This is a true story of what happened to me last Christmas; only the names have been changed to protect the innocent. I’ve always wanted to start a narrative with these words, à la the Coen brothers — those clever boys who invite you into their world of chaotic fantasy with that ridiculous fib and expect you to believe it. I might send my story to them and call it “Oh, Boiler, Where Art Thou?” Better yet: “Braising Arizona.” As for protecting the innocent, nobody’s ever innocent. Not completely, as you’ll see.
I’ll start with the pudding itself: steamed cranberry. More of a cake than a pudding — moist, with the tenderest of crumb and sprinkled throughout with lumps of tangy fruit. The base is mostly flour and molasses, but what I like best is that it’s not too sweet. Topped with a creamy hard sauce, it makes a perfect Christmas dessert. Perfect for any season, really, but nobody seems to serve it at any other time. That is, except for my friend Patsy.
We had dinner at Patsy and Ted’s last November, just before they moved into their new condo on Tara Terrace. These two have lived around the corner from Dennis and me for 30 years. Our kids grew up together. She’s a great cook, and she outdid herself that night. I knew from the first bite of that delicious dessert that I had to serve it at my own Christmas dinner. I asked her for the recipe, and she handed it over, saying, “This even won a prize once. At the Pennsylvania State Fair. The steamer is an antique. My mom had it for years before she gave it to me. I think you can still buy them, though. At a specialty kitchen store, maybe. But don’t bother. You can just use mine.”
Now for the steamer: Made of a lightweight metal, it’s shaped like a fat vase some 6 inches high and 8 inches wide. It narrows slightly at the bottom, and the lid has a raised design of quarter-moons set in a circle. There’s a hole in the middle, like the hole in an angel food cake pan, and Patsy put a sprig of holly in the hole when she served the pudding. The lid has clamps on both sides to hold it firmly in place when it’s set in a larger pot of boiling water.
I took the pot and the recipe home with me that night, and on Christmas Day I served the pudding to the family — Sandy and her husband, Rob, and Brad and his wife, Wanda. It was a huge hit, and there was plenty left for Dennis and me to have seconds after the company had left. The antique steamer sat on display on the buffet. Sandy loved its chubby profile and ashen color, dusty-looking from years of water baths.
“This is an antique, right?” Brad asked, and I nodded. “I’m betting it would be hard to replace.”
Which, of course made me anxious as all get out to return it to Patsy, before it could mysteriously disappear into the confines of my cupboards, never to be seen again. This can happen, as many of you cooks know. Ever borrow a springform pan or a mandoline or a Spiralizer and forget to give it back? Between the time of the borrowing and the date of return, anything can happen. And in my house it often does. Which brings me to the part about nobody being innocent.
I mentioned that Patsy and Ted were moving into a condo nearby, and the dinner in November had been a kind of farewell-to-the-house party. I’d gotten a Christmas card with their new address on it, in a subdivision where all of the streets were named after characters in “Gone With the Wind.” And so, on New Year’s Eve day, Dennis and I got into the Subaru and headed over to Tara Terrace to return the steamer. We turned in on Scarlett O’Hara Boulevard and passed Ashley Wilkes Avenue and Melanie Hamilton Drive to arrive at 2976 N. Rhett Butler Lane. It was the second building from the corner. Dennis pulled into the driveway and I got out, carrying the pot. There were no lights on, but the porch was sheltered from the street, and after ringing the bell several times and getting no answer, I opened the storm and left the pot nestled in between the two doors.
It was starting to snow; a thick white curtain coming down on the last day of the year. We were due at Corinne and Nick’s for New Year’s Eve, so we hurried home amidst the velvety flurry to get ready for the evening.
The day’s mail was still on the hall table — the last dribblings of Christmas cards. For a moment I was tempted to stop and read them, but I’d about had enough of these jolly greetings: “Can you believe it? Both of the twins got into West Point!” “Bill and I finally took our long-awaited trip to Bora Bora!” “Come visit us this winter in our brand new condo in Marco Island!” Endless reminders of how pathetic and pitiful were our own lives in comparison.
I gathered them up and placed them on the mantel, and Patsy and Ted’s card caught my eye; I glanced at the address: 2967 N. Rhett Butler Lane. Wait! 2967? I saw my mistake at once. We had delivered the pudding pot to 2976! I hadn’t put a note on it; there was nothing to identify it as belonging to Patsy! There it sat, alone and defenseless, out there on the porch of a stranger!
“We have to go back,” I said. “Why? What could happen?” Dennis asked. “Nobody’s going to steal a cooking pot. It’ll be safe until tomorrow. We’ll go back and get it then.” “No, it’s an antique, for heaven’s sake! We can’t take the chance!”
So we barreled off in the Subaru, doing 45 in a 20, over the river and through the woods, back to Tara Terrace. All was quiet there. Nothing happening as yet, and very few lights on. Patsy and Ted’s house at 2967 was dark, but now there was a light on at 2976. I went up to the door and reached down to retrieve the package — no package! The porch had been swept clean of snow: no footprints, nothing. It had only been a half-hour since we’d been there. Had I already lost my friend’s irreplaceable antique? I checked the address again. Yes. This was where I had left it. Heart slamming in my chest, I rang the bell.
For a long moment, nothing happened. And then the door flew open, and a woman stood in the doorway — tiny, thin, ancient, wearing a purple velvet pantsuit and pink tennis shoes. Her hair matched the suit; the curls looked as though she had recently pressed them in a waffle iron. The face, screwed into a tight knot, looked formidable. She was not happy to see me.
“What do you want?” she barked.
“I left a package here. … ”
And suddenly she was yelling at the top of her lungs: “You’re the one! What were you doing on my porch? Who are you?”
Who was I? What did I want? I wanted my pudding pot back and to go on my merry way. I wanted not to be standing here while she pointed and shrieked at me and waved her arms, as if directing some loony orchestra playing behind me. I tried to get her attention, but she wouldn’t listen: “We had no idea what it was! We almost called the police!”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “It’s a steamer … for cranberry pudding … with hard sauce. … ”
But she was having none of it. She looked as if she were about to explode through the storm door. “When I saw that thing sitting out there, I thought it was a bomb!”
I turned around to look at Dennis, waiting patiently in the Subaru. I knew he couldn’t hear her; he’s as deaf as a post, and for once I was grateful for that. But then he wound down the window and waved at us, smiling cheerfully. I waved him back and started down the steps toward the car when suddenly, behind me, I heard a new voice: “Just a minute there!”
I turned and saw a man standing next to the tiny woman. He had a large shovel clutched in his hands. For a brief moment I thought he was going to bash me in the head with it. But then he pushed past her, moving quickly toward Dennis and the Subaru. “You should be ashamed of yourself!” he threw over his shoulder at me, and began digging furiously in the snow. A blizzard of white blew up around him. I saw the window on the Subaru winding down once again. The man looked over at Dennis, paused a moment, frowning. Then he shook his head and went back to his shoveling.
Moments later, he reached down into the pile of snow and brought up the pot by one of its handles. Hurrying back to the porch, holding it at arm’s length, he brushed the snow from it and handed it to me: “Don’t ever do a thing like that again!” he said. I took it from him and clutched it to my breast.
“Thank you,” I said. “I won’t. I’m sorry. … ”
“You should be!” And with that, he stomped into the house and slammed the door. I ran to the getaway car and Dennis and I sped off, like thieves in the night.
“What happened?” he asked. “I tried to talk to the guy, but he just gave me this look — ”
I told him the story and he started to laugh. “A bomb!” he said. “It’s a cook pot! It feels like a cook pot, smells like a cook pot, looks like a cook pot — ”
Now I was laughing. “Too bad they didn’t call the police. I can just see the cop’s face. ‘Hey, this looks like my mom’s pudding steamer. She makes fantastic cranberry pudding in it!’ ”
“Maybe not,” Dennis said. “Maybe he’s never seen one of these. What if he took it out to some deserted field and blew it up?” Considering this crazy world we live in, I suppose he might well have done that, and that would have been the end of Patsy’s prizewinning pudding. Instead, her infamous steamer now has a story attached that will surely follow it down through the ages.
I should have left a note, of course; that’s obvious. My error. But seriously, who would plant a bomb in a pudding steamer on New Year’s Eve? Especially in a subdivision named after the most famous plantation in Georgia?
All the way home, I kept the steamer with me; I wasn’t about to leave it alone again, not even on the right doorstep. I waited until I could tuck it safely into Patsy’s warm and welcoming arms. And, if you were wishing you could try this luscious cranberry pudding yourself, I got Patsy’s permission to include her recipe in the tale. Good luck finding the perfect pot to cook it in!
Author’s note: This is a true story, but not the whole story. And it isn’t mine: It belongs to my next-door neighbor and friend, Linda, one of the funniest women I’ve ever known. It was funnier when she told it. I wanted to preserve it, as she’s no longer around to do that for herself; she died of cancer this past summer. She was my friend for more than 40 years, and each day I find myself wondering who will lend me an egg or a stick of butter, or bring me homemade cookies on my birthday, or walk around the block with me to help me find my cat, or have me over for a glass of wine. Or who will make me laugh in just that way she had, ever again.