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Here are the mothers, hands on hips, surveying the table for space, considering what, if anything, might be missing. Aunt Erma presides, my grandmother’s sister who still lives on these remaining acres of family land. Aunts and uncles and cousins have come from as far as the Ohio border to this southernmost edge of western Kentucky to gather at the end of summer, as we do every year, on the back meadow between the lackadaisical river and the house for a family reunion — my first and primordial experience of potluck.
The weather is still and hot. The women wear sleeveless cotton dresses and Bermuda shorts sets and the men stand off beneath the trees in their short sleeves, talking about baseball and cars until someone yells at them to help carry something heavy — a cardboard box loaded with covered dishes, pulled from the trunk of a Chevrolet; a zinc wash tub filled with ice and glass bottles of multicolored soft drinks.
The kids toss balls on the outer edge of the field; scramble through the bushes and tall grass to the edge of the river, risking tick infestation; race back and forth from the mothers to the fathers, begging for another Orange Crush or Grape Nehi until someone says yes. Later in the day, when our parents have forgotten about us, we stop asking, our forearms numb from fishing for drinks in the slush of melted ice.
I linger with the women. I want to see every dish arrive and watch as each is unveiled. Some dishes arrive wrapped in towels, still simmering beneath the lids of the speckled enamel pots they were cooked in. Some are tented with foil, some surgically sealed in multiple layers of Saran Wrap. A second cousin who lives out here in the country stands waving a leafy branch over the dishes to shoo away flies.
I understand, though no one says it aloud, that this is a cooking competition, and that beneath the welcoming calls lie subtle judgment, genuine surprise, and occasionally the promise of full-blown praise.
“Oh, Louise, you’ve brought your potato salad!” An aunt reaches out and whips the bowl to the middle of the salad section. Plywood tables have been assembled on sawhorses and laid end to end to form a banquet table the length of a bowling lane, covered with an assortment of gingham and floral print tablecloths.
Beneath a tight layer of plastic wrap, the potato salad glows a radioactive yellow. I have heard my mother scrutinize this potato salad, eliciting agreement from my father and anyone else in hearing distance that this abomination has no place on the potluck table. Why does she mix the potatoes and celery with yellow mustard when anyone knows that the salad dressing should be creamy white, more mayonnaise than anything else, just a little tangy and a little sweet. Miracle Whip and a splash of sweet pickle relish will do the trick or better yet, my mother’s secret ingredient, bottled coleslaw dressing applied when the potatoes are still warm.
Steaming platters of fried chicken arrive, and deep bowls of green beans from the garden, squash, baked beans, butter beans, lima beans, turnip greens and silky stewed cabbage. Plates of sliced tomatoes and crisp green onion.
The salad section is the most colorful and exotic, like a spread from Ladies Home Journal. The potluck table is the only place I have ever seen delicate sections of canned mandarin oranges. The centerpiece is a molded lime Jello salad, shaped like a crown, flecked with cottage cheese, crushed pineapple and walnuts.
When the dishes are finally uncovered, I am first in line behind the elders to fill my plate. I load up tablespoon-sized servings of everything on the endless table. On top, a slice of soft white Sunbeam bread, fresh from its plastic bag. Around me, a swarm of human voices, never ceasing, groans of pleasure, the swift click of forks against plates. Chicken legs raised to greasy smiles.
The desserts await at the shady end of the table. A tall white coconut layer cake on a glass pedestal. Baking dishes of banana pudding lined with vanilla wafers. Brown-tipped meringues sweating in the afternoon heat. Lemon icebox pie with graham cracker crust.
Driving home later, my mother evaluates the dishes. My aunt’s bright yellow potato salad is excoriated once again. The clear star of the meal is a great-aunt’s caramel cake with boiled icing.
“Do you know how hard that is to make?” my mother asks nobody in particular. In my stuffed, backseat stupor, I silently promise that someday I will.