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Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Tableby Ruth Reichl
Most mornings I got out of bed and went to the refrigerator to see how my mother was feeling. You could tell instantly just by opening the door. One day in 1960 I found a whole suckling pig staring at me. I jumped back and slammed the door, hard. Then I opened it again. I'd never seen a whole animal in our refrigerator before; even the chickens came in parts. He was surrounded by tiny crab apples ("lady apples" my mother corrected me later), and a whole wreath of weird vegetables.
This was not a bad sign: the more odd and interesting things there were in the refrigerator, the happier my mother was likely to be. Still, I was puzzled; the refrigerator in our small kitchen had been almost empty when I went to bed.
"Where did you get all this stuff?" I asked. "The stores aren't open yet."
"Oh," said Mom blithely, patting at her crisp gray hair, "I woke up early and decided to go for a walk. You'd be surprised at what goes on in Manhattan at four A.M. I've been down to the Fulton Fish Market. And I found the most interesting produce store on Bleecker Street."
"It was open?" I asked.
"Well," she admitted, "not really." She walked across the worn linoleum and set a basket of bread on the Formica table. "But I saw someone moving around so I knocked. I've been trying to get ideas for the party."
"Party?" I asked warily. "What party?"
"Your brother has decided to get married," she said casually, as if I should have somehow intuited this in my sleep. "And of course we're going to have a party to celebrate the engagement and meet Shelly's family!"
My brother, I knew, would not welcome this news. He was thirteen years older than I and considered it a minor miracle to have reached the age of twenty-five. "I don't know how I survived her cooking," he said as he was telling me about the years when he and Mom were living alone, after she had divorced his father and was waiting to meet mine. "She's a menace to society."
Bob went to live with his father in Pittsburgh right after I was born, but he always came home for holidays. When he was there he always helped me protect the guests, using tact to keep them from eating the more dangerous items.
I took a more direct approach. "Don't eat that," I ordered my best friend Jeanie as her spoon dipped into one of Mom's more creative lunch dishes. My mother believed in celebrating every holiday: in honor of St. Patrick she was serving bananas with green sour cream.
"I don't mind the color," said Jeanie, a trusting soul whose own mother wouldn't dream of offering you an all-orange Halloween extravaganza complete with milk dyed the color of orange juice. Ida served the sort of perfect lunches that I longed for: neat squares of cream cheese and jelly on white bread, bologna sandwiches, Chef Boyardee straight from the can.
"It's not just food coloring," I said. "The sour cream was green to begin with; the carton's been in the refrigerator for months."
Jeanie quickly put her spoon down and when Mom went into the other room to answer the phone we ducked into the bathroom and flushed our lunches down the toilet.
"That was great, Mim," said Jeanie when Mom returned.
"May we be excused?" is all I said. I wanted to get away from the table before anything else appeared.
"Don't you want dessert?" Mom asked.
"Sure," said Jeanie.
"No!" I said. But Mom had already gone to get the cookies. She returned with some strange black lumps on a plate. Jeanie looked at them dubiously, then politely picked one up.
"Oh, go ahead, eat it," I said, reaching for one myself. "They're just Girl Scout mint cookies. She left them on the radiator so all the chocolate melted off, but they won't kill you."
As we munched our cookies, Mom asked idly, "What do you girls think I should serve for Bob's engagement party?"
"You're not going to have the party here, are you?" I asked, holding my breath as I looked around at our living room, trying to see it with a stranger's eye.
Mom had moments of decorating inspiration that usually died before the project was finished. The last one, a romance with Danish modern, had brought a teak dining table, a wicker chair that looked like an egg and hung from a chain, and a Rya rug into our lives. The huge turquoise abstract painting along one wall dated from that period too. But Mom had, as usual, gotten bored, so they were all mixed together with my grandmother's drum table, an ornate breakfront, and some Japanese prints from an earlier, more conservative period.
Then there was the bathroom, my mother's greatest decorating feat. One day she had decided, on the spur of the moment, to install gold towels, a gold shower curtain, and a gold rug. They were no problem. But painting all the porcelain gold was a disaster; it almost immediately began peeling off the sink and it was years before any of us could take a bath without emerging slightly gilded.
