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
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?”
“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.”
“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.