In this season of partygiving and -going, I happened across a charming story taken from Mama’s Bank Account, Kathryn Forbes’ sweet memoir of growing up with her Norwegian parents in early 20th century San Francisco. (You might remember the stage-play or movie version, called I Remember Mama).
In this story, the girls at young Kathryn’s school are hosting an Occasion–a fancy tea for Mrs. Reed Winford, a distinguished visitor to the school. Kathryn’s Mama, bless her heart, sends her famous Norwegian-style meatballs in a chafing dish. At first Kathryn is delighted with this plan, dreaming of the social success it would bring her, as up until now she’s been sort of an outcast among the snobbish girls.
“I was obsessed with the idea of showing the clique what a wonderful cook my mother was; of bringing some ‘tidbit’ that would so outshine the other contributions that the Occasion would stand out in their memories forever. The girls could not help liking me–wanting to be my friends–if I made the Occasion a big success. . . . I was quietly happy. After the reception, I dreamed, after the teachers and Mrs. Reed Winford had smacked their lips over Mama’s delicious meatballs, the girls would notice me even more.
‘I simply must have the recipe,’ I could hear Miss Grimes say.
And Mrs. Winford would ask to meet the girl whose mother cooked so wonderfully. ‘Quite the nicest tidbit,’ she would say, ‘of this whole reception.’
And the girls would smile and nod at me. They might even clap. And I wouldn’t blush a bit.”
But on the day of the Occasion, Kathryn is mortified.
“‘And what are you being so mysterious about?” Hester asked me impatiently. What have you got in that old chafing dish?’
Reverently I lifted the cover. ‘Meatballs,’ I breathed. ‘In cream sauce.’
It was the signal for laughter. Harsh and highpitched laughter, vainly smothered by crammed handkerchiefs. Hester and Madeline and Thyra giggled and sputtered; then held tightly to one another and kept repeating, ‘Meatballs! To a fancy tea she brings meatballs!’
The girls wiped streaming eyes–looked at me–and collapsed into one another’s arms again.
‘Meatballs!’ Hester grimaced. ‘Poor people eat meatballs.’
‘For dinner, if ever,’ Madeline hiccuped,’not at a tea.’
My cheeks burned. My eyes smarted. But I dared not let the tears fall. Nobody liked my lovely, lovely surprise. Soon, now, Miss Grimes and Mrs. Winford would discover my stupidity. And the teachers. And everyone would laugh and laugh. And never, now, would my classmates be friendly.’
But Kathryn has the last laugh. On the stormy, cold, dark afternoon, the heat in the school goes out, and the janitress can’t be found. Everyone is shivering and miserable when Mama comes to the rescue with a big urn of hot coffee.
“The guest of honor sighed, ‘What I wouldn’t give for a hot cup of coffee!’
Mama clucked sympathetically. . . . She set her packages down. ‘In this one–the hot coffee.’ Mama brought forth our copper pitcher, fragrant steam escaping from it. ‘And in this one,’ she unwrapped the other package, ‘is the hot chocolate for Katrin’s friends.’
Within a few minutes, Mama had us all comfortably seated about the tea table. Mrs. Winford and Miss Grimes drank great, loud draughts of the steaming coffee. The girls and I were just as greedy with the blessedly hot chocolate.
Mama was always good at making folks comfortable. Now she passed the fancy cookies and the crumbs of currant cake. She said that Mary’s cookies were about the nicest she had ever tasted, and she complimented Madeline on the delicious cake. She also commiserated with Thyra about the collapse of the cucumber sandwiches, and wholeheartedly admired Hester’s tea set.
After Miss Grimes and the visitor had gone, we began to clear the table. Mama worked with us. Hester started to speak several times. Finally she blurted: ‘I would–excuse me, but00I would like to taste the meatballs!”
I gulped indignantly and started to say something, but Mama shook her head at me. Serenely, she took a clean saucer, heaped it with [meatballs], and passed it to Hester. Hester tasted bravely. ‘Why,’ she said wonderingly, ‘why, they’re delicious.’
And the rest of us passed our saucers to Mama for portions, she spoke of other Norwegian dishes. Of svisker grod, of the festive Yule kage, and pannkaka med lingon. The girls seemed interested.
‘You must bring your friends to our home, Katrin,’ Mama said to me. ‘I will make for you the Norske kroner–the Norvegian cookies. . . . Come next Wednesday after school. We will make of it a party, yes?’
The girls said they would come. We locked the auditorium door and went out into the schoolyard. Hester, Madeline, Thyra, and Mary not only smiled as they left but waved, too. . . . And Carmelita and I giggled happily all the way home.”
I love that story. Who among us hasn’t been terrified of doing or saying the wrong thing? And yet, the heart of hospitality can be summed up in this sentence: “Mama was always good at making folks comfortable.”