Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Cake Knife

Happy belated Mother's Day.

My children have finally begun to leave the proverbial nest and I was feeling a bit sentimental this year, which is unusual for me.

I have been thinking a lot about my own mother whom I haven't seen in a very long time.

She was a kooky gal and they never made Mother's Day cards to fit her.

I could go on telling you about my mother, but there's no use doing that, because you already know my mother.

My mother is the amalgamation of almost every single character the actress Shirley Maclaine has ever played.


Terms Of Endearment
That opening scene where Aurora climbs into the crib, pinches the baby to make certain it's breathing then, reassured, walks away. My mother. In fact, every single scene, including that final screaming at the nurses, totally my mother.

Postcards From The Edge
My mother was not an alcoholic, but I am certain that Shirley must have been channeling her during the filming of this movie. The resemblance is uncanny. That pivotal scene where she "twirls" her skirt, so my mother.

Steel Magnolias
Dear cranky, crabby, dog-loving Weezer, the embodiment of my mother. The author who wrote, I'm not crazy, I've just been in a very bad mood for forty years, most certainly must have known my mother.

Now take all these characters and add in some real life Shirley along with a few UFOs and some ghosts, and you've pretty much got my mother to a tee. With her there was never a dull moment. But the thing that makes me most sad is how hard my mother tried at being normal, but normalcy, somehow, eluded her. I'll never forget the dinner party mother threw back in the seventies.

On a whim, she invited a co-worker and her co-workers husband over for dinner one evening. Now, to most people, dinner with a couple of friends on a nice summer's eve is no big deal. Tidy up the house, throw some burgers on ... it isn't rocket science. But for my mother, rocket science would have been easier. Small, domestic chores annoyed her. She was a registered nurse working ICU and ER most of her life, and somehow this profession had instilled in her zero tolerance and very little patience for mundane, day-to-day activities. Our home was an eternal mess and most weeks grocery shopping and cooking were afterthoughts. Thus leaving my younger brother and sister and I scrounging on raw macaroni and giant gobs of peanut butter straight from the jar as after school snacks.

As a homemaker and decorator, mother always felt woefully inadequate. Yet with this looming dinner party, she became eager to clean up the place and try to impress her new so-called friends. So after much fussing and fretting, we all began the arduous task of readying the house for honored guests. Which meant that by the time the illustrious guests arrived, mother had made our lives and virtually anyone elses who'd dared cross her path, completely and utterly miserable.

Now most people, on the day of a dinner party, tend to last minute details like cooking, setting the table and tidying up. Not my mother. She had delusions of grandeur and tried to throw an entire years worth of housekeeping and interior decorating into a single day. We shampooed carpets, moved pictures, rearranged furniture, washed windows, ironed curtains, dusted, cleaned, and otherwise hid the junk. We unfortunately had become so caught up in the cleaning process that cooking and dinner itself had become an afterthought. No bother. Mother was intent on having this party and she was going to cook, entertain and be her version of a traditional nineteen-fifties housewife and no amount of stress, turmoil or torture was going to deter her goddammit!

Next came the staging. For reasons I will never fully understand, mother sorely wanted to impress these people, so the house had to be perfect. Which meant in her mind conveying the illusion of a casual mess, of intelligent, domestic artists living in a nineteen-seventies farmhouse with a garden and jars of jam cheerfully awaiting in the cupboard. This was so unlike our home. So after a manic cleaning spree, mother ordered me to drag my plastic portable Singer sewing machine down from the closet and place it conspicuously on the table in the den, along with an art book and her Merck Manual. (What that had to do with anything, I'll never know.) Then mother strategically placed potted plants and more books around the house while I scoured the kitchen for a set of matching, un-chipped dinner plates.

By the end of the day, we were exhausted. But for a moment, all seemed well. The house was shaping up and dinner was coming together. This party just may be a success afterall, I thought to myself. But mother was an irascible woman, and the longer she prepared for said dinner party and honored guests, the more she began to resent them. "How dare they come to my home and make me do all this work" she muttered while peeling potatoes. It was going to be a bumpy night.

Dinner consisted of pot roast, carrots and potatoes haphazardly cooked in a dented metal cake pan along with an iceberg lettuce salad with Ott's French dressing, canned vegetables, store bought rolls, and the guest was bringing dessert.

Beyond this, I recall little about the evening. I left soon after the guests arrived. I could not bear to stay and watch my mother, a person more inclined to conversations on matters of life and death, make small talk. It exhausted her. My role this evening had been strictly service. I had cooked, cleaned, thrown her a lifeboat, now it was up to her to row herself in.

There was one particular thing about the evening I do recall, however. Minute in detail, but enormous in scope.

Just as the sun slipped behind the sprawling elms and cast it's shadowy tendrils across the lawn, a perfectly coiffed, unwearied guest teetered out a white Ford sedan and presented my mother with a towering vanilla cake. Along with the cake, she had had the forethought to bring (dum-ta-dum!) a cake knife.

Now, a cake knife is a benign thing. A trivial little piece of kitchen arsenal with no inherent value. But in my mother's post-nineteen-fifties world, this had become heavy artillery. This was big time. This lady owned a cake knife. This meant organized, responsible, an outfitted kitchen. We, on the other hand, were just a bunch of hacks. I remember it well: serrated, fake ivory handle, elegant but efficient. Even at the tender age of seventeen, I coveted this knife. To my mother, it represented all that she had failed to live up to in her dolefully inadequate life. My mother's kitchen had been filled with odds and ends, mismatched utensils, melted Tupperware lids, rusty cheese graters and dented dime store pans. It had never occurred to her to purchase something so extravagant as a cake knife. So when this wide-eyed, gullible, cake knife wielding guest stepped out of her car and up onto my mother's porch one fateful summer's eve,  I looked into my mothers eyes and saw defeat. This blatant, ordinary kitchen utensil had became a source of reflection upon all which was missing and all that had gone wrong in her sad domestic life. I knew instantly that the party was over and there was nothing left to do but carry on with the show. Mother never threw another party after that evening. And it was a long time before we had cake in our house again.

On a brighter note, Mother loved a good salad. And in the summertime we feasted on fresh vegetables from my grandparents garden.

If I could, I would go back in time and prepare this salad for my mother's dinner party. I found the Romaine, green onions, and even the cherry tomatoes at the farmers market today.

To satisfy the men in my life, I topped it with pan fried chicken strips, homemade croutons, and a local Colby-jack cheese.

This salad dressing is a winner. I like to make it in a Mason jar and store it in the refrigerator.
You may have noticed the spice container in the photo: Target's Simply Organic dried basil.

I know, I've committed a mortal sin. But I went to three different stores today, all of which were out of fresh basil. And I felt this was a vital component to the recipe, so I substituted. And, well, it wasn't bad. So, in a pinch, do what you gotta do.

Icebox Buttermilk Dressing
adapted from Art Smith's Back To The Table
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup mayo
1/4 cup buttermilk
1 tablespoon grainy mustard
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon chopped rinsed capers
1 tablespoon minced shallot
1 teaspoon chopped fresh oregano
1 teaspoon chopped fresh basil (or 1/2 teaspoon dried basil)
1/2 teaspoon sugar
Salt and hot red pepper sauce, to taste
Place all ingredients in a jar and shake well to blend. (Keeps about a week in the fridge.)