I don’t come from a family that prizes culinary talent. A while back I read an article about the emergence of Irish cuisine and I thought, there’s an oxymoron for you.
My fondest memory of Christmas dinners when I was growing up are the cut glass dishes filled with olives, peanuts, and smoked oysters. Often that’s all we had; as the adults we’re usually knee-deep in Manhattans in the living room. I shared this story with George before I introduced him to my family’s holiday traditions a few years ago. He was shocked. He is Italian. He is from New Orleans. For him, olives are an anti-pasta, not a main course. He asked, “Didn’t they serve dinner?” and I said, “Trust me, the olives were a step up.” He asked if we weren’t all starving and I said no, my dad usually made stacks of pancakes on Thanksgiving morning to sustain us.
George and I were together for several years before he actually participated in one of our family dinners. I felt I should prepare him. I said, “This may be a bit of a transition for you. We don’t, uh, do things the way your family does.” He said, “How bad can it be? I know you’re no longer feasting on olives.”
I lost my nerve. I lied.
I said, “Well, for one, we all share the cooking at these events.” George was down with that, as he wanted to participate. He rifled through cookbooks, planning exotic, piquant dishes he could bring. I stopped him before he could get his hopes up and said, “My aunt will be handing out the cooking assignments.” He was a little disgruntled but I pointed out that, with twenty-five to thirty people at the table, there needed to be some coordination and he conceded the point.
We scored the string bean casserole.
Yup, the Betty Crocker Classic—mushroom soup and dried onion rings. Naturally, George would have none of this. He used Portobello mushrooms sautéed in white wine and deep-fried some onions (in home made batter) for the garnish. I was worried.
When we arrived at my aunt’s George proceeded to charm the pants off everyone. The he said the fateful words, “I’ll go check on things in the kitchen.” I tried to head him off. I said, “George you don’t need to own the process tonight. Have a drink—try the hors d’oeuvres, they’re a family tradition.” These hors d’oeuvres have been passed down from my Aunt Peg who was a glamorous career gal in California and Mexico. They consist of Ritz crackers spread with peanut butter, a dash of ketchup, and a soupcon of horseradish. They’re delicious, I swear. George looked horrified and left the room.
I hit the bar.
George came out of the kitchen a minute later; he was apoplectic. He said, “They dumped my string beans into someone else’s mushroom soup-frozen string bean thing! It’s all mixed together!” I said, “You should have had a Ritz hors d’oeuvre.”
Undeterred, he went back into the kitchen. I followed him, just in time to hear him ask my aunt if he could help with the turkey. She ate that accent up with a spoon and said yes. George pulled the turkey out of the oven and frowned.
He said to my aunt, “This bird is rawer than a baby’s ass with diaper rash!” Perhaps an exaggeration but certainly colorful.
My formidable godmother did not appreciate the simile. She said, “No. It isn’t.” You need to understand my aunt: she can alter reality just by her perception of it, but George didn’t know that. He said, “I’m telling you, this turkey could be up peckin’ around your backyard.” There was silence in the kitchen. I cleared my throat and said, “George, can I speak with you a moment?” and dragged him out of there by his collar.
I sat him down on a chair in the hall to deliver the news. I said, “I have to level with you. I’ve never eaten a completely cooked turkey at a family dinner – they’re always slightly raw!” And George, perplexed, asked, “How does anyone eat it?” and I said, “We don’t. We eat olives and Ritz crackers with horseradish and ketchup. They go well with the string bean casserole and a lot of wine.” He looked pained.
We stopped at Popeye’s Chicken on the way home.
The following Thanksgiving George let me handle the string bean casserole. The year after that he made a huge stack of pancakes for Wally and the Snapper for breakfast. Last year he cooked a turkey before we went to my aunt’s so the boys would actually be able to participate in the American tradition of eating turkey on Thanksgiving. I was proud of the way he acclimated.
So the other night my aunt called with this year’s assignments, just as George was walking in the door. I said, “Guess what? We scored appetizers” and George turned and walked back out. I followed him to the car and said, “Where are you going?” and he said, “To get the Manhattans.”
I think his transition is complete.