I was told very early on in the process of grieving the death of my wife that were I fortunate (this is not the word that was used; indeed, it was presented to me as neutral fact) to live in, say, Newton, Massachusetts, there would already be a pile of casserole dishes piled on my front door step.
And sure enough, while browsing through a relatively new cookbook I had gotten last spring (it was the source of one of the last new dishes I made for Linda, to add to a quite vast repertoire of dining favorites we had accumulated, because it was a great hit), called Bake Until Bubbly, was a certain recipe. That is, it’s a cookbook only of casseroles, a later accompaniment, as a volume, to the vastly more interesting (to me) book of Real Stews, by the same author, Clifford Wright. Mr. Wright is otherwise a quite scholarly food historian and has written several other books, some of mammoth proportions, commensurate with the subject, and full, alongside the voluminous scholarly notes, of recipes that allow the modern cook to replicate dishes whose provenance goes back centuries.
The recipe in question, Widower’s Casserole, goes back only to the retirement community that is home to the 87-year-old mother of the author, whose friend supplied the recipe that Mr. Wright adopted. It seems, says Trudy, that the widows supply this casserole, vying for who will be first. The recipe is an extravaganza of saturated fats, consisting mainly of four chicken breasts, 3/4 of a pound of mushrooms, pureed to become a suave thickener for the cup of cream and the cup of sour cream that round out the recipe. He notes it is full of meat, as it is meat that these Depression-Era widowers crave. Not to mention the extent to which a demise from coronary artery disease can be hastened with such a diet. But I bet it’s nice and rich.
In any event, it’s probably now four or five months after this observation was made to me. So far, not one casserole. I have even been on two (count ‘em) online dating services for well over a month now.
I have not cooked anything for any new friends or acquaintances, even though my reputation comes before me as a cook of some great skill. I should know, because I’ve been pushing it in front of me for the last five weeks. However I have not done so sufficiently convincingly to have engineered a dinner at my own house, prepared by these hands.
I suspect that such a move would have a certain connotation, a semiotic value, in some protocol. I am positive there’s a protocol, but I’m damned if I know, beyond certain basic guidelines I’ve mapped out for myself, and seem to derive from what I’d like to call common sense, but to be honest, I’d have to call truthfully only my instincts as to what is right, based on my experience to this point in my life.
Be honest at all times.
Offer no gratuitous information. When your opinion is desired, it will be requested.
Have a point of view. This is not in contradistinction to the point above. The point above is derived from etiquette. This point is derived from the several facts: we speak in order to exchange either information or express our feelings on various matters: from something as innocuous as politics (couples have made it or broken up over political differences; why? is what I want to know), to something as important as what you did today. To have no point of view is to say, you are oblivious. At our age, you have a choice. You choose just how much silence you want to withstand.
If you have nothing to say, say nothing.
If you think you have nothing to say, see if there’s anything on your mind that wouldn’t be inappropriate to relate. If there is, and it wouldn’t, say it.
Make no promises you can’t keep.
Be on time.
Look at her while she speaks, and actually, well, this is hard to explain, but, listen.
Don’t talk yourself out of any internal conclusions you reach in the presence of this woman, and remember them for later.
Don’t allow too much time to pass before making contact again. If what feels like too much time has elapsed, insofar as common manners allow, apologize sincerely, unless you don’t, in which case, why are you bothering?
Try to avoid merely ignoring people
If you do provide an answer, let your instincts be your guide. If a brief, succinct, thanks but no thanks will be sufficient, do that. Otherwise, provide a long, detailed answer to every question, matter, issue, or problem you can, without getting emotional or personal, and assume that will be sufficient. If it isn’t, and you hear further, you’re not the problem (repeat that to yourself, “you’re not the problem.”)
Make clear the pace at which you feel you must allow things to progress, or try to have a hand in allowing, and if there’s a reason, give it.
So this is the protocol I have followed for five weeks.
Still, no casseroles.