Boarding School Blues: Chapter 26
By Louise Peloquin
Ch. 26: Bon appétit!
Gargantuan appetites wiped out the feast Tante Lucie had spent days preparing. Blanche watched spellbound as the ovenware plates were filled, cleaned, refilled and cleaned again. The sight of loaded forkfuls so quickly devoured made her feel a little green around the gills.
Tante Gertrude was observing the kids’ table manners. “Why are you picking at your food Blanche? Is it better at boarding school? Have you become finicky? Antoine certainly appreciates all the goodies, don’t you mon garçon. Thank goodness you’re not fussy like your sister.”
In a flash, Antoine expressed his loyalty. “She’s not fussy Ma Tante. She’s just taking more time to enjoy because the boarding school stuff isn’t the greatest.”
Turning to his sister he added “Blanche, you said the only good thing over there is the maple butter, right? And besides, your tummy shrunk while you were gone so it needs to get back to its regular size. And you’re keeping some space for dessert cuz you have a sweet tooth, right Blanche?”
Blanche looked lovingly at her brother thinking “that’s why I can’t get mad at him for using my things without permission. He always defends me no matter what. He’s the best. I’ve made friends at SFA but there’s no one like him.” She responded to Tante Gertrude. “Everything Ma Tante Lucie makes is really good and this is the best Thanksgiving dinner ever. I missed my family so much and the holiday break is so short I’m trying to stretch the good times out as much as I can. Yeah Antoine is right. I’m eating slowly to enjoy every single bite. I swear I’m not fussy Ma Tante Gertrude. I’m eating my veggies and everything and I think I’ll have a bit more gravy on my stuffing please.”
“Do not use the word ‘swear’ Blanche. You’re never ever to swear!” snapped Gertrude. “Think of using another term if you want to justify yourself.”
Blanche responded meekly “Yes Ma Tante. I’m sorry. I just meant that I’d like you to know I’m not fussy. That’s all.”
Albina got up and took her sister’s plate. “Trudie, how about a little more pork stuffing and a corn fritter. Everything is still hot and these are things we don’t eat every day. I see that all the kids are honoring Lucie’s feast. Great job les enfants!”
Gertrude’s face relaxed a bit as she acquiesced “Yes I suppose so. I just don’t want Blanche to develop the bad habit of persnickety eating.”
Maman and Papa were concentrating on the contents of their plates. Blanche thought they would probably like to float out of the kitchen with the Food Fairy in a puff of smoke.
Byron, who had not said a word during the whole meal, chirped. “I usually like the drumstick best but Papa gave me some white meat today and it’s really good with gravy and squash on top. You turned my not favorite stuff into my favorite stuff Ma Tante Lucie. How did you do that? Merci beaucoup for everything! I really like eating at your house.”
“Merci du compliment mon cher. Thanks for the compliment my dear. The secret ingredient is l’amour. C’est tout, that’s all.” Tante Lucie turned her imperfect smile into a vision of unusual beauty.
“That’s for sure. Lucie is the best cook around. We can all learn a thing or two in her kitchen.” Gertrude shifted her body towards Maman. The words boomed making Blanche cringe.
Papa rose from his chair and grabbed the carving knife. “I can still get a couple of slices out of this carcass. Who wants more turkey? We’re not going to waste it are we?”
“Our chef of a sister never wastes anything Urbain” Gertude responded. “I’m sure she’s going to make a nice soup with the turkey neck and all the scraps she can rip off those bones, aren’t you Lucie?”
Maggie joined the culinary conversation. “Maman makes us chicken soup with rice and it’s the only thing I can eat when I’m sick. Oui. C’est bon, bon, bon!”
“Well, I don’t know if it’s as…”
Papa broke in before Gertrude could finish her sentence. “It looks as though we’ve all had enough turkey and fixins’. Shall we clear the platters to make room for dessert? Whoever is still working on his meal can finish at leisure while we prepare the rest. That’ll allow our stomachs to rest a bit. Does the queen of 21 Linwood go along with that?”
