Well, folks, each year Here, Kansas, has a pre-Christmas potluck before we all travel to relatives for the holiday. This year, Claude Anderson’s wife, Martha, was in charge. “Maybe you’ll do the Jell-O,” she suggested to my sweetheart Iola Humboldt. “Your Jell-O is always a hit,” she added.
Iola was miffed. “Only known for J-E-L-L-O,” Iola lamented. “I’m sick of Jell-O. I’m sick of being the Jell-O Queen of Here, Kansas.”
Iola stewed for days. She went through her recipes and her magazines, sighing and shaking her head.
“I’ve done it all,” she said.
She named some good moments—cottage cheese, pineapple and lime Jell-O. Cranberries in cherry Jell-O with whipped cream on top. Orange Jell-O with grated carrots for crunch. She’d made root beer Jell-O and served it with ice cream, lemon Jell-O made with 7-UP, the bubbles bursting throughout, grape Jell-O with grapes, raisins and bits of prunes for the health of it.
Now, though, she was out of ideas. “Apples?” I asked her. “They’re nice and crisp this year.”
“Done that,” she said. And repeated herself when I suggested she make something with dill pickles, or watermelon rind or kiwi fruit.
“Does it really matter?” I asked.
“Here’s what matters. I don’t want to make Jell-O.”
“Fail,” I said. “Incompetence might make for change.”
Iola plotted incompetence. She thought wild. She bought unflavored gelatin instead of Jell-O. Tomato juice for the liquid. Bacon instead of fruit. She cut up the last little tomatoes ripening in the window, and picked the last of the arugula from the garden. She bought garlic croutons. “An American classic,” she announced. “A BLT, only with bacon, arugula and tomato, on garlic bread.”
“No cottage cheese,” I tisked.
“Just mayonnaise,” she said. So she made an aspic with the tomato juice, added bacon and arugula at the last minute, let it set in a circular pan, put on a healthy, or maybe I should say “generous,” layer of mayo, then the croutons, then turned it onto a plate. In the middle of the circle, more arugula and tomato pieces. She carried it to the Co-op.
She didn’t touch her dish, nor did she expect anyone else to sample it. But Martha Anderson did, and she nudged Claude, who smacked his lips and raised his eyebrows, so Elmer Peterson and Barney Barnhill took some on their plates. And Mabel Beemer took a dollop and pretty soon Iola’s version of B-L-T/J-E-L-L-O was the taste of Here.
At the end of the evening, Claude Anderson cleared his throat and tapped his water glass with his butter knife. “Pot luck has been lucky tonight,” he said. He raised his glass. “To Iola Humboldt,” he shouted, “the Jell-O Queen of Here, Kansas!”
Folks, Iola hasn’t spoken to me for a week.