Tuesday, June 1, 2010

My Mother's Table

My mother, for all her efforts to become a good cook, rarely serves up a meal without a side of apology.
"I'm worried this might be a little overdone," she'll say, plunking down plates of puckered chicken before us. "And I didn't quite get to these green beans in time but they should still be OK," she'll add, spooning out vegetables no decorated EMT could resuscitate.
Ketchup is often offered as triage.
So is salt, the "seasoning" of choice in her kitchen.
If things are really dire, she'll microwave a can of mushroom soup and slosh it over the top of whatever cut of meat needs help.
Her best strategy remains distraction, which is where the leprechauns come in.
My mother's table scapes are legendary. This is why, in part, her dinners remain extraordinary culinary events and a hot ticket any time during the holidays.
Sit down at one of her tables and you feel like you're in Disney World.
Depending upon the season, there are dozens of artfully arranged Easter bunnies, cupids, Santas, birthday hats, or ceramic rainbow sculptures lofted at differing heights atop boxes draped in antique lace and textured cloths. I've even seen her tastefully combine plastic flip flops, Styrofoam sun visors and multicolored bandannas in a centerpiece caterers at The Plaza would commend.
But that's just the beginning.
The placecards--and there are always placecards--are not simply small signs denoting your seat. Often, they hold clues about the life of the guest, which is essential, she believes, to the ice-breaker phase of a dinner.
At her events, you might be seated next to "World-Class Litigator," or "Museum Docent" or "Airplane Connoisseur." Even small guests get provocative cards like "Amusement Park Designer."
Sometimes, guests are given a part they're supposed to play.
One Christmas, my mother did a Texas theme and we were all given nicknames: We enjoyed the company of "Tall Richard," "Kitty Jo," "Jim Bob," "Big John," and "Little Jewel."
These monikers were extended to our stockings, which also were marked with the aforementioned names and hung on the backs of our dining room chairs.
There is silver, too, lots and lots of silver sprinkled between crystal goblets and linen napkins adorned with thematic napkin rings.
My six-year-old daughter Elizabeth always checks the silver sugar bowl to see if Memaw is serving white or brown sugar. She likes to clink the tiny tea spoon aside the bowl with a pinkie raised. While some grandmothers would flinch at the mere thought of young children nearing their pretties, my mother encourages use so that kids can learn early on to appreciate them.
"They're antiques," she'll say. "They've been through generations of kids and have held up just fine."
This is often a launching point for stories of people past and present.
You see, the real entree at my mother's table is not the roast but the conversation.
She knows something about everyone and makes connections for and between her guests, engaging them in ways few others could. My mother is fundamentally curious and asks curious questions. She mixes in ideas big and small, massaging the dialogue like a baker massages dough until the dinner becomes a party and the party evolves into a night to remember.
"Good God," she'll say after an evening, "Your father and I were up late again! The Smyths were at the dinner table until 2 a.m.!"
Of course they were.
My mother's meals are more nourishing than those served by five-star chefs in world-renowned restaurants. That's because she never fails to make her guests feel special, funny, smart, comforted and, well, full--even if you were noshing on that weird green Jell-o salad she serves in spring.
My mother's birthday was June 1 and for the occasion, I bought a clutch of ceramic pink flamingos. I set my table with pink polka dot plates then sprinkled dyed pink feathers throughout my table scape.
The food was a downright disater: The menu included stringy Hawaiian chicken and a birthday cake topped with crystallized icing so sweet it made dentists up in Oklahoma shiver.
"Ohh, this is delightful!" my mother cooed as she ate a forkful. "So, William, I hear that your tables were turned upside down in kindergarten today. What was that all about?"

No comments: