When I was growing up, my mother was a force majeure at the dinner table and nowhere was that more evident than at Thanksgiving. She created a huge meal for the immediate family, supplemented by people pulled in from the highways and byways, members of the church, and occasionally, some of my father’s cousins. She did the turkey-stuffing-mashed potatoes- gravy as well as green salad, fruit salad, and an assortment of vegetables–way more than anyone would want given that they had been taken out of their freezer bags, boiled to death and served without butter. Since this was the 60’s, there was always a relish tray of canned black olives and sweet pickles, a roll of canned cranberry sauce, and a dish of butter. We could have buttered the bland vegetables but we didn’t know that would help them. Although she always allowed guests to bring pies, she had always baked several of her own: pumpkin, mincemeat, and apple.
Every important meal in our house featured crescent-shaped refrigerator rolls, which you will hear more about shortly; and celery almondine which I dis-liked as a child, except for the almonds, but which I came to love as an adult. She sautéd the onions and almonds and kept them warm in an electric frying pan on the floor of her bedroom until she was ready to add the celery and finish the dish.
I always had to set the table.
“Elena, would you please set the table? I’m in here trying to finish this dinner and the rolls are ruined and it’s the least you could do since you are younger than me and you kids could help out once in a while my goodness I do everything for you and you have it so easy and people will be coming in half an hour.”
The refrigerator rolls– which were never ruined– had been rising in a cool room since the day before and they smelled yeasty and sweet. They were fabulous, always my favorite part of any meal. My mother baked them in the hour before the meal began and they were warm when I bit into them.
More than once, they were served in the middle of a meal. The serving dishes had made a few go rounds, my mother stationed in the martyr’s chair closest to the kitchen, barely touching her bottom to the seat as she supervised first the serving, then the actual progress of food moving from plates to mouths. She watched people’s mouths chewing her food and assessed their expressions.
“How is everything?”
“Oh, just wonderful, Mary!”
“Elena, what can I pass you?”
“Why are you being so polite to me all of a sudden?”
“Why is no one eating the beans? Chuck, have some beans.”
“Mary, will you sit down. I don’t have room on my plate.
The moment came when having exhausted her immediate supervisory duties, my mother scraped back her chair with a huge gasp before bellowing, “OH NO, I FORGOT THE ROLLS!” and ran to the kitchen, knocking over a bowl of something in the process. Forks paused in mid-air. Conversation stopped while we all listened (in mortification, speaking for myself) to her yank open the oven door, scream when she burned herself, run water, bump into the open silverware drawer, and carry on a loud monologue of whatever she thought might fill the inexplicable –to her– lull in the conversation in the dining room. She emerged a few minutes later, still talking loudly, with a cloth covered basket which she shoved at the guest seated to the right of the martyr’s chair.
“Here are the rolls, they aren’t the best but they’re still pretty good if I do say so, I’ve been working on them for two days, I left the burnt ones in the kitchen, Chuck and the kids can eat them later.”
My mother died three years ago today at the age of 89. I still occasionally make her celery almondine. And I think of her when I’m the one in the martyr’s chair.