"If you love me, come kiss me and tell me I make the best plum sauce ever."
He came, kissed and pronounced with great care, "You make the best plum sauce I've ever had...yet."
"Better than the bottled stuff from the store we had at that party?"
This all transpired after our kids had gone to bed, because that is when all our very deep conversations do transpire. But it all sprang from cold stares at the dinner table and from my return to my good ole' southern roots (for purely selfish reasons).
At dinner I debuted my plum sauce for meatballs. The recipe called for plum jam. I'm not sure that actually exists, but I had plums, plums that my toddler had thrown around the floor and the fruit bowl, and I figured if I cooked them, it might kill off all the germs they'd collected from such disrespectful treatment. So along with some cornstarch, crushed red pepper, sherry, vinegar and soy sauce, I threw skinned, chopped plum into the pot. Then I added some chunks of onion that were pitifully lying around wondering if they would ever find their true purpose in life. And voila! Plum sauce.
Of course I had to make a few adjustments as it simmered for taste - a little more crushed pepper for a bite, a splash more of soy sauce, and a shower of sherry that my son accidentally dumped in - but when I tasted it that last time before bringing it to the table, I was sure I had something blue ribbon.
But my husband, before even sitting down, grabbed a bottle of spicy barbecue sauce from the fridge and set it by his plate.
"Why do you need that?" I demanded. "Did you try the sauce?"
"No, just in case I don't like it."
"Why do you need the barbecue when you haven't even tried the plum sauce yet?"
"Because I don't want to have to get up again."
"But you haven't tried it! You should just eat the plum sauce - all of you - because that's what I worked hard on. You always eat what the cook prepares first."
"I'm going to," Matthew responded calmly. "But if I don't like it, I don't want to get up again."
I ate the plum sauce. I even went to fetch the onion and plum chunks that I'd strained out and threw those on top of my meat and rice, and while I ate I made various noises of gastrointestinal satisfaction to encourage my fellow diners. The sauce was sweet and savory and had a bit of bite at the end. However, my son said it was o-kaaay, but not without the meat to take it down. My daughter said it was too spicy, my youngest two wouldn't eat it, and Matthew claimed he couldn't find the bite in it at all.
"Just eat it," I growled, pointing my finger menacingly around the table. And you can trust that I kept an eye on that barbecue sauce.
I was raised in the rural South where you always eat what the cook prepares, and you thank her profusely for it. If you are offered second helpings, you accept whether you are still hungry or not. And you never, ever, opt for something store-bought over something homemade. Barbecue sauce - hmph!
My dad used to help out on one of our neighbor's farms in Tennessee. For the farmhands' lunch Mr. W's wife made tons of food: all manner of vegetable, a big vat of gravy, at least two kinds of bread and meat and dessert. You had to stuff yourself. Why? Because the lovely woman went to all that trouble to fix a full southern meal for you. You just thanked heaven that there were several other farmhands to help eat it and that you would be going back to the field later to work it off, sweating lard from your pours....or else collapsing in a grits and gravy stupor behind the tractor.
I still feel angst about an incident several years back that really riled my southern sensibilities. I was at my sister's house, and I became very offended on her behalf as I was helping her serve her blackberry cobbler with vanilla ice cream on the side. When I asked a couple of guests if they wanted dessert they said, "We'll have some ice cream but not the cobbler."
What?! Excuse me? A. It's blackberry cobbler, and God Himself probably enjoys that. B. My sister handmade the crust and filling - everything except the blackberries - and it's delicious. And C. You NEVER take the store-bought side without the homemade dish. If you do, some ancient southern-cook-voodoo-doctor will stick a bunch of pins in your doll's gut and give you a righteous stomachache. And she'll dance around and cackle while you suffer.
It still makes me bristle.
So, given my genteel upbringing, is it too much to ask of my own family to eat what I've labored over? Yeah, I don't always have all the ingredients. Sure, I throw things in on a whim to spice things up. And, okay, sometimes my curiosity leads me to make interesting choices (a pint of orange juice in ham and bean soup), but it's my labor of experimental love for my family. Sometimes it's great (and a once-in-a-lifetime meal, because you can bet I won't remember what I did), and sometimes it's not so good. But I expect them to eat it regardless, praise me grandly for my efforts, and extend their plates for seconds. That's the southern way, and until somebody else does most of the cooking in this house, it's my way, too.