As president, Etta Mae Czerny was in charge of the Christian Women’s Club spring salad luncheon. Though church dinners began filling community calendars right after Easter, the word on the street in this small town was that the CWC luncheon was the best.

Etta Mae took credit for the stellar reputation. Described as hefty and determined, she was proud of her position. She had apprenticed with Mable Johnson for years and when Mable died, not one of the other 36 ladies dared question Etta Mae’s succession. This year’s date—April 22—marked her ninth time to reign as “salad queen,” a nickname given to her in a barely audible mumble during a committee meeting.

The luncheon, the only money maker for the club, was the most important event of the year. Proceeds were divided in half; half going to starving children in Africa and the other half going into the CWC checking account for club needs.

Etta Mae already had a list that she tried to present at the January club meeting. “We need another 100-cup coffee pot,” she announced. “The garbage disposal isn’t working right, and …”
“Wait just a minute,” a familiar voice interrupted. “I thought we already decided to put all the money into an additional refrigerator. Remember? Last year we ran out of Jell-o space.”

Etta Mae stood up from her place at the table to stop the conversations erupting between members. Ethel, who didn’t pay any attention to Etta Mae’s imposing figure, raised her voice  several decibels and continued her challenge. “You know, each year more tickets are sold, more salads need to be prepared, and more refrig …”

“Stop!’ Etta Mae slapped her hands on the table in front of her. “Stop! Stop it!”

The women, easily cowed into submission by their president’s anger, sat silent and waited for her to establish order as usual. “Ethel. You and I will talk about this privately.

For now, this meeting is adjourned.”

Of course, the grape vine hummed for an hour after the women got home.

“Did you see Etta Mae’s face?”

“Yes. She was almost purple. Her lips were quivering.”

“She never did like her sister-in-law.”

“What happened between them?”

“I don’t know. Maybe she didn’t want her brother remarrying.”

“I heard Etta Mae still sees his ex-wife regularly.”

 

In February, following the tried and true luncheon procedures, Etta Mae hand-picked three other women to meet with her to find new salads for the April event. Jell-o recipes had been collected through the year and the small committee would sort through dozens of possible options for the April luncheon. Dietary issues re: lactose intolerance or celiac disease weren’t on the social radar yet. Though Ethel had been included in prior years, Etta Mae refused to invite her to this blue-ribbon meeting.

There were always seven salads, two of which—a chicken and a tuna—appeared every year. The women were careful in their choices of the additional five. Not all one color. Not too much cream cheese. Watch out for fresh pineapple because the Jell-o won’t set. After a hour of debate and Etta Mae’s agreement, each woman took two or three recipes home to prepare them for a tasting and voting meeting the following week.

Again with Etta Mae’s strong opinions, the women chose five new entrees that would be a variety of colors and flavors and would go well with the traditional tuna and chicken. Except for the chicken salad, which would be served in cut glass bowls, the other delights would be prepared in the copper molds that were stored in boxes on the top shelf of the closet nearest the women’s restroom. This year, the Fish mold for tuna (as usual), Star shape for cran-raspberry, Ring mold for lime pear pecan, Round for strawberry fluff, Oval for orange buttermilk, and Skirt for seven layer. Also stored with the molds were two dozen plastic Barbie-like dolls that would be placed in the center of each skirt salad.

Work continued through February and March. The Gestetner in the church office clunkety-clunked the printed tickets, announcements to be taken to nearby churches and detailed recipes to be distributed to the salad-making club members.

Etta Mae’s directions were scrolled across the top of the stenciled sheet in capital letters: USE EXACT INGREDIENTS. DO NOT SUBSTITUTE.

Everything seemed in order a week before the big event. For the hundredth time Etta Mae checked her list. Molds were distributed. Salads to feed 350 people were promised. And the lists

of volunteers to set up, serve, and clean-up were filled.

Etta Mae was pleased. What could go wrong?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

7 Comments

  1. sara lippmann

    Oh my love for Etta Mae, Salad Queen! (I think Salad Queen makes a great title…) Nancy, this is such a rich story, textured, and so well realized, I feel like I’m reading a chunk of a novel that’s how much the character leaps off the page. You’ve done a wonderful job anchoring us in time and place — with all these salads!! — (I howled, remembering Jell-O as a salad) — your descriptions are irresistible and hilarious, the molds! — and so spot-on. We’ve got the salad luncheon — and then we’ve got the trouble. The Ethel drama! Etta Mae’s brother’s new wife? This is everything. All is not well. In terms of story arc, I’m not sure if you are hoping to go flash or expand, but there are many ways to go. If you are thinking flash, I might suggest less background (is Mabel nec for flash?, for example) and starting in closer to the drama — and unfolding from from there. Flash would require more compression around this conflict. But maybe you need to write the whole thing out first — because of course, the reader is dying to experience the epic salad fail, and how this connects to the divisiveness between Ethel and Etta Mae. Then you can decide whether to go long or short, or how you might compress long into short. Can’t wait to see what you do. Thank you!

  2. Randal Houle

    Nancy,
    Such delicious tension in this salad tale. Etta Mae is steadfast and earnest and that makes all the little point of tension all the more powerful. The structure choice to include one bare moment of dialog in the middle was a great one. The last line “What could go wrong?” leads us to conclude that this story continues beyond the reader. I like sometimes to think of that. There is a continuation, a non-resolution that is more like life. Anyway, I enjoyed and keep it coming!

  3. Meg Tuite

    Etta Mae, the Salad Queen!! The barbie dolls killed me. And all the gorgeous detail in this of the molds and which salad went with what and the taste-tasting (no substituting)! I laughed through the entire story! And yes, the tension with the sister-in-law, and that last line is so great! We are in for a hellish ride. I hope you continue on with this beauty! LOVE!

  4. Jenn Rossmann

    Like others I’m loving (and shuddering with flashbacks re:) these Jell-O salads. the Barbie dolls! Great details. I was all ready to offer the editorial advice that “Etta Mae” and “Ethel” might be too similar to each other and confuse readers, and then as I learned more about the nature of the conflict between them, I thought it was particularly genius of you to give them such similar names — it enhances the tension between them. (Heaven protect the fool who slips up and calls either of them by the other woman’s name!) You’ve got definite momentum and narrative tension here, and I’d love to read more about our Salad Queen.

  5. Jonathan Cardew

    Nancy,

    Loved this piece! The voice, the set up, the characters. Really enjoyed it. My only suggestion would be perhaps to play around with the opening–I really like what you have, but you may find a different energy starting it with a later line like this one: “This year’s date—April 22—marked her ninth time to reign as “salad queen,” a nickname given to her in a barely audible mumble during a committee meeting.”

    Great read!

    –Jonathan

  6. April Bradley

    I’m on the edge of my seat here by the jello molds: what is going to go wrong, Nancy? This is wonderful. Is this a novella? I hope you post more or tell us where to read it. Thank you so much, Nancy.

  7. David O'Connor

    I love the world-building here, Eta May–great names, a whole community in a few choice words, well done!!

Submit a Comment

Pin It on Pinterest