Wednesday, September 19, 2012

"Ladies Who Lunch" - Sour Cream Souffle

Date I made this recipe:  September 9, 2012

Ladies Who Lunch by Ann Reed and Marilyn Pfaltz
Published by:  Charles Scribner‘s Sons
© 1972
Recipe:  Sour Cream Soufflé – p. 40

And then there were two.

For 18 years, I was privileged to belong to a Ladies Lunch group of former co-workers from a data processing company I worked for from 1985-1994.  When I left, a bunch of us decided to meet and greet once a month at various restaurants in the Twin Cities metro area and the Ladies Who Lunch Bunch was off and running.

At first there were six of us, but then three others dropped out leaving me and my friends, Vicki and Arlene.  Of the three, I was the youngest although Vicki and I shared October as our birth month.  Arlene, the oldest of the three, but perhaps the youngest at heart, had just celebrated her 75th birthday in June.  It turns out that our last Ladies Lunch in celebration of her birthday would be our last.  Two weeks after that date, Arlene fell ill and was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor.  Although the prognosis was initially positive, things took a turn for the worse and she died weeks later on September 3rd. To say Vicki and I and other former co-workers were stunned would be an gross understatement.  Arlene was just one of those people who seemed destined to outlive us all.

When Vicki and I first went to see Arlene in the hospital, we were shocked.  She was in pain, she was defeated, and we tried our best to rally her.  I was so discombobulated by my visit that when I left the hospital, I missed my exit back to my house.  Seconds later, I turned around but missed the exit again and then yet again until I finally gave up and took the longest route home (the one without any more exits), arriving 45 minutes later completely exasperated.  When I told that story to Arlene on my last visit, she laughed.

On our very last visit just a few weeks before she died, the difference in Arlene was astonishing.  She was back to her old self, holding court, laughing and telling stories.  When we worked together, Arlene was the Executive Secretary to our company’s CEO and she also held a command post, and I do mean command post, at the front reception desk.  Nobody worked a switchboard like her and when her always-manicured finger swept across the switchboard, it was like watching an elegant ballet.  For years and years, I teased her about that hand motion and she laughed; during the last visit, she asked me to mimic her so that some other visiting friends could see what she was like.  I did so with the greatest pleasure.

I also teased Arlene about the way in which she would track you down like a dog if you didn’t answer an overhead page.  If a customer called in asking for me and I wasn’t at my desk, she paged me.  At first it was polite – “Ann Verme, line 1.  Ann Verme, line 1 please.”  By the second time around, she was a little bit firmer in her request and oh my god, if you didn’t pick up after that, this is what you got:  ANN. VERME.LINE.1. ANN.VERME.LINE.1…PLEASE!!!!!”  I wouldn’t go so far as to say she was shouting, but you knew you had better haul ass and get the phone, even if you were stuck in the restroom.  The programmers, mostly male, used to joke that they came flying out of the restroom with the toilet paper flying behind them.  This image continues to make me laugh to this day.  

The other story that I told to the friends that were visiting Arlene on the last time I saw her was also one of my favorites about her.  Arlene was told by our company president to keep an eye on the supply cabinet and by god, she did.  As the sole holder of the cabinet key, she held a lot of power and I am not kidding when I say that she often made you show her your old pencil before deciding you were worthy of a new one:  “There’s still a little lead on that pencil,” she’d say or “You can still use that eraser, can’t you?” 

Even after deciding you were indeed worthy of a new pencil, you received one and only one brand new one.  Don’t ever kid yourself that in a wild