Saturday, October 16, 2010

Ladies' Club Luncheon!

In our Upper Peninsula home, in the 50’s, mashed potatoes, meat and gravy was the normal daily fare. Our meals were designed around Dad’s desire for hot, hearty food and revolved around his weekly rotating underground shift work in the Hiawatha Mine.

Mom, a confident cook, turned out roaster, after roaster, of mouthwatering pork, beef and chicken, homemade bread and vegetables a la made-from-scratch, buttered cream sauce—without blinking an eye. Planning, preparing and presenting a full-course dinner seven days a week for a family of eight, was a piece of cake.

However, when every few months it was Mom’s turn to serve up something for her Ladies’ Club luncheon, the seasoned kitchen veteran went into spasms of concern.

“I’ve got to think of something special,” Mom stewed. “Last time we were at Cele’s house, she served the most beautiful green molded gelatin salad you’ve ever seen.”

“Moldy salad? Green?” It didn’t sound like anything I wanted to eat. “What did she put in it?”

“Raisins, grated carrots and celery mixed with cottage cheese, pineapple and walnuts,” Mom answered.

“You couldn’t pay me to eat that.” I gagged for effect. At fourteen, I often wondered how Mom and her friends managed to spoon down some of the stuff of which their more unusual surprises were created. Leftovers from the Ladies' Club luncheon did not strike longing in my heart.

“Oh it was just delicious!” Mom exclaimed.

“It sounds as bad as that Walrus salad you served last time. You know, the one with chopped apples drenched in mayo. At least if you’d pared the peels off the apples before serving, it wouldn’t have been so bad,” I teased.

“Waldorf salad,” Mom corrected. “And there was a little mayonnaise in it, but it wasn’t drenched.”

“Why don’t you make something that tastes good? Like chicken salad?” I asked, thinking how tasty it would be to have leftover treats to munch on.

“Too common,” Mom said. “I’ve got to come up with something special.” Mom picked up the current issue of Woman’s Day Magazine and started leafing through.

“It’s common because it tastes good—”

“Oh, look at this!” She cut me off. “I think I may have found just the thing.” She flashed the magazine at me, pointing to a colored picture of a plateful of pretty petite white sandwiches that had been formed—somehow—into jellyroll slices. They actually looked tasty.

“Minced ham,” Mom began reading, “with chopped green olives and crushed pecans. Mix in a tablespoon of mayonnaise. Serve with fresh cottage cheese and green grapes. I think a touch of paprika would be nice, too, to add some color.”

“Not on the grapes, I hope.” We both laughed. “They do look pretty and tasty, but how in the world do you get them to look like jelly roll slices?” I was baffled.

“It’ll take a little work,” Mom said.

The day before the luncheon, my sister Connie and I were recruited to help clean the house. Cleaning for the family and cleaning for the Ladies’ Club were two entirely different things. Where we would have leisurely dusted the furniture, swept the floor and done the dishes, we, instead, attacked the floors, walls and counters with gritty cleanser, water and elbow grease.

“When can we quit?” Connie and I grumbled.

“When you can eat off the floor,” Mom replied. It was her standard reply and I found it difficult not to envision the ladies from her club eating their lunch off of our kitchen floor.

Mom monitored every corner and, if a speck of anything had been left behind, we were called to repeat the process. When, at last, we finished several hours later, the rooms had been polished, primped and practically sterilized enough to pass inspection in a hospital.

Only then was it time to prepare the mystery sandwiches. I figured that Houdini, himself, was probably the only one who could figure out how they went together. But I was wrong. Mom, armed with her Woman’s Day issue at hand, had already unraveled the puzzle.

When Mom came home from Roberg’s bakery the day before with three unsliced loaves of bread, I thought she was getting a little carried away. Surely there would be more sandwiches than even eight eager ladies could eat, but I think now Mom may have had a premonition that she should prepare for the worst.

And the worst was about to happen. Mom grabbed the first loaf of bread and, with her trusty serrated knife, trimmed away the crusts on all six sides.

“These have got to be paper-thin,” she said more to herself than to us. She laid the loaf on its side and began to cut it into lengthwise layers, but the knife kept slipping through to the surface of the counter, making the bread tear before she could cut a complete layer. The entire loaf ended up in shreds, not slices.

“I’ll have to make these layers thicker,” Mom mumbled, cutting away the crusts and making deep cuts into the second lengthwise loaf. But it was soon obvious that she had overcompensated. The layers were far to thick to roll into petite rounds.

Mom was sweating bullets by this time. The clock was winding down, the luncheon ladies would soon descend upon her domicile and it looked like the food would not be fit to serve. This called for nothing short of a miracle. My sister and I held our breath. What was she going to do?

With the cold calculating eye of an eagle, the sure swift hand of a surgeon and the sheer determination of a woman bent on success, Mom grasped her knife and slowly, but surely, sliced the final loaf into perfectly measured layers.

With a last anxious look at the clock, she grabbed the meat mixture, spread it evenly over each layer and wound each into a roll. Taking a deep breath, she sliced each roll cross-wise into tiny round sandwiches that looked just like the Woman’s Day photo.

“Spread eight plates with lettuce leaves,” she ordered. “Use the ice cream scoop and put a ball of cottage cheese on the lettuce. Place two sandwiches on each plate and put some of those fresh green grapes alongside.” She was breathing hard.

“What about the paprika?” Connie asked.

“Right! Sprinkle a little paprika on each of the cottage cheese balls! I’ve got to hurry,” she called from the dining room already on her way to the bedroom to change.

“I think we’re out of paprika!” I called. “I can’t find it anywhere!”

“What?” Mom rushed back into the kitchen.

“No paprika!” Connie confirmed.

“Oh no, I don’t have time for this!” Mom groaned. “Look in the cabinet again!”

“No, there’s none there!” I was getting as worked up as Mom.

“All that work and the plates just won’t look pretty and tasty without a touch of color. Red! We need something red!” Mom said, pushing us aside so she could look in the cabinets herself.

“I don’t think we have anything red!” Connie said.

“Here! I forgot all about these! Maraschino cherries!” She held up the jar. “Unopened!”

“Left from Christmas!” I exclaimed. The miracle worker had done it again!

“Stick one of these cherries in each of the cottage cheese balls…I’ve got to get dressed!” she called out as she escaped the kitchen.

Connie and I slung cottage cheese, cherries, and sandwiches on lettuce, put some grapes on the side and placed the plates on the card tables in the dining room. Then we cleared all the evidence of the earlier errors from the kitchen counters.

When, a few minutes later, the white-gloved group arrived, I was certain they’d head right to the corners of our house to check for dust, but they didn’t. They were too busy oohing and aahing over the picture perfect luncheon Mom had created.

Mom, looking cool as a cucumber, entered smiling. Connie and I were smiling, too. We were thinking of all those shredded slices of bread, the leftover ham spread and cottage cheese—and the Christmas cherries—we’d be picnicking on for the next several days. Ladies’ Club leftovers had never been like this before.

(A chapter from A Tree Grows in Trout Creek)


  1. Coralie: You are one terrific storyteller! Thank you.

  2. Perfect! It takes me back to Ladies Aid meetings and helping either our mom, Grandmother, and even our aunt get ready - but they only let my sisters and I near the kitchen to wash dishes.

  3. I was on the edge of my seat! Great story :)


  4. What a wonderful story! :) I love these kinds of tales...the ones of days gone by and times we'll never be able to recapture because of that thing we call 'progress'. (Sometimes I'm not so sure it's a good thing.)

  5. This was terrific! I love stories of the past depicting life during our mother's heyday. Keep 'em coming, okay?

  6. Coralie! I loved that chapter in your book! Oh, it was wonderful to read it again! Thank you for putting it here!

  7. That is wonderful! Thank you for sharing with us :) I love the part in the beginning about the "green molded gelatin salad".

  8. I love those old time molded salads. Some of them seem weird, but plenty are delish.
    I have a friend who liked to have tea parties. Everyone was invited to bring some treat if they wished. People brought store bought items and dunked teabags. Cookies from Costco!? Gasp! It's funny that while these women wanted to play tea party and wear the vintage clothes they found at a thrift store, they did such a lousy job - everything store bought? Teabags? Are you kidding?
    Eventually it was my turn. I sent hand made invitations. Apparently because no one makes party sandwiches anymore, there was no thin sliced white bread in town. The bakery had only whole grain bread so I baked a loaf of white bread, which I sliced thin and made a variety of dainty sandwiches. I went to the creek for watercress. I also baked scones, shortbread, made stuffed grape leaves and cooked plenty of lemon curd so everyone could take a jar home. Also gave everyone hand crocheted hostess gifts. I pulled out all my heirloom china and sterling silver. I had teapots with three different LOOSE teas. (I'm rather a tea snob - always lots of loose tea in the house.) I figure if you want to play the tea party game, go all the way. I am now a legend when discussing ladies gatherings. (I'll never do it again that's for sure.)
    The other funny thing is that they know me as the horsey tomboy who shoots raccoons, eats over the sink and eschews most femine fripperies. But I've read enough old books, and watched old movies, and saved my grandmothers old things so I knew what a tea party should be like.
    However, I did not clean/sterilise the house. I only moved some boxes of junk to the garage and vacuumed for a few minutes.

  9. A great story! I really enjoyed it.

  10. Oh how I enjoyed reading this. It was a great story of days gone by, sadly. I think I was born in the wrong era.


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