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Camilla’s Thanksgiving Nightmare

With America’s favorite holiday approaching, I’m mapping out my days carefully, planning a party the last day of the weekend and pondering what to bring to my son’s house for our family Thanksgiving with a cast of sixteen. As I perused Brussel sprouts, nestling like tiny cabbages in their display stand at the supermarket, I thought back to writing Lipstick on the Strawberry. The Thanksgiving scene in the book shows my catering heroine, Camilla, having a very bad day. She saves it by a flash of ingenuity. Here’s the scene, below: I hope your Thanksgiving is much, much better!

I went into the kitchen and turned on the oven. A light went on satisfactorily, and I pulled the turkey out of its carrier and into a metal pan. I just glanced at the oven after turning it on, and looking at my watch, started bustling. It’s all about the timing, I always told my staff, and now Mrs. Reilly’s pressure to get the meal on the table earlier than I’d planned had set our plans askew.
“Paige, can you prepare a bed of ice for the oysters and slice this lemon and rim the tray
with parsley?”
I put the pies on the counter, pecan, blueberry, apple and pumpkin. I checked the oven temperature. Lukewarm. My heart started to race. Surely it would heat up soon. I hoisted the heavy pan to slide it in the oven. The bird’s breast bone stuck halfway in. I pulled out the bottom rack and moved down the middle rack as far as it would go. The turkey still would not fit.
My blood pressure rose. Mindy had come to visit the client. This order had come in while I was away. Surely this was the most basic information she should have noted. Small oven. Will not fit twenty-five pound turkey!
Mrs. Reilly poked her head around the door. “Are we nearly ready?”
“We’re getting there.” No point in blaming the client for this lapse. It was the caterer’s responsibility to make sure all the bits and pieces were in place.
“We’ll serve the oysters first, of course. Would you mind if we plate the main course from the kitchen?”
“I really wanted to serve it family style. Sort of you know, like I cooked it.”
“Uh huh.” I hated this type of client, the sort who pretended they made the food that someone else had slaved over. “Well, we could bring the turkey in on its platter and everyone can have a good look. But really, Mrs. Reilly, the turkey is difficult to carve at the table and it is easier and more elegant to serve everything on its plate from here. Paige can bring the plates out,” I said. I lifted a pot, exaggerating its heaviness. “Very few Thanksgiving tables, I find, are large enough to carry eighteen place settings and the serving dishes. Let us serve from here, please.”

“I’ll have to bring the china into the kitchen.” Mrs. Reilly’s brown bodice heaved. “The table won’t look so pretty!” With a huff, she left the kitchen.
“God.” Paige looked terrified.
“Don’t worry. Just start shucking the oysters now. Sorry, I know I said I’d do it, but I have to manage this disaster with the turkey.”
“How are we going to give them turkey that’s not cooked through? They’ll get salmonella.”
“Nonsense! It is cooked, but it’s not hot. We can fix that. First we’ll show off the turkey like she wants, then carve it in here. Heat up some broth, then we’ll put in a bay leaf and some thyme, and simmer the cut slices and the legs so they get nice and juicy and warm.” I opened a can of chicken broth as I talked. “We’ll pop the potatoes and squash and stuffing in the microwave, cook the beans on the stove top, and toss the Brussels sprouts in their sauce on top of
the stove. All you have to do is –oh Lord!”
Paige had dropped the oyster tray. Pinky gray crustaceans slid over the wooden floor. Ice formed puddles around them and parsley skidded under the sink.
“I didn’t see that. Quick!” I ran cold water in the sink and pulled open a cabinet to get a colander. “The three second rule. They should be okay. Just rinse and rinse again. And again.” I bent and picked up the few that had landed on their tummies, so to speak. “I think these would be fine, see how the shell’s curve stopped the actual oyster from contacting with the floor.”
For a moment, I stood there, hatred of wastage battling with my reputation.
“No. Throw those ones out. We’ll just use the others. Put extra parsley on the plate so we
can put fewer oysters on each one.”
While Paige mopped the floor, I cut up more parsley, and the refrigerator’s icemaker ground out another pound of cubes. I nestled them around the oysters. “Now. Let’s get the sauce on the side of each plate, put three of these babies on each one, and you take them in, nice and easy. Look calm. Don’t say a word.”
I stopped, a parsley stalk in hand. The compulsively honest Paige would likely apologize publicly to the hostess. I grabbed the platter. “No. I’ll do it. Let’s get the gravy going, then take it off the stove. Line all the veggie dishes up so we can microwave and cook everything in order.
Remember the order – potatoes and squash and stuffing in the microwave, heat the water for the beans, get the simmer broth on for the turkey which I’ll carve just as soon as we’ve shown it to the owner – God, it’s not brown enough!”
Deep breaths. “I wish Hannah were here – she’d put shoe polish on it or something! Just joking. What can we use? Can you look in the pantry – there might be some soy sauce in there?
Maybe some molasses or honey?”
“Soy sauce?”
“Yes, it gives a nice brown sheen. Probably adds a nice taste, too, to the turkey.”
Paige frowned doubtfully as she sidled into the pantry. In a minute or two she emerged, brandishing a bottle of soy sauce.
“While I’m doing the oysters, could you run out to the car and grab my hair dryer – I’ve got an idea.” I picked up the oyster plates and laid them across my arm.

