In any given human society, women will assemble to sip, nibble and discuss anyone who isn’t there.
I’ll be the first to say that the world is a much better place for such activity. Civilization itself depends on the attentions if not to say machinations of the fairer sex, and it’s only in gaggles that uninhibited deliberations between sisters take place. Men should not only understand this phenomenon, but appreciate it, even encourage such parliaments, since when it comes to gossip, the trickle-down theory actually works. You may not know that your boss is sleeping with your secretary, but it’s a good bet that you have a better chance of finding out if your wife does.
The food served at such klatches are delicate to the point of fussy; many tiny servings of exquisitely prepared offerings. This is no place for pork chops; instead, you’ll find salads with cold seafood or chicken, crustless geometric sandwiches, a seasonal vegetable (asparagus, no matter what month), rice, pasta, or new potatoes and a light, crisp bread with an exotic pedigree. Sweets, with the exception of the obligatory killer cake, are dainty and plentiful, as are the drinks. I’ll not go so far as to say that the food is largely intended to buffer the effects of a 6-mimosa luncheon—that would put my life in danger—but the theory has been broached.
In the South, pimento and cheese, chicken salad, deviled eggs and pound cake seem so customary at a ladies’ luncheon as to be mandatory these days, but it wasn’t so long ago that holding such an affair without a tomato aspic would be unheard of. As a result of recoil from the foods of the Fifties and Sixties, congealed salads have become so passé as to seem antiquated these days. On any given month between, say, 1955 and 1970, in any magazine devoted to food, you can find tons of recipes for “jello salads” involving practically every ingredient in the kitchen. A citrus Jell-O was the main ingredient, and mini marshmallows found a way into most of them. Some are so bizarre as to remind me of those things they serve at feasts during events of the Society for Creative Anachronism, at which if there weren’t an ox roasting everyone would leave hungry. The most extreme example of this dish I’ve seen, one that just has white trash written all over it, is “Spaghetti-O’s with Vienna Sausage”, a dish you really have to see to believe.
Let’s not abandon a good recipe because it’s showing its age, and tomato aspic is a good recipe, light, easily prepared and attractive. Perhaps tomato aspic is going through that testing period in popular tastes before it becomes not so much of a novel legacy but a true standard for our tables. More current recipes tend to promote tomato aspic as a sort of “jello shot” Bloody Mary, but at most luncheons of the sort where it’s usually served adding vodka would be superfluous if not downright dangerous.
4 cups tomato juice (or V8)
2 tablespoons minced white onion
2 tablespoons minced celery leaves
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 bay leaves
3 packets unflavored gelatin
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 cup very finely chopped celery
1/2 cup very finely chopped artichoke hearts
Combine tomato juice, onion, celery leaves, sugar salt and bay leaves. Simmer for five mins. and strain. Dissolve gelatin in 1/4 cup cold water, add with lemon juice to tomato mixture. Chill until partially set, then add celery and artichoke. Spoon or pour into individual oiled molds, or into a single 1-quart oiled mold. Serve with pickled shrimp, stuffed eggs and a leaf salad.
My father was a demonstrative soul, without reserve when it came to any expression of emotion.
This candor was trying for my mother. She said it was especially difficult when they went to the movies together, since inexplicably my father’s tastes in movies resembled those of a little old lady’s rather than a middle aged man, a World War II vet and a veteran prosecutor in Mississippi courtrooms. She said he would hear about these movies from a whole slew of waitresses, secretaries and beauticians who kept him up with the latest Hollywood gossip, and whenever they went out of town he’s drag her to screenings of such films as Peyton Place and Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte.
“My God, Barbara! Can you imagine what that woman must be going through!?” he’d exclaim at the screen as Lana Turner took the stand in Madame X, being (unsuccessfully) defended by her own son (whom she cannot acknowledge) for murdering a blackmailer . “Why doesn’t she say something? That judge would let her off in a heartbeat if she’d only say who she is!” Mother would never respond, just stared resolutely at the screen, avoiding the chilling glances of others in the theater On more than one occasion, Daddy was reduced to great heaving sobs of woe, like when they had to pull Susan Kohner off Juanita Moore’s coffin at the end of Imitation of Life. Mother just kept a nest of clean handkerchiefs in her purse and passed them his way.
She often said she was grateful none of us inherited this sense of drama, with the exception of my sister, who once bolted out of a Memphis theater during a showing of The Snow Queen and was half-way down Union Avenue before they caught up with her.