Lucie’s smile continued to beam while she responded. “Bien sûr, of course. We always eat too fast and when we do, time flies and we can’t really enjoy the company. Right Trudie and Albina?” Blanche knew how Lucie’s dealings with her beloved sisters never went against the grain. It was a question of allegiance.
Lucie dumped the remains of the platters into Pyrex bowls. “A few leftovers for lunch tomorrow” she specified. “Urbain, just leave the turkey carcass right there on the stovetop. I’ll dissect the bird later.” In a matter of minutes, the countertop was ready to welcome the many desserts.
Albina helped Lucie load the narrow countertop with an assortment worthy of a pâtisserie. Thanksgiving must-haves of pumpkin, squash, pecan and apple pies sat along trays of Lucie’s famous butterscotch brownies and rich butterball cookies. Luscious mounds of fudge, each topped with a walnut half, made Antoine trumpet “Oh Ma Tante I was dreaming about fudge last night and here it is right in front of my eyes. You’re the sweetest person in the whole wide world. Merci Ma Tante.”
Lucie beamed “There’s plenty more to satisfy your ‘bec sucré’, your sweet tooth, Antoine. Hang on a minute.” She headed towards “the sun porch”, a tiny closed-off area linking the kitchen to the garage. Blanche saw once again how Ma Tante’s greatest joy came from pleasing others.
Lucie returned with two more pies. “It’s not a real Rejean Thanksgiving without a couple of French-Canadian delicacies – tante aux atokas and tarte au sucre. And the whipped cream is in the fridge. Would you take it out Freddie s’il vous plaît?”
“Oui Lucie” Freddie obeyed. “Comin’ right up. But I have to add that you’ve been a Frechette since you married me and we Frechettes also keep up the food traditions. And come to think if it, Estelle’s family, the Brodeurs, prepare the old specialities too. And I know for a fact that you’re a great cook Estelle? Didn’t you bring us a pie today? Where is it?”
“It’s so skimpy you can’t even see it” Gertrude declared. “Besides, it’ll be impossible to cut it into ten slices so thank goodness Lucie planned for plenty of desserts. Otherwise we would be frustrated. I have a ‘bec sucré’ too but right now I want another Highball, and make it a stiff one Freddie. I forgot to have one with the turkey and today is Thanksgiving so I’m going a bit overboard.” Gertrude handed her glass to her brother-in-law.
“Lucie brewed some nice hot coffee while we were clearing up, didn’t you ma chère?” Freddie answered. “A nice piping cup is so good with pie isn’t it now Trudie?”
“OK, OK, gimme one. I’ll just have my dessert and after that I’ll have a glass of that orange cordial to help me digest. What’s the name of that stuff? Grand Mariner?”
“It’s Grand Marnier” specified Albina. “Cream and sugar in your coffee Trudie?” Blanche had the feeling that Tante Albina was trying to ward off any tension by catering to her sister.
Maman was setting the dessert plates and pie forks on the tables and Blanche realized that she hadn’t spoken very much during the meal.
“Lucie, your tarte aux atokas looks exquisite” Maman said in her most melodious pitch. “Have you added sultanas to the cranberry filling? And how much cinnamon do you sprinkle? No cloves I think?”
“What’s the difference between an atoka and a cranberry anyway?” Antoine querried. “That’s kind of a weird word. Maman always says ‘canneberge’ in French for cranberry don’t you Maman?”
Oncle Freddie, the family expert in indigenous culture, responded. “ ‘Atoka’ is the word for ‘cranberry’ in the language of the First Nations of Québec and Eastern Canada. For the Algonquins, this fruit was used as medicine and…”
Gertrude interrupted “Listen Freddie, we’re waiting for dessert. Give your history lesson later on. I’ll start with a slice of tarte au sucre myself. Oh how I love that rich heavy cream and golden maple syrup you use to make it Lucie! I hope it’s the grade A syrup we brought back from our last trip to Québec. And don’t forget to put a big dollop of whipped cream on top.”
