There’s an old saying, “There’s no accounting for taste,” usually an insult directed by one woman at another behind her back. It’s one of the comments Aunt Myrtle used to make when looking at some other female wearing a outfit she didn’t like. A dress that was “garish” in color, “inappropriate for daytime wear, tch, tch,” or “shows too much you-know-what (cleavage, she meant),” or “she needs a girdle or three,” observations sure to be made by Aunt Myrtle on the rare occasion I accompanied her to a restaurant for lunch. While we waited on our food she would be eyeing all the other diners in the place, critiquing each one as she went. I cringed while she critiqued.
She would call me needing a ride downtown to go shopping (she never learned to drive), and not wanting to accept a favor or be obligated in any way, she would insist on treating me to lunch as payment. Of course, these lunches weren’t usually much of a treat, because Aunt Myrtle never met a meal she really enjoyed at a restaurant. She would often complain to the cashier, or the waitress, or the manager that the meal was late in coming and not hot, or that the meat was under-done, over-done, too salty or too tough. And the vegetables were naturally too mushy, too raw, or too stringy. The result was sometimes a reduced bill or a free meal, which was her goal all along.
I learned to make myself unnoticeable during these charades by visiting the ladies room until the bill was settled. As we made our way to the car after lunch, Aunt Myrtle would say with a twinkle in her eye, “That wasn’t too bad, now was it?” It was a rhetorical question. I tried to discourage her from these lunch-time treats, and if she insisted, I would definitely choose somewhere we’d never eaten before.
The thoughts of Aunt Myrtle crossed my mind today when I was thinking about the differences in holiday fare among family members. Of course, I was thinking about food – that’s probably what did it. I was contemplating the wide variety of menus at our family holiday get-togethers, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Daddy’s family gathered in the evenings at Aunt’s Lucile’s home in Sumter (she was Aunt Myrtle’s and Daddy’s sister), and the small dining room table was covered edge to edge with a smorgasboard of delicious dishes. We ate our meal seated on chairs scattered everywhere else in the house, plates balanced on our knees, iced tea glasses at our feet or perched atop doily-covered end tables.
I don’t visually remember the turkey on that table though it was no doubt there, dressed but not stuffed. Baked ham and beef pot roast shared center stage, side by side on big platters. Green bean casserole, macaroni and cheese, cole slaw, potato salad, white rice with loads of brown gravy, cranberry sauce made with whole cranberries and orange pulp, all those usual and traditional dishes were sure to be somewhere on that table. The sideboard held all the dessert offerings, pound cake, coconut cake, pumpkin pie, pecan pie, and probably fruit cake too.
Now, that menu sounds a lot like that enjoyed by Mama’s family. And it was, mostly. The difference was in the taste. Aunt Lucile’s flavorings, herbs, spices, shortening, whatever else went into the cook pot never had the same outcome as Mimi’s. Not better or worse, just different.
Stuffing versus dressing, both good old southern cornbread with sage, onions and celery. One was heavy and juicy, the other, light and spicy. Potato salad made with salad dressing versus mayonnaise. Biscuits cooked with butter versus lard, flaky versus fluffy. Pound cake with almond flavoring versus vanilla. Baked ham with brown sugar coating versus pineapple slices. Jelled cranberry sauce versus whole-berry. Although we ate basically the same foods Thanksgiving evening that we’d had for lunch, it was like a whole other meal.
The few of us kids in that family had little place to play at Aunt Lucile’s; she lived in an apartment with no yard. But it was after dark when we arrived anyway, so before and after we ate we huddled up in a corner and whispered jokes or something. We’d soon be asleep in the back seat of the car headed home, stomachs too full from the two great feasts we’d had that day. And we could expect a repeat of both occasions on Christmas day!
Aunt Myrtle aside, there really is accounting for taste, I’ve found. I like what they liked. I like both family’s versions of all those dishes. I don’t have a favorite way to stuff turkey or bake ham, except that it be one of the ways my grandmother or mother or aunts did it. Or my mother-in-law’s…