Salad Queen

“Stop!” Etta Mae slapped her hands on the table in front of her. She was losing control of this important meeting. “Stop! Stop it!”

Twenty-seven women, easily cowed into submission by their president’s anger, sat silent and waited for her to establish order as usual.

“Ethel,” Etta Mae commanded through clenched teeth. “You and I will talk about this privately. For now, this meeting is adjourned.”

The brief but heated exchange arose at the January meeting, three months before the Christian Women’s Club spring salad luncheon. The word on the street was that the CWC Annual Luncheon was the best in town and Etta Mae, who prided herself on her organizational skills, took credit for the stellar reputation of the event. 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 was the only money maker for the club. Traditionally, the club members voted on the dispersal of the proceeds. Half went to a foreign mission. And after a list was carefully prepared, discussed and prioritized, the other half was spent on club needs.

This year, however, a determined Etta Mae had already prepared a list and felt it was within her rights to present it. “We need another 100-cup coffee pot,” she announced to the group. “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 to stop the conversations erupting between members. Ethel, who didn’t pay any attention to her sister-in-law’s hefty and 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 …”

That’s when Etta Mae lost control, hollered to stop and adjourned the meeting. Subdued, the women left in silence. Of course, the grape vine hummed for an hour after the women got home.

“Did you see Etta Mae’s face?”

“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.”

Within a week the gossip dissipated, interest in the argument dissolved and the unseasonably warm weather was discussed way too much.

No one knew if Etta Mae had confronted Ethel.

In February, following the tried and true luncheon procedures, Etta Mae hand-picked three other women to meet with her to choose new salads for the April event. Jell-o recipes had been collected through the year and the small group was commissioned to sort through dozens of possible options for the big day. Dietary issues re: lactose intolerance or celiac disease weren’t on the social radar yet. In prior years, Etta Mae had invited Ethel to this blue-ribbon committee, but Ethel was not in attendance and no one of the other three women dared ask.

There were always seven salads, two of which—a chicken and a tuna—appeared every year. The women, who were sifting through dozens of recipes, 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 an hour of debate and Etta Mae’s necessary agreement, each woman took two or three recipes home to prepare them for the “tasting and voting meeting,”

A week later, again submitting to Etta Mae’s strong opinions, the women chose five new entrees from their tasting that included a variety of colors and flavors, and salads that 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 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. She had enough food dye, cream cheese, whipping cream and tubes, tips and applicators for decorating the salads with swirls and flowers. Finally, all the slots on the lists of volunteers to set up, serve, and clean-up were filled.

Etta Mae was pleased. What could go wrong?

* * *

People at first tried to blame Ethel, but Ethel said she was nowhere near the kitchen. She sobbed and claimed that Etta Mae had told her to get away from the coffee pot. Ethel was still crying when the pastor found her collapsed into a corner in the hallway. He helped her up and led her into his office.

“I was just returning into the fellowship hall,” she insisted. “You know when you hear a crash and you know there’s that horrible shock of silence and you know just like when you see a baby fall you hold your breath because you know the screeching and screaming will definitely come?”

The pastor reached for the box of Kleenex.

“And then the sirens …” Ethel choked into the offered tissue

“Yes, Ethel, I’m on my way to the hospital now. Did you see what happened to the woman in the red hat? I think she got trampled in the shoving and pushing …”

“Noooo…” Ethel moaned and dropped her head into her blouse.

Later that afternoon the pastor returned from checking on his injured parishoners in time to hear the damage assessment. The Service Master manager estimated three days at least to remove the multi-colored goo dripping off the stove, refrigerator and dishwasher, scrape off clumps of white stuff drying on each dish on every shelf, and the shard speckled muck on the floor. “Is that a tile floor?” the manager asked. “What color is it supposed to be?”

Of course, no discussion was necessary from club members on how to spend the proceeds. Bake sales and cookie walks were planned to raise more money to offset kitchen renovation.

Even with all the interviews and investigations, there was only speculation as to the cause of the chaos.

Business boomed for a month at the town’s dry cleaners, hair salons, shoe repair, and dress shops.

The memorial service for Etta Mae Czerny was held two weeks after what would be the last Christian Woman’s Club annual spring salad luncheon. Etta Mae was remembered for her organizational and leadership skills as well as her devoted ministry to the CWC.

No one mentioned her nickname. And not one Jell-o salad showed up at the lunch following the service.

8 Comments

  1. sara lippmann

    Nancy! You work such a fast edit and turnaround — and I’m so impressed with what you’ve done. First of all, I still am totally tickled by the seriousness of Etta Mae, salad queen, and the level of import and stakes levied against this luncheon is … delicious. All the molds (the fish mold!) — Details, as I’ve said. So good. Throughout, your writing is assured and immediate and we feel like we are in steady hands. I still feel like this story could be expanded, and then compressed. As I’m not sure what else you might discover — beneath the surface of the ladies’ seemingly pettiness, who are they? what do they want? what don’t they get? i don’t need a lot of backstory or context but I wonder if you might go even deeper into their character to see how their motives (beyond salad dominion) might steer them even more. I love the impulse behind the accident, but I’m not sure I follow and I wonder if it belongs off page or page (or, maybe it belongs off page but has to first be written on page, in order to know what details remain.) What exactly happens? How does Etta Mae die? And what does this mean for Ethel? In what way is she forever changed? I am excited by this story and how much you are continuing to flesh it out. Keep going.

    • Nancy Bauer-King

      Thank you, Sara, for your comments and suggestions. I’m also learning from reading other submissions and accompanying comments.
      Thanks, so much for an enlightening weekend.

  2. Randal Houle

    Nancy,
    Great job on this. Seriously, the first section is (i don’t know the word right now) slimmer? Definitely been cut down a bit, but it flows. The second part answers that question at the end of section one and that was gratifying in a way. I like what you’re doing and keep it up.,

  3. Todd Clay Stuart

    Nancy, I love how this setting is like an entire universe within the universe. It’s almost like a Stars Hollow from The Gilmore Girls or a scene from The Help, where the reader or viewer is so submerged in the little fictional world that it becomes real for them. Wonderful job!

  4. David O'Connor

    Much tighter, layered deeper–feel like you might have a novel here… or something long and good. I’m invested! Well done.

  5. Meg Tuite

    Yes Nancy! This is moving into a seven-tiered salad of angst. I would love to know if a food fight started and how it began. Also, how did The Salad Queen die. Any Barbie throwing involved? This is hilarious and I do want more. It reminds me of a Flannery story. God, yes! LOVE!

  6. Jonathan Cardew

    I like the switch you did in the opening here–works well with the dialogue first. A very well-paced and detailed story!

    Great read!

    –Jonathan

  7. Jenn Rossmann

    Nancy,
    I’m so glad you’re continuing this story. It feels like a piece of something much bigger — maybe focused on these two women, maybe on this whole town. You’ve got great authority in this world and details. Love Meg’s phrase “seven-tiered salad of angst” and love what you’re putting in motion! I wondered if you could make the post-Etta Mae part of the story even more powerful by showing us less of the Ethel-pastor dialogue and making this part as lean and streamlined as your revision has made the first part of this?

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