The enticing desserts suffered the same fate as the turkey with the ten banqueters putting away generous portions. Conversation whittled down to three words. “C’est bon!” and “Encore!”
Blanche noticed that Maman’s delicate French apple tarte had been left on the stovetop behind the turkey carcass. “Ma Tante Lucie, may I have a little slice of Maman’s pie too s’il vous plaît? She spent a lot of time making the apple slices look like a flower and told us that authentic French cooking has to look as good as it tastes.”
Gertrude was sitting back in her chair with one hand rubbing her replete belly and the other rubbing her half-shut eyes. “Well, that may very well be true but we don’t care about turning our food into a work of art do we Lucie? We just want it to be tasty and hearty. I don’t understand this thing with supposedly authentic ‘French’ pies. They look as if the cook had forgotten the top crust. Kinda cheap if you ask me. And anyway, don’t talk to me about how much time Estelle spent on a tiny little pie. It’s ridiculous when compared to the long hours Lucie put in. Mon dou! Humph!” Turning to Blanche she continued “I see you’re not picky when it comes to sweets my dear. You’ll end up being pleasantly plump like your Rejean aunts! Well, I guess I’ll have some of your tarte after all, Estelle. One more bite won’t kill me. Anyway, Fred you told me you’d take out that Mariner to help my digestion.”
As Maman sliced into the glossy amber rose of her pie, Blanche was sad at the thought of the culinary work of art being destroyed for people who didn’t appreciate the aesthetic effort.
The diners were sitting around the table exchanging small talk about Madame Rouleau who had just lost her husband and Monsieur Martin who had retired and moved in with his daughter in Florida and Joe Eno the handy man who had cut three fingers off using his new electric saw.
“Joe just picked up his fingers, walked into Saint Joseph’s Hospital here in Nashua and told the nurses they had to sew them back right away” Oncle Freddie specified. “Joe didn’t even blink an eye when they cleaned up his bloody hand. The nurses put the fingers on ice to keep them fresh and reassured ole Joe. But the surgeon was on vacation and came back too late to get the job done and the fingers turned black. I guess Saint Joseph, my buddy’s patron saint, was on vacation too because Joe couldn’t be helped. Very sad story.”
Antoine chimed in. “Well how come Joe didn’t go to the Saint Joseph hospital in Lowell? Papa could have taken care of him in no time because Papa is the best. He even sewed someone’s hand back on and it stuck and it didn’t turn black. One day when Maman brought me to Papa’s office, that man was in the waiting room with his sewed-up hand and he told Maman that Papa was an artist of the scalpel and…”
“OK Antoine, enough of that” interrupted Papa. “Don’t you kids have some yard work to do for Oncle Freddie? Those new rakes have to be broken in after all. What are you waiting for?”
“Oui, oui” Byron and Maggie shouted in unison. “We want to rake leaves!”
Antoine joined in with a firm “Oui, let’s go. Come on Blanche. We’ll have a blast! Mon Once Freddie left all of the leaves out there so we’ll have the highest pile ever to jump in.”
“OK, I’m coming. It’ll be fun. We’re not allowed to do stuff like that at SFA.”
Tante Gertrude, sipping a juice glass filled with orange liqueur, had ignored the story about Joe but suddenly woke from her apparent torpor. “Une minute ma fille” she snapped. Take a good look around the kitchen. What do you see? Dirty dishes, glasses, utensils, platters and everything else, right? Well, who do you think is going to help with the washing up?”