A babble of voices rose from the dining room, Laughter tinkled and glasses clinked as I walked in. Mr. Reilly went from diner to diner pouring wine. His voice was loud, and he seemed a little unsteady on his feet. By the time I finished serving the oysters, he was back at his place, wine bottle in hand, and sliding into his seat, almost lost his balance. He caught me by the waist to steady himself and said, “Ah, oysters, food of the gods. Served by a goddess.”
I felt one beefy hand squeezing my middle while the other reached under the table, under my skirt, to caress my thigh. His hand was warm and aggressive, rising higher. I recoiled. No one appeared to notice, except Mrs. O’Reilly. She glared across the table with furious dark eyes.
“I hope you enjoy the oysters,” I said, and pulled away. The tablecloth in front of Archer Reilly started to pull with me. The Coalport china and the Georg Jensen silverware teetered. I pushed my assailant on the shoulder, trying to get my own balance, and his red face veered dangerously close to the table. The hand fell away from my leg. I flicked his wobbling glass upright and, with as much dignity as I could, walked back to the kitchen.
Trembling, I stood at the sink, pushed my hair back away from my face, and took a long glass of water. The groping made me feel utterly humiliated. Archer Reilly had treated me like a thing. A maid, a sexual object. Not that men hadn’t tried it on with me when I was younger. But this was in public, in front of his wife, and I was not a lowly employee. I was a business owner, the daughter of people who took it for granted that they, too, would be waited on at table, the ex- wife – here I bowed my head into the sink – of a Harvard professor!
I sensed Paige’s alarm. Turning, I saw the hair dryer in my assistant’s hands. I took it from her and placed it next to the turkey.
“How are the veggies coming along? Is the oven behaving itself yet?” My voice quavered. I opened the oven door, and waved a hand inside. Still lukewarm.
The pies sat thawing on the counter, little beads of moisture twinkling on their surface.
They were not ready to serve at all.
“We’ll just have to put them in this pathetic oven and have them heat up, slowly. They might be all right. If we microwave them, they’ll get soggy crusts. At the end of the day, that might not matter. Judging by how these people are going with the wine, they probably wouldn’t notice.”
“Maybe you should go in there again and serve more wine!”
“I think Mr. Reilly’s doing that. They didn’t ask for bar help or a wine server. We’ve got enough to do in this kitchen. These dishes are all going to have to be hand-washed; the best china and all, too valuable for the dishwasher.”
“I can wash the oyster dishes while they eat the main course.”
“Good girl. Now, we’re on a schedule here. Give me the hair dryer.”
“You wouldn’t.”
“I would. I am.” I plugged in the hair dryer and blew hot air over the turkey, sealing the soy sauce, which I had mixed with honey, onto it. We lifted the bird onto its platter, sprinkled parsley around it, and carried it into the dining room. The guests clapped, and Mrs. Reilly, not looking at her husband, raised a toast.