My father found all of this slightly amusing. An intellectual who had escaped his wealthy German-Jewish family by coming to America in the twenties, he had absolutely no interest in things. He was a book designer who lived in a black-and-white world of paper and type; books were his only passion. He was kindly and detached and if he had known that people described him as elegant, he would have been shocked; clothes bored him enormously, when he noticed them at all.
"No," said Mom. I exhaled. "In the country. We have more room in Wilton. And we need to welcome Shelly into the family properly."
I pictured our small, shabby summer house in the woods. Wilton is only an hour from New York, but in 1960 it was still very rural. My parents had bought the land cheaply and designed the house themselves. Since they couldn't afford an architect, they had miscalculated a bit, and the downstairs bedrooms were very strangely shaped. Dad hardly knew how to hold a hammer, but to save money he had built the house himself with the aid of a carpenter. He was very proud of his handiwork, despite the drooping roof and awkward layout. He was even prouder of our long, rutted, meandering driveway. "I didn't want to cut down a single tree!" he said proudly when people asked why it was so crooked.
I loved the house, but I was slightly embarrassed by its unpainted wooden walls and unconventional character. "Why can't we have the party in a hotel?" I asked. In my mind's eye I saw Shelly's impeccable mother, who seemed to go to the beauty parlor every day and wore nothing but custom-made clothes. Next to her, Mom, a handsome woman who refused to dye her hair, rarely wore makeup, and had very colorful taste in clothes, looked almost bohemian. Shelly's mother wore an enormous diamond ring on her beautifully manicured finger; my mother didn't even wear a wedding band and her fingernails were short and haphazardly polished.
"Nonsense," said Mom. "It will be much nicer to have it at home. So much more intimate. I'd like them to see how we live, find out who we are."
"Great," I said under my breath to Jeanie. "That'll be the end of Bob's engagement. And a couple of the relatives might die, but who worries about little things like that?"
"Just make sure she doesn't serve steak tartare," said Jeanie, giggling.
Steak tartare was the bane of my existence: Dad always made it for parties. It was a performance. First he'd break an egg yolk into the mound of raw chopped steak, and then he'd begin folding minced onions and capers and Worcestershire sauce into the meat. He looked tall and suave as he mixed thoughtfully and then asked, his German accent very pronounced, for an assistant taster. Together they added a little more of this or that and then Dad carefully mounded the meat into a round, draped some anchovies across the top, and asked me to serve it.
My job was to spread the stuff onto slices of party pumpernickel and pass the tray. Unless I had bought the meat myself I tried not to let the people I liked best taste Dad's chef d'oeuvre. I knew that my mother bought prepackaged hamburger meat at the supermarket and that if there happened to be some half-price, day-old stuff she simply couldn't resist it. With our well-trained stomachs my father and I could take whatever Mom was dishing out, but for most people it was pure poison.
Just thinking about it made me nervous. "I've got to stop this party," I said.
"How?" asked Jeanie.
I didn't know. I had four months to figure it out.
My best hope was that my mother's mood would change before the party took place. That was not unrealistic; my mother's moods were erratic. But March turned into April and April into May and Mom was still buzzing around. The phone rang constantly and she was feeling great. She cut her gray hair very short and actually started wearing nail polish. She lost weight and bought a whole new wardrobe. Then she and Dad took a quick cruise to the Caribbean.
"We booked passage on a United Fruit freighter," she said to her friends, "so much more interesting than a conventional cruise." When asked about the revolutions that were then rocking the islands she had a standard response: "The bomb in the hotel lobby in Haiti made the trip much more interesting."
When they returned she threw herself into planning the party. I got up every morning and looked hopefully into the refrigerator. Things kept getting worse. Half a baby goat appeared. Next there was cactus fruit. But the morning I found the box of chocolate-covered grasshoppers I decided it was time to talk to Dad.
"The plans are getting more elaborate," I said ominously.
"Yes?" said Dad politely. Parties didn't much interest him.
"It's going to be a disaster," I announced.
"Your mother gives wonderful parties," my father said loyally. He was remarkably blind to my mother's failings, regularly announcing to the world that she was a great cook. I think he actually believed it. He beamed when someone mentioned my mother's "interesting dishes" and considered it a compliment when they said, "I've never tasted anything quite like that before." And, of course, he never got sick.
"Did you know that she's planning it as a benefit for Unicef ?" I asked.
"Really?" he said. "Isn't that nice." He had turned back to the editorials.
