Grandma and The Spinach Balls Or Why One Should Never Assume

by Judith Katz-Schwartz

Dateline: 05/07/01

We had all gathered at my mother's apartment for a holiday celebration. I can't even remember which holiday it was. It must have been in the early eighties because my sister's son, Ian, was two years old. And my sister Evelyn was concerned because we wouldn't be eating dinner for several hours. Ian was a little boy with a big hunger and Evelyn was a doting Mom.

Evelyn and I always had the habit of opening the refrigerator, checking all the cupboards, making a slow circle around the kitchen, dining room and even the living room. All of this snooping was for the purpose of checking out what there was to eat. What splendid morsels had my mother prepared for the occasion? What store bought delicacies were sitting out on platters, residing in the fridge, or wherever, waiting to be devoured? Were all our favorites there? How much could we sneak into our mouths before the actual meal?

Evelyn noticed the spinach balls in the skillet on top of the stove. "Ian will eat those," she said. "I'll heat them up. Want one?" No one had to ask me twice.

Ian was the first to bite into a spinach ball. And to spit it right out again, all over his new shirt and the damask tablecloth on the kitchen table. He refused to eat another bite. He wouldn't even stay in his seat at the table, but took off for one of the bedrooms and a date with the vacuum cleaner (his latest love).

So, Evelyn picked up one of the remaining spinach balls on the plate, and popped it into her mouth, offering the other one to me. Before I could eat it, Evelyn's face screwed up in revulsion. She turned to the trash can and spat out the entire mouthful. "Something's wrong with this", she said.

"What do you mean? There's nothing in there that could be spoiled. It's just spinach and egg", I answered.

"Oh yeah, then you try it", Evelyn retorted. "I'm not kidding. Something's not right."

What an understatement. I took a tiny bite of the ball in my hand. There are no words to describe the vileness of the Hideous Sphere From Hell. It tasted like something in the capsules they give spies in the movies to take in case they're captured behind enemy lines and decide to end it all. It definitely didn't taste like food. Not food for humans anyway. Perhaps if you were trying to catch a mouse, you could set the trap with one of these so if the trap didn't get him, he'd die from eating the bait. "Should we tell Mommy?", my sister asked.

"Should we tell Mommy! Are you insane? Of course! If we don't tell her, she'll serve this to everyone, and we'll all celebrate this holiday in the emergency room", I answered.

"Okay, you tell her."

We come now to a basic truth of life in the Katz family. All bad news has always been delivered to our parents by me, on behalf of The Girls (Evelyn and I are, collectively, "The Girls". Our brother, Arnie and our two first cousins are "The Boys"). Here's something you may already have noticed: people aren't all that thrilled with the poor shmoe who is always delivering the bad news. This could be why everyone we knew thought of Evelyn as an angelic child, while I was the black sheep. I think I know how those hapless ancient Roman messengers felt when they had to tell Caesar that Cleopatra had been spotted at all the local Cairo dance clubs smooching with Marcus Antonius in the VIP lounge.

But, I digress.

Mom had to be told.

"Mommy", I said, "these spinach balls really stink!"

Okay, so there was no danger of my ever having a career in the diplomatic corps. My mother tasted one of the balls and headed straight for the trash can, as did a couple of other people. Mom couldn't figure out what had gone wrong. We discussed every single ingredient. Nothing in the recipe had the potential to produce such a vile vegetable orb, such a lousy legume lump, such a pile of repulsive rotten roundness. Until we hit upon the subject of the oil used to fry them. Mom pulled the bottle of oil out of the cabinet under the sink and handed it to me. It was an ordinary bottle of vegetable oil. I took off the cap, and sniffed. It brought tears to my eyes. The smell that wafted up to my nose was redolent of lemon. And soap.

"Mama!", my mother yelled, as Grandma came around the corner into the kitchen, carrying several pairs of socks she had discovered while rearranging my mother's sock drawer (unbeknownst to Mom, of course), and which she had decided my mother no longer needed as socks, but they'd do very nicely for dusting (but don't get me started on that). Mom held up the bottle of oil and said, "What's in here?" Grandma fixed her with that look of pity she usually reserved for the neighbor's dog, who had been dropped on his head as a puppy and now perpetually stood in front of his water dish wondering where he was, and drooling all over the floor, and said, "It's for vashing around the dishes. Vudden?"

My mother had bought a giant economy-size bottle of lemon scented dishwashing liquid and Grandma had decided to transfer it into about six hundred smaller bottles. Why, is still one of the great mysteries of our family. And which bottle had she filled with dishwashing soap and then stored right in the front of the cabinet where the cooking oil was kept? Why, the oil bottle, of course. Vudden?

So we were all standing around munching on spinach balls expertly sauteed in dishwashing detergent. Bear in mind here that Grandma didn't even live with my mother. She just knew how my mother was supposed to live, so she came in all the time and rearranged the house in such a way as to ensure that everyone in it lived the way they were supposed to do.

What's the point of this story, and what has it to do with collecting? It'll be a stretch, but I'll make a connection for you. The point is that things aren't always what they seem. None of us should take anything for granted. Just because something looks like a handpainted Nippon vase doesn't mean you shouldn't turn it over and look at the mark. As almost all of us denizens of yard sales know, a piece of Roseville spotted across the fleamarket aisle can turn out to be one of those Asian repros once we get over there to the table on which it's sitting and really examine it. And that lovely rhinestone necklace on Ebay could turn out to be a hunk of junk. So, let's be careful out there. And let's ask lots of direct questions. The person on the other end of the deal could be a perfectly honest one, but one who just doesn't know what he's selling. It's why the phrase caveat emptor was invented. And sniff everything before you eat it.

To my long-suffering mother (really, you didn't think the story above was an isolated incident, did you? If you did, then I must tell you about the time my mother phoned me and asked,"What happens to plants that have been watered with vanilla syrup?"), Happy Mother's Day and Happy Birthday from The Girls. And The Boys, too.

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Copyright 2001 Judith Katz-Schwartz. All rights reserved.