Wilding – Returning Nature to our Farm

By Isabella Tree
The New York Review of Books, 2018

North America has lost a third of its bird population in the last half century, we learned in a recent news report.

So it is with other parts of the world, too. Isabella Tree has written a fascinating and beautifully written book about her corner of the world, a 3,500 acre estate in Sussex, England, a place which had been farmed for centuries until costs outran income and Isabella and her husband Charlie Burrell could no long afford that way of life. All the equipment, pesticides, and herbicides they needed to farm the difficult clay soil had them deeply in debt.

In a radical move, they let the place run wild.

And the birds came back. And the butterflies, the worms, numerous insects, and a riotous resurgence of plants, trees, and scrub.

It all began in 1999 when a tree expert diagnosed the reason their ancient oaks were dying. The soil had been compacted when underground earthworms and mychorrhizae were destroyed by the action of tractors and the elimination of wildlife. Twenty years later, their estate is teeming with life, visible and invisible, and the Burrells have reintroduced to the land red, roe and fallow deer, Old English Longhorn cattle, Exmoor ponies, and Tamworth pigs. The couple now run safari tours of their land, and sell the organically raised meat of their cattle, making more money than they ever did as farmers.

Making money is not entirely the point, Tree emphasizes. But the need to survive financially drove the decision to rewild their estate. The miraculous regeneration of the land through letting nature take its course has astonished them as it has others. While some of their neighbors complain about the untidiness of their once neatly hedged farm, the Burrells revel in its rampant sexuality. That’s a big theme when animals and insects are closely observed. Who knew a purple emperor mating display could be so riveting? Tree’s gorgeous writing keeps the reader glued to the page.

This is an important book, and a hopeful one. The degradation of the planet through monoculture, through the use of artificial fertilizers and heavy equipment has taken place over the last hundred years. But in only twenty years, Isabella Tree and Charlie Burrell have reversed the course in the land they own. It’s a lesson for everyone.

At the Far End of Nowhere

By Christine Davis Merriman

Green Writers Press, 2018

Sometimes you start a book, can’t put it down, and then, after you’ve let it sit a while, the questions it raises keep you up at night.

Such a book is Christine Davis Merriman’s debut novel. It is a quiet book, a story of an American family in the middle of the twentieth century. It is an unusual  family, in that the father is 72 years old when his daughter Lissa, the first person protagonist, is born. What radiates from this book is the love between father and daughter, and the security provided by parents who work together as a team to bring up their two children. There is little drama in this book, and yet by the time she is twenty-two, when the book ends, Lissa has gone through experiences that don’t happen for many people until they are much older; that is, shouldering the responsibility for care of parents and household.

The question this book raised for me is, what is good parenting? Was Lissa’s elderly father selfish in insisting his daughter give up a chance for college to look after him? Is it a kind of selfishness to delay fatherhood until one is in the eighth decade of life? Was it a help or a hindrance to Lissa that her father kept her more or less sequestered – able to win a local beauty contest yet scarcely allowed to date?

This is a novel about America at the dawning of the digital age, a place and time that could give a bright young man without a college degree an excellent job. It reminds us too, of the social turmoil of the nineteen sixties and seventies; the disaster of the Vietnam War affecting all aspects of life. When Lissa attends USO dances, the only social activity her father permits, the fading, dusty, nineteen-forties décor of the club symbolizes the fracture of a country going to war for reasons that no longer made sense.

