In our Upper Peninsula home, in the 50’s, mashed potatoes, meat and gravy was the normal daily fare. Our meals were designed around Dad’s desire for hot, hearty food and revolved around his weekly rotating underground shift work in the Hiawatha Mine.
Mom, a confident cook, turned out roaster, after roaster, of mouthwatering pork, beef and chicken, homemade bread and vegetables a la made-from-scratch, buttered cream sauce—without blinking an eye. Planning, preparing and presenting a full-course dinner seven days a week for a family of eight, was a piece of cake.
However, when every few months it was Mom’s turn to serve up something for her Ladies’ Club luncheon, the seasoned kitchen veteran went into spasms of concern.
“I’ve got to think of something special,” Mom stewed. “Last time we were at Cele’s house, she served the most beautiful green molded gelatin salad you’ve ever seen.”
“Moldy salad? Green?” It didn’t sound like anything I wanted to eat. “What did she put in it?”
“Raisins, grated carrots and celery mixed with cottage cheese, pineapple and walnuts,” Mom answered.
“You couldn’t pay me to eat that.” I gagged for effect. At fourteen, I often wondered how Mom and her friends managed to spoon down some of the stuff of which their more unusual surprises were created. Leftovers from the Ladies' Club luncheon did not strike longing in my heart.
“Oh it was just delicious!” Mom exclaimed.
“It sounds as bad as that Walrus salad you served last time. You know, the one with chopped apples drenched in mayo. At least if you’d pared the peels off the apples before serving, it wouldn’t have been so bad,” I teased.
“Waldorf salad,” Mom corrected. “And there was a little mayonnaise in it, but it wasn’t drenched.”
“Why don’t you make something that tastes good? Like chicken salad?” I asked, thinking how tasty it would be to have leftover treats to munch on.
“Too common,” Mom said. “I’ve got to come up with something special.” Mom picked up the current issue of Woman’s Day Magazine and started leafing through.
“It’s common because it tastes good—”
“Oh, look at this!” She cut me off. “I think I may have found just the thing.” She flashed the magazine at me, pointing to a colored picture of a plateful of pretty petite white sandwiches that had been formed—somehow—into jellyroll slices. They actually looked tasty.
“Minced ham,” Mom began reading, “with chopped green olives and crushed pecans. Mix in a tablespoon of mayonnaise. Serve with fresh cottage cheese and green grapes. I think a touch of paprika would be nice, too, to add some color.”
“Not on the grapes, I hope.” We both laughed. “They do look pretty and tasty, but how in the world do you get them to look like jelly roll slices?” I was baffled.
“It’ll take a little work,” Mom said.
The day before the luncheon, my sister Connie and I were recruited to help clean the house. Cleaning for the family and cleaning for the Ladies’ Club were two entirely different things. Where we would have leisurely dusted the furniture, swept the floor and done the dishes, we, instead, attacked the floors, walls and counters with gritty cleanser, water and elbow grease.
“When can we quit?” Connie and I grumbled.
“When you can eat off the floor,” Mom replied. It was her standard reply and I found it difficult not to envision the ladies from her club eating their lunch off of our kitchen floor.
Mom monitored every corner and, if a speck of anything had been left behind, we were called to repeat the process. When, at last, we finished several hours later, the rooms had been polished, primped and practically sterilized enough to pass inspection in a hospital.
Only then was it time to prepare the mystery sandwiches. I figured that Houdini, himself, was probably the only one who could figure out how they went together. But I was wrong. Mom, armed with her Woman’s Day issue at hand, had already unraveled the puzzle.
When Mom came home from Roberg’s bakery the day before with three unsliced loaves of bread, I thought she was getting a little carried away. Surely there would be more sandwiches than even eight eager ladies could eat, but I think now Mom may have had a premonition that she should prepare for the worst.
And the worst was about to happen. Mom grabbed the first loaf of bread and, with her trusty serrated knife, trimmed away the crusts on all six sides.
“These have got to be paper-thin,” she said more to herself than to us. She laid the loaf on its side and began to cut it into lengthwise layers, but the knife kept slipping through to the surface of the counter, making the bread tear before she could cut a complete layer. The entire loaf ended up in shreds, not slices.
“I’ll have to make these layers thicker,” Mom mumbled, cutting away the crusts and making deep cuts into the second lengthwise loaf. But it was soon obvious that she had overcompensated. The layers were far to thick to roll into petite rounds.
Mom was sweating bullets by this time. The clock was winding down, the luncheon ladies would soon descend upon her domicile and it looked like the food would not be fit to serve. This called for nothing short of a miracle. My sister and I held our breath. What was she going to do?
With the cold calculating eye of an eagle, the sure swift hand of a surgeon and the sheer determination of a woman bent on success, Mom grasped her knife and slowly, but surely, sliced the final loaf into perfectly measured layers.
With a last anxious look at the clock, she grabbed the meat mixture, spread it evenly over each layer and wound each into a roll. Taking a deep breath, she sliced each roll cross-wise into tiny round sandwiches that looked just like the Woman’s Day photo.
“Spread eight plates with lettuce leaves,” she ordered. “Use the ice cream scoop and put a ball of cottage cheese on the lettuce. Place two sandwiches on each plate and put some of those fresh green grapes alongside.” She was breathing hard.
“What about the paprika?” Connie asked.
“Right! Sprinkle a little paprika on each of the cottage cheese balls! I’ve got to hurry,” she called from the dining room already on her way to the bedroom to change.
“I think we’re out of paprika!” I called. “I can’t find it anywhere!”
“What?” Mom rushed back into the kitchen.
“No paprika!” Connie confirmed.
“Oh no, I don’t have time for this!” Mom groaned. “Look in the cabinet again!”
“No, there’s none there!” I was getting as worked up as Mom.
“All that work and the plates just won’t look pretty and tasty without a touch of color. Red! We need something red!” Mom said, pushing us aside so she could look in the cabinets herself.
“I don’t think we have anything red!” Connie said.
“Here! I forgot all about these! Maraschino cherries!” She held up the jar. “Unopened!”
“Left from Christmas!” I exclaimed. The miracle worker had done it again!
“Stick one of these cherries in each of the cottage cheese balls…I’ve got to get dressed!” she called out as she escaped the kitchen.
Connie and I slung cottage cheese, cherries, and sandwiches on lettuce, put some grapes on the side and placed the plates on the card tables in the dining room. Then we cleared all the evidence of the earlier errors from the kitchen counters.
When, a few minutes later, the white-gloved group arrived, I was certain they’d head right to the corners of our house to check for dust, but they didn’t. They were too busy oohing and aahing over the picture perfect luncheon Mom had created.
Mom, looking cool as a cucumber, entered smiling. Connie and I were smiling, too. We were thinking of all those shredded slices of bread, the leftover ham spread and cottage cheese—and the Christmas cherries—we’d be picnicking on for the next several days. Ladies’ Club leftovers had never been like this before.
(A chapter from A Tree Grows in Trout Creek)