stir until blended. Stir in beans and 2/3 cup fried onion rings. Bake at 350 F for 30 minutes or until hot. Stir. Sprinkle with remaining 2/3 cup fried onion rings. Bake 5 minutes or until onions are golden.