Throughout this lyrically written novel I felt a sense of danger always kept at bay, just barely, by the love of the family members for one another. The love was all- encompassing, secure, yet isolating in the extreme. The story becomes heartbreaking when the mother, Jimmie, dies young. Lissa’s sense of disorientation, of not knowing how to become a young woman without a mother’s guidance, is poignantly told. In addition, with Jimmie’s death the family’s main source of income and outside relationships dries up. Again, I asked the question, what makes good parenting? Family live nearby. It is an era when neighbors and friends were supposed to pitch in, and this conservative family certainly took no government help. But the children’s father makes no effort to involve anyone else in helping bring up the children. None of this is stated as a loss. Yet this reader felt it keenly.

At first I thought this book was an autobiography, and indeed, the author’s website indicates that she, like her protagonist Lissa, was born in 1950 to a mother who was 37 and a father who was 72 and often mistaken for her grandfather. As in the novel, the author’s mother died young and she took care of her father till he died. Christine Davis Merriman has turned this rich material into a novel, and her gift for language has turned life into real art.

Lithuanian Roots in American Soil

Lithuanian Roots in American SoilBy Audrone Barunas Willke and Danute Barunas
Amazon CreateSpace
2nd edition, 2015

Refugees are again in the news. But the dislocations of World War II left millions homeless and stateless.

In this riveting memoir, Audrone Willke and her sister, Danute Barunas, describe their trans-Atlantic move to Boston as small children in a Lithuanian family. Interweaving her own memories with the memoirs of her father, we get a picture of what life was like for new immigrants to the United States in the middle part of the last century.

Lithuania, had been part of the Russian empire under the czars, but during World War I it was occupied by Germans, and the villages impoverished. At the end of the war, the country had a brief period of independent democracy from 1918 to 1926. In World War II Lithuania was taken over by the Soviets. Mass deportations to Siberia occurred, and members of the Barunas family were among the victims. In 1941 the Nazi’s occupied the country, and after they lost war, Lithuania was once again in the hands of the Russians. In this atmosphere of fear, poverty, and hunger, Audrone and Danute’s parents educated themselves and married. As the Germans started to retreat from Lithuania towards the end of 1944, and the Soviets pushed towards Lithuania, the population feared a new reign of terror under Stalin. So the family escaped by train to Germany where bombings and extreme hunger awaited them. Finally, the war ended and they went to a displaced persons’ camp. By now a family with four children, the Barunas’ were lucky to find a sponsor in Brockton, Massachusetts, and emigrated at the end of 1949.

The second half of the book describes how a non-English speaking family can find work, buy a house, educate their children, and assimilate in a country that accepts them willingly. Audrone met her husband, Dr. Klaus Willeke, a German immigrant, at Stanford University when both were studying for their doctorates. Now a retired professor, Dr Willike’s book shows what immigrants offer to a culture. Her story is a testament to an America that once was, and that could be, again.

The Pumpkin Eater & The Bell Jar

The Pumpkin Eater
By Penelope Mortimer

NYRB Classic, The New York Review of Books, 2011
Originally published, 1962

The Bell Jar
By Sylvia Plath
Harper, Reprint Edition 2015
Originally published, 1963

The sixties seem to be having a moment. After all, it is fifty years since that fatal year of 1968, when students all over the world rebelled. They’d had it up to here with call-ups for The Vietnam War, with parents who seemed to live in the dark ages, with college parietal rules, with laws that acted like scolds. The right to use contraception was not recognized by the US Supreme Court until 1965 – and then only for married couples. Women could not apply for a credit card without a male guarantor. Abortion was illegal.

When I told a young man I know about these restrictions, particularly on women, he was aghast. “It sounds like Saudi Arabia,” he said. Indeed. The times, they needed a-changin’. My work in progress begins in that energetic, crazy, and hopeful time. I’ve been reading a lot to research the period. I’m not up to that era quite yet. The books I have been reading lately are about the first half of the sixties. It was an entirely different time, it seems, from the public turmoil of the second half.