"Dad!" I said, trying to get him to see how embarrassing this could be. "She's sending notices to the newspapers. She's inviting an awful lot of people. This thing is getting out of control. It's only a month away and she has nothing planned."
"It'll all work out," Dad said vaguely, folding the newspaper into his briefcase. "Your mother is a very smart woman. She has a Ph.D." And then, as if there was no more to be said, he added, "I'm sure you'll be a big help."
It was hard to get mad at my father, who was as baffled by my mother's moods as I was, and just as helpless before them. They were like the weather: unpredictable, unavoidable, and often unpleasant. Dad, I think, enjoyed her energy, but then, he could always go to the office when he needed to escape. Which is what he did now. Disgusted, I called my brother.
Bob lived uptown in a fancy apartment and had as little to do with my parents as he could decently get away with.
"She's planning to make my engagement party a benefit?" he asked. "You mean she expects Shelly's family to pay to attend?" I hadn't quite considered that aspect, but I could see his point.
"I guess so," I said. "But that's not the part that worries me. Can you imagine Mom cooking for over a hundred people in the middle of summer? What if it's a really hot day?"
"Can't you get called away on business?" I asked. "What if you had a conference you had to go to? Wouldn't she have to call the whole thing off?"
Unfortunately my mother was not the least bit fazed when informed that my brother might not be in town. "The party's not for you," she said to Bob, "it's for Shelly's family. They'll come even if you're too rude not to make an appearance."
"But Mom," said Bob, "you can't ask them to buy tickets to the party."
"Why not?" asked Mom. "I think it's just disgusting the way people who have so much forget about those who are less fortunate. How could you possibly object to raising money for underprivileged children in honor of your marriage? I can't believe I have such a selfish, thoughtless son!" And Mom slammed down the phone.
She always managed to do that, always turned your arguments against you. And so there we were, 150 people invited to lunch on the lawn, a representative from Unicef and photographers promised from all the newspapers. In one of her more grandiose moments Mom wrote her old friend Bertrand Russell in Wales and asked him to come speak; fortunately he was nearing his ninetieth birthday and declined. But he did send a hundred copies of his most recent antiwar booklet, a sort of fairy tale printed on gold paper. It was called History of the World in Epitome (for use in Martian infant schools) and it was very short. The last page was a picture of a mushroom cloud.
"These will make wonderful favors!" said Mom smugly, pointing out that they were autographed. She was so pleased she sent out a few more invitations.
"What are you going to serve?" I asked.
"Do you have any ideas?" she replied.
"Yes," I said, "hire a caterer."
Mom laughed as if I had made a joke. But she was moved to call and rent some tables and folding chairs, so at least the guests wouldn't be sitting on the ground. I suggested that she hire someone to help cook and serve, but she didn't seem to think that was necessary. "We can do that ourselves," she said blithely. "Can't you get your friends to help?"
"No," I said, "I can't." But I did call Jeanie in the city and ask her to ask her parents if she could come out for the week; she thought my mother was "exciting" and I needed moral support.
As the party approached, things got worse and worse. Mom went on cleaning binges that left the house messier when she was done than when she started, and Jeanie and I went around behind her desperately stuffing things back into closets to create some semblance of order. Mom mowed half the lawn; we mowed the other half. Meanwhile my father, looking apologetic and unhappy, conveniently came up with a big project that kept him in the city.
One morning Mom went to a wholesale food company and came back honking her horn loudly, her car filled to the brim. Jeanie and I rushed out to unload fifty pounds of frozen chicken legs, ten pounds of frozen lump crabmeat, industrial-size cans of tomato and split-pea soup, twenty-five-pound sacks of rice, and two cases of canned, spiced peaches.
"This must be the menu," I said to Jeanie.
"What?" she asked.
"I bet she's going to make that awful quick soup she thinks is so great. You know, it's in all the magazines. You mix a can of tomato soup with a can of split pea soup, add a little sherry, and top it with crabmeat."
"Yuck," said Jeanie.
"Then I guess she's going to cook those millions of chicken legs on top of rice, although how she thinks she's going to cook them all in our little oven I don't know. And the canned spiced peaches can be the vegetable; they're easy because all you have to do is open the can and put them on the plates."
I was surprised (and relieved) when she ordered a giant cake from the local bakery. That left only the hors d'oeuvres; I wondered what she had up her sleeve.