Tante Gertrude’s now pink eyes glared under droopy lids and Blanche understood that contradicting her aunt would come to no good. Thoughts of past family gatherings loomed and she cringed to think of the times when her mother had been heartily admonished for lax child-rearing. Any excuse to point the finger at Maman would be used, Blanche knew, and so she swiftly stood as tall as she could and picked up her siblings’ empty dessert plates. “My chore at home is drying and I’ve never broken a dish. And when the novices at SFA are not on kitchen duty, we boarders do dishes. So I’m an expert.” Through the corner of her eye, Blanche peeked at her mother who had not said a word.
“That’s my Blanche for you Trudie, always ready to lend a hand” Papa said with a smile.
“Lemme dry too” offered Antoine. “That way the work’ll get done faster and you’ll be able to go outside with us. We haven’t played with you for a really long time and we missed you.”
“Yeah, Blanche has to hold my hand when I jump in leaves. Otherwise I can fall and swallow leaves and choke and… I need her right now!” Maggie broke down in tears.
“I can hold your hand Maggie” Byron tried to comfort his little sister but the emotion seemed to have gotten the better of him too. Blanche saw his eyes glisten and his chin quiver.
The adults in the room witnessed the scene in silence as if to avoid envenoming the situation.
Blanche took things in hand. “Antoine, Maman and Papa told me how you’ve been the best big brother ever. You can show Byron and Maggie how to use those pretty new rakes. You guys pile up the leaves as tall as Mon Oncle Freddie said and then, for your first few jumps, hold Maggie’s hand Antoine, and make sure she keeps her mouth shut so she doesn’t swallow anything. Doesn’t that sound like fun? I’ll just be in here for awhile. We all shared Ma Tante Lucie’s delicious Thanksgiving dinner and now we all have some work to do and yours is getting Mon Oncle Freddie’s yard all raked up. I’ll join you in no time.”
Blanche had the feeling that her rallying speech disappointed Tante Gertrude. How could her aunt pick a fight now?
“Well I guess you learned a few things at that school and you’ve become a useful member of the Rejean family” Gertrude stated.
Maman helped Maggie with her jacket, ushered the three children to the garage and shooed them all outside. Blanche heard her say “I’m proud of your big sister and now I want all of you to show how well-behaved you are. Antoine, you’re in charge. Follow in your sister’s footsteps.”
The washing-up pursued with three experienced women in the kitchen. Lucie scrubbed the pots and pans while Albina lathered the ovenware, glasses and utensils. Maman and Blanche carefully wiped every dripping piece. No cloudy traces spotted the plates and glasses and no sticky grease smeared the platters and pans. Meanwhile Gertrude had retreated to the adjacent den explaining that “too many cooks spoil the broth and too many cleaners crowd the kitchen.” Then she fell into a deep slumber, like a baby replete with its mother’s milk. Blanche thought the Grand Marnier had probably made her woozy and told herself “I’m glad Ma Tante Gertrude is asleep. Now that the dishes are almost done, the ladies can sit around and chat while Papa and Mon Oncle Freddie watch football on TV and I can sneak out to play with my brothers and sister.”
Thanksgiving had come and gone without too many hitches, Blanche concluded.
Read Chapter 3: Readying
Read Chapter 4: Au revoir!
Read Chapter 5: Arrival
Read Chapter 6: Settling In
Read Chapter 7: Beginning to Belong
Read Chapter 8: Quick Showers
Read Chapter 9: Inside & Outside Study Hall
Read Chapter 10: Math Manoeuvres
Read Chapter 11: Cinephiles
Read Chapter 12: Camera, Action, Lights
Read Chapter 13: Reconnecting
Read Chapter 14: Back to the Fold
Read Chapter 15: In the Night
Read Chapter 16: Parlez-vous?
Read Chapter 17: On the Agenda
Read Chapter 18: Dress up, sit up, chin up
Read Chapter 19: Post Conference Assessment
Read Chapter 20: Orderliness
Read Chapter 21: Inspection
Read Chapter 22: The Inner Sanctum
Read Chapter 23: Going Home
Read Chapter 24: Merci Mon Oncle
Read Chapter 25: The Food Fairy