But the turmoil was there, seething away inside, for women. This is the take-away from each of these books. When I saw the 1964 movie, The Pumpkin Eater I was shocked, absolutely astonished, at the subject matter. The movie starred Anne Bancroft, who played a woman who, pregnant again for the umpteenth time, was persuaded by her husband and her mother to have an abortion. This was apparently legal at the time in England, where the movie was set, but illegal elsewhere, and the mere word was unmentionable in polite discourse. The movie followed the book almost exactly, and the book, according to its author, followed her own life almost exactly. The events “are all true…all real”, she said in her afterword. Tellingly, the number of children the author/writer had is never exactly spelled out, and only one, Dinah, is given a name. This is a portrait of a woman in the midst of what used to be called a nervous breakdown. And most interestingly, everyone, including her husband, her mother and her psychiatrist, blames “Mrs. Armitage”, the protagonist, for her pregnancies. As if she created them on her own.

The Bell Jar is a semi-autobiographical novel by the Boston-born poet, Sylvia Plath. The story starts with the protagonist Esther Greenwood’s internship at a New York women’s magazine. If it has the ring of truth, that’s because Sylvia Plath began her literary career here. The first half of the book is lively and very funny. The second is darker, chronicling the protagonist’s descent into depression, the suffocating bell jar of the title. It’s tragic in that one knows Plath’s ending. She took her own life in 1963, when she was the mother of toddlers, felt trapped, and was resentful of her estranged poet husband. The extraordinary gift of this novel is its immediacy, allowing the reader to actually feel how it is to become suicidal. While the book was published in January 1963 (Plath died a month after its publication) it is set ten years earlier. There is a prescient paragraph in the early part of the book when the editor of the magazine to which Esther is apprenticed laments the difficulty that faces her when she must have lunch with two writers. The magazine had bought six stories from the man, only one from the woman. The implication is that the nineteen-year-old Esther knew that both were equally talented.

The theme uniting these two books is that both authors were professionally very successful, with Sylvia Plath achieving world-wide fame. But both were defined in their own minds and the minds of others as mired in domestic difficulties, difficulties their husbands, who were also writers, did not recognize, let alone acknowledge.

I leave political commentary to others. But these two books made me realize that the efforts of our very slightly later generation to enhance the rights of women did reach fruition, even if many obstacles to equality remain. The societal changes of the sixties and later enabled so many of us to lead more fulfilling lives.

In this present moment, we must not let these gains slip away.

The Pink Heart Society Review

The Pink Heart Society, a new online magazine, published this review of Lipstick On the Strawberry in their August edition.

Estranged from her English family, Camilla Fetherwell now lives in the United States and owns a successful catering business. Returning home for her father’s funeral, she reunites with her first love, Billy, whom she hasn’t seen since her father broke up their teenage romance. Billy seems eager to resume their love affair. But after one blissful night together, things take a turn.

Camilla suspects her father may have led a secret life, and when Billy reveals something he, too, has discovered, her apprehension grows. Billy holds her heart, but their relationship might be tainted by what her father hid. A reunion seems impossible.

Her life feels as splattered as her catering apron. As she watches her food stylist make a strawberry look luscious with a swipe of lipstick, Camilla wonders if a gloss has been put over a family secret? Can she and Billy survive what’s underneath?

Rated: 4.5 Pink Hearts Reviewed by: Tamara JK

“This book kept me awake for 4 nights in a row, and I needed 2 days afterwards to recover. The story develops slowly but never gets boring, with enough detail to prevent you from speeding through the pages in order to savor every word. Camilla is poignantly sad, the events which marked her teenage years leaving an indelible imprint on her adult life. She measures everything by past standards, worrying what the people around her might think of her actions and accomplishments. Then along comes Billy. Years have passed, lots of things have happened, and suddenly they find themselves at a crossroad again. The connection between this lovable couple is very deep and passionate, you feel that they are two parts of one soul. But Camilla has to find the strength to choose her own happiness instead of considering what would everyone else think and as a reader, you soon end up cheering her on.

This was an eye-opening story for me, one that touched me on a personal level, and I will definitely be recommending it to all my reader friends.”

Learn more about The Pink Heart Society.