Thirty years later, I can still recall the frozen horror that filled the kitchen that Sunday. I know it was my mother who reached out for the Parmesan cheese and instead grabbed hold of the Comet cleanser. But who placed it there? Me? My sister? What well-meaning idiot set the Pyrex casserole dishes, steaming from the oven, so close to the sink?
It didn’t matter. My mother’s hand shook, and the blue-white powder that flew out of the wide perforations on the metal lid sifted down in an unholy, unclean swath across the top of our Sunday dinner.
The mingled smells of chicken tetrazzini and powdered bleach filled the room. Then, a fraught pause. The only sounds were masculine voices in the living room, the men who were watching television and waiting impatiently for their Sunday dinner. Even as a child, I was annoyed when the men didn’t help cook or clean. I wanted to be one of them, out there, lazing around, waiting to be waited on. Until that Sunday.
That afternoon, standing stock-still in the kitchen, three generations of women were transformed. A suburban mother, a doting grandmother, two impressionable daughters – changed forever. In that instant we became – the Borgias. Poisoners of men.
“Nobody says a word,” Mama Lucrezia whispered, and she shot my sister and me a razor look. We nodded. “We can fix this.”
Of course Mom could fix it; I never doubted it for an instant. She could whip up a ballet costume at a moment’s notice, build dollhouse furniture by hand, play a half dozen instruments, and make two week’s worth of groceries last for a month. She was and is one of the most competent women I have ever known, capable of anything.
Capable of committing a culinary felony, too, as it turned out. Possibly, I thought, we were going to poison every one of the men in the next room.
I had never been so glad to be a girl.
“Go tell your father lunch won’t be ready for twenty more minutes,” Grandma instructed my sister. She ran out of the kitchen.
Grandma looked at my mom. Mom nodded. Not a word spoken, but perfect understanding. Mom picked up the nine by thirteens one at a time and carefully scraped a spoon across the top, removing most of the Comet. Not all of it, of course. That would have been impossible. Grandma blew at the last stubborn streaks, but the cream-of-mushroom soup was doing its job too well, holding everything together: chicken, spaghetti, olives, cheese, and abrasive cleanser. The casseroles were now, the can taunted, 1.2% sodium dichloro-s-triazinetrione dihydrate. Delicious and perfect for removing stubborn stains.
Mom raised an eyebrow. Grandma answered: “Cheese. Lots of cheese.”
I grated cheddar until my arms ached. So did my sister, both of us struggling not to dissolve into maniacal laughter at the crime we were covering up. Who knew it would be such fun to plan a potential mass murder? A good friend will help you move, the saying goes, while a best friend will help you move a body. We were closer than best friends, my grandma, my mother, my sister and I. I remember with utter clarity Grandma giggling, “Oh! If Papa ever finds out!” If Papa survives, I thought.
The casseroles went back in the oven to melt the cheese. The broccoli, wilted beyond recognition, was placed on the table alongside white rolls that had gone dark brown on top from baking too long.
The meal, when it was served, was a strange affair. The men – my father, grandfather, and younger brother – tore into the food with gusto. I watched them lift steaming, glistening, cheese-covered, possibly fatal forkfuls of dinner to their mouths. Could they taste it? Would they get sick? Fall over at the table, pointing forks of blame at us as they perished?
The criminals watched from behind plates piled high with overcooked broccoli and burnt rolls. Our Lilliputian servings of casserole were scraped into the sink after the meal. I imagined the blades of the garbage disposal shining bright silver from the extra polish.
No one died, of course. No one even got sick. And it may be a strange way to think of it, but I remember that as one of the very first times my mother taught me a lesson I’ve relied on through illness, death, divorce, and dinner parties gone wrong: You can fix anything with family togetherness, laughter, and a pound of cheddar.
Nikki lives and writes in the Texas Hill Country, surrounded by dogs, chickens, and small boys. When she’s not whipping up secret casserole recipes of her own, she can be found working on children’s novels, short stories, poems, and essays. She studied Fiction Writing at the University of Texas at Austin (MA, ’98).
Nikki Loftin is the only woman living in a house full of males, but she has not poisoned any of them… yet. She offers her sincere apologies to her mother, Rae Dollard, who had no idea all those years ago that she was raising a writer. Thankfully, in addition to being an innovative cook, Rae has a wonderful sense of humor.