The next day I found out. Jeanie and I were playing croquet, but we put down our mallets when Mom's horn started, and watched the car speed through the trees, leaving billows of dust in its wake. We ran out to see what she had dragged home.
"Horn & Hardart was having a sale!" Mom announced triumphantly, pointing to the boxes around her. They were filled with hundreds of small cartons. It looked promising. "It's almost like getting it catered," I said happily to Jeanie as we toted the boxes inside.
My happiness was short-lived; when I began opening the cartons I found that each contained something different.
"The Automat sells leftovers for almost nothing at the end of the day," said Mom, "so I just took everything they had." She was very pleased with herself.
"What are you going to do with it?" I asked.
"Why, serve it," she said.
"In what?" I asked.
"Big bowls," she said.
"But you don't have anything to put in big bowls," I pointed out. "All you have is hundreds of things to put in little bowls. Look," I began ripping the tops off the cartons, "this one is potato salad. This one is coleslaw. This one is cold macaroni and cheese. Here's a beet salad. Here's some sliced ham. Nothing matches!"
"Don't worry," said Mom, "I'm sure we can make something out of all of this. After all, everything in it is good."
"Yes," I muttered to Jeanie, "and by the time it gets served everything in it will be four days old. It will be a miracle if it's not moldy."
"I think it would be better if it was," said practical Jeanie. "If people see mold they won't eat it."
"Pray for rain," I said.
Unfortunately, when I woke up on the day of the party there was not a cloud in the sky. I pulled the covers over my head and went back to sleep. But not for long. "Nobody sleeps today," Mom announced, inexorably pulling back the covers. "It's party day!"
Some of the food had acquired a thin veneer of mold, but Mom blithely scraped it off and began mixing her terrible Horn & Hardart mush. "It's delicious!" she cried, holding out a spoonful. It wasn't. Fortunately it looked even worse than it tasted.
I thought the chicken legs were a little dubious too; in order to get them all cooked we had started two days earlier, and the refrigerator couldn't hold them all. But they glistened invitingly, and the oven-baked rice looked fine. We spooned the peaches into Mom's big glass bowls, and they looked beautiful.
I wasn't very happy about the soup. Mom had left the crabmeat out of the freezer to defrost for two days, and even she didn't like the way it was smelling. "I think I'll just add a little more sherry," she kept saying as she poured in bottles of the stuff.
"People will get drunk on the soup," I said.
"Fine," she said gaily, "then maybe they'll donate more to Unicef."
My brother arrived, took one look at the rickety chairs on our uneven lawn, and headed straight for the bar. Mom had hired some local high school boys to be bartenders, and they were pouring whiskey as if it were Coke.
"You've got to stay sober," I said to him. "You've got to make sure that nobody in Shelly's family eats the soup. And they should probably watch out for the chicken too."
Bob had another drink.
My memories of the party are mercifully blurred, but a yellowed clipping from the Norwalk Hour tells part of the story. My mother looks radiantly into the camera beneath a headline reading WILTON FAMILY HOSTS BENEFIT FOR UNICEF.
A family photograph of me handing a check to a grinning official in front of a sign that says SECURITY COUNCIL in both French and English tells another part of the tale.
But my brother owns the end of the story. Thirty-five years later his children can still make him turn green by asking, "Remember the time Nana Mimi poisoned everyone?"
"Ooh," he moans, "don't remind me. It was awful. First she extorted money from them. Then she gave out those antibomb favors; it was the early sixties, for Christ sake, and these were conservative businessmen and housewives. But the worse thing was the phone calls. They kept coming all night long. Nobody felt good. Twenty-six of them actually ended up in the hospital having their stomachs pumped. What a way to meet the family!"
I missed all that, but I do remember the phone ringing while we were still cleaning up. Mom was still exulting in the photographer's flashbulbs, and saying for what seemed like the forty-seventh time, "Look how much money we raised!" She picked up the receiver.
"Yes?" said Mom brightly. I think she expected it to be another reporter. Then her voice drooped with disappointment.
'Who doesn't feel well?"
There was a long silence. Mom ran her hand through her chic, short coiffure. "Really?" she said, sounding shocked. "All of them?" She slumped a little as her bright red fingernails went from her hair to her mouth. Then her back straightened and her head shot up.
"Nonsense," I heard her say into the phone. "We all feel fine. And we ate everything."
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