WHERE I COME FROM, the word “salad” means lettuce. Perhaps that lettuce will be accompanied by onions, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, crumbled cheese, or all of the above, but lettuce—and I believe I speak for all my homepeople when I say this—would be the foundation of all things “salad.” And, being a New Yorker, I went along thinking my way was the highway until fate stepped in and threw a man in my path some 23 years ago who, when he said “salad,” was speaking a different tongue. So we got married, and mixed things up.
The culinary has always been a great curiosity in my marriage. It still is, though never more so than at the beginning of the union. Leaving my safety/comfort zone for my first foray into my husband’s homeland and driving to Indiana many years ago, I was confronted at a Bob’s Big Boy with something known as white gravy. On biscuits. For breakfast. Where was the bagel with a schmeer, I wondered? (Where, for that matter, were the delis?) My father-in-law, accompanying us on this trip, sighed the sigh of gustable repatriation when the waitress plunked down the plate of biscuits and gravy. Having been east just long enough, it seemed, his sigh had all the satisfaction of a man who’d come home.
We were then driving west to memorialize Lillian, my mother-in-law, whose recipe boxes I’ve written about before. That would be the unforgettable Lillian of the Hart Family Round-Robin newsletter, and it was on my return trip that I’d be carrying with me an inherited recipe box, though not before my lexicon of cooking got a good shaking up.
Planning her memorial service, though painful, was lightened by the family patterns of grieving. There were prescribed ways to do things, and that helped. My father-in-law was a pastor, so is his brother, as are what seemed me to be an inordinate number of family members, both male and female, young and old, so things went pretty much by the prayer book.
How could I help? At the reception following the service, I was asked to man the door and accept the food that would inevitably be delivered. Those bearing the meal would be what my Hoosier father-in-law termed the “widdaladies,” an endearment I untangled some hours later to mean the “widow ladies.” I was told they’d bring salads.
How nice, I thought. How healthy. Though how many green salads could one party possibly need?
And then the doorbell rang and an indelible image, still seared into my brain, appeared: A lasagna pan of jiggling mini-marshmallows and mandarin oranges suspended in red Jell-O. Somewhere under it, no doubt, was a pair of feet in sensible shoes, though I have no memory of those, recalling only that a side-bowl of mayonnaise was thrust into my hands.
And the doorbell rings. Again, an enormous glass pan, this time green, in which was floating ham chunks and diced pineapple. Again, I was handed the mayonnaise.
Two bowls of mayo held aloft, I floated into the crowd.
“What is this?” I think is what I asked my new husband.
“It’s salad, sweetheart,” he said in that comforting way people do when they mistake what you are feeling for something as normal as grief.
Really? Well, then I’m a peeled cucumber.
And the doorbell rings.
“No, no. Let me. Please,” I said, handing the mayo bowls to him.
An enormous platter was set before my eyes on which wiggled a veritable tower of orange Jell-O, pocked with cherries. I put my hand out for the mayo I now thought traveled with this dish like salt with pepper.
“Mayo?” I asked.
The woman viewed me suspiciously, and then the light of recognition went off. Oh, yes, it seemed to register, this is the New York daughter-in-law. I think she patted my hand.
“Where would you like this?” I asked.
“On the dessert table.”
I see. No mayo if it’s dessert. Mayo with entrée Jell-O only. I get it.
Doorbell. A layered, tri-color veritable rainbow of stacked wobbly gelatin stood before me. Oh thank God, I remember thinking. The gay community is here.
Nope: This is the palate-cleanser Jell-O, the in between entrée and dessert course. No, you might ask. There is no mayo with this. This comes with shredded carrots suspended in the tower, under it, and around the sides, providing not merely a jolting color combo, but some roughage.
A few days later we were en route home when I opened that recipe box for the first time, immediately flipping to the tab marked “Salads.” The key, I figured, the Rossetta Stone awaited me, until I discovered that the main ingredient in “Mandarin Orange Salad” was Lemon Jell-O; “Christmas Salad” necessitates lime Jell-O; “Strawberry Salad” needs black cherry Jell-O, and “Rhubarb Salad” calls for strawberry Jell-O.
Apparently my salad days were just beginning.