Monday, September 28, 2009

Onion Rings

Onion Rings

            They hit the hot fat with a sharp report, moist insides vaporizing to steam.  Molten blisters of oil gurgle up from the bottom of the deep fryer; explode at the surface, rendering, within seconds, the rough pale rings in the wire basket a Midas gold.   The line behind you presses forward to inhale the promising aroma of salt and sweet.
            “Number 23, your order is up.”
            The crown jewel of your plastic tray reigns, mounded in a shallow white cardboard cradle, surrounded by its acolytes of cheeseburgers, tuna sandwiches, and soft drinks.
            Carrying your grail with tender care, you consider eating one before you make your way to the picnic table the family has staked out under a shady pine.  Why did they choose to sit so far away?  Every second out of the hot fat dulls this perfect marriage pf scalding outer crust, crisp as a military salute, and inside, waiting there the cool and slippery, the pale onion bride.   You consider sneaking a bite, but know the golden crumbs in the corners of your happy mouth and the faint coating of grease on your fingers will tell the tail.   Anyway, once you start, there is no stopping. 
            You have a desperate craving for fried onion rings, and your local dairy bar, clam shack or burger joint is closed for the season, or just too far away.    So, go to the supermarket and grab a can off the shelf.  Yes, Virginia, they come in cans. You’ll find them in the vegetable aisle.   Flip the ring on top, pull back the lid stick, your nose in the can and just inhale for a moment. You can do this with impunity because you’re going to be buying those onion rings, to either eat from the can stuck between your knees, as you cruise out of the parking lot, or even before you get out of the store.  While they are not even in the same world as hot-out-of–the-fryer onion rings, for now they will do the trick.  Compared to the real thing you’ll find them way too greasy and a tad on the soggy side – not unlike a bag of potato chips left open at a summer cottage.  But if you are desperate, they will do.
            What, you may ask; do people who don’t eat these things right out of the can do with them?  Well, where were you when Aunt Mabel handed out her recipe cards? They make (Ta Da!) Green Bean Casserole.     I used to think this was a joke.  Who on earth would combine the following ingredients?
Canned cream of mushroom soup
Canned green beans
Canned fried onion rings
Toast sliced almonds (optional)
and place them on a table where hungry diners are expecting food?
            Millions of people, actually.   I found this out one Thanksgiving when, as usual, along with the regular cast of family and friends I invited an adjunct group of people to whom we refer as the ‘Widows and Orphans’; acquaintances with nowhere else to go, or who live too far away to get home for the holiday.

            A while ago David and I attended some sort of fall fund raising dinner.  David’s place card put him on my right side.   On my left was an extremely attractive young woman dressed in the sort of smart high fashioned suit one might see in the Sunday New York Times Fashion Section.  I’d always wondered who could afford to buy those clothes, and here she was.   Her jewelry, while not flashy, was very serious.  It was a challenge to keep my focus on her face and not on the emerald necklace dangling just about a modest show of cleavage.   She had extraordinarily luminescent skin; smooth and flawless like an expensive pearl.
            Being women, after the usual banalities (“I’m Lora, I’m Beverly”), we went right into life stories, as opposed to most men who tend to prefer the safer topics of sports and the economy.  Hers, by virtue of my rabid curiosity, was first.  And what a story it was.  By the time she got to college both her parents were dead, so she had been welcomed with open arms into her roommate’s family, spending vacations at their house, and summer vacation traveling with them.   Upon graduation she stayed in close touch with the family, in particular the father, with whom she formed she such a close bond that he divorced his wife of many years and married her.
            At this point David gave me a nudge that said, “I want to leeeeeve.”  I ignored him.
             Beverly didn’t mention how the roommate took this turn of events, but…. Dad had an import/export business that made lots of money.  He took her into the business, taught her everything he knew and promptly dropped dead, leaving her, at the tender age of 30 an exceedingly rich woman. When she sold out a few years later, her wealth increased another couple of decimal points.  Now she was searching (between trips to Sun Valley and Abudabai, where her good friend the sultan regaled her with jewels – witness the bauble around her neck), for what she might do next.   It took some effort to keep smiling and nodding as if I could completely relate to what she was telling me instead of letting my mouth drop open with amazement.
            I believe the conversation ended, just before David gave me a more significant nudge, choreographed with a swift, albeit gentle tap on the ankle, communicating, “We are definitely leaving.  Now!”, with her inviting us to her ski house in Sun Valley.  I thought she meant, like ‘sometime, maybe next season or in the future when the kids are old enough to take care of themselves,’ we should come out and ski.   But, oh no, she meant this coming weekend.  I declined, saying I thought I’d have trouble finding a sitter on such short notice. 
            “Do you have plans for Thanksgiving?” came out of my mouth before I realized what I was saying.  After all, she was a real orphan and a real widow…I fully expected her to say,
            “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.”
            “Oh, but I insist.”
            “It’s really not necessary…”
            In the end she said she’d bring a “very special vegetable dish;” a family recipe her great grandmother had handed down.
            “I’m not much of a cook,” she warned me.  “Actually this is one of the few dishes I know how to make.  Everyone asks for the recipe, but the family is sworn to secrecy, so I’ve never shared it with anyway.”  I got the hint. No matter how great this dish was I wasn’t getting the recipe.   After a quick introduction to David, we said goodnight and said we looked forward to seeing her in a few weeks.   On the way home, even before I told him the story, I could see that he had paid more attention than I realized.
        “Did you see the way her hat matched her shoes and hand bag?” asked my husband, the one who wouldn’t notice if I left to shovel snow off the driveway in a bathing suit, after I told him her story.  Why didn’t he mention that she also had beautiful skin?
          “And did see her skin?  Guess that’s what being rich at thirty will do for you.”
I guessed so.
           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.
            “Are we on schedule? Anything I can do to help” asked my husband (suddenly, and very uncharacteristically solicitous). Was he referring to the 20 pounds of foiled covered dishes that now needed heating, or the fact that I, still dressed in a sweat shirt and ripped jeans, looked like someone who had come to clean, not entertain?
           “Of course,” I said with forced graciousness that only a more sensitive person would have detected, “why don’t you take Barbara into the playroom and help the kids pick up the forty thousand Legos lying on the floor.  Ha ha.  Just kidding, why don’t you two have a drink in the living room, while I just tidy up around here.”
         “But the casserole….”
          “Don’t you worry about a thing,” I told her, relieved that we had a microwave big enough to accommodate large dishes, “ I’ll make sure it’s cooked just the way you want.”
            “Just as long as it doesn’t go in the microwave,” she cautioned me, her eyes wide with alarm.  Were those tinted contacts or did her eyes really match the blue of her outfit? I stashed the clunky casseroles on the counter, and the Gucci bag in the pantry where it would be safe from curious children, finished setting the table, unplugged the toilet, picked up the Legos and raced upstairs to find something clean and presentable to wear.   Barbara had upped the fashion ante, but was holding all the cards, so I settled for low couture from the House of Gap.
           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?

Original Green Bean Casserole
 1 can (10 3/4 oz.) condensed cream of mushroom soup
 3/4 cup milk
 1/8 tsp. black pepper
2 cans (14.5 ounces) regular or French-cut green beans, drained, or 2 9 oz. pkgs. frozen cut green beans, thawed
1 1/3 cups fried onion rings, such as Durkee's or French's
 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.

Prep Time: 5 minutes. Cooking Time: 35 minutes. Makes 6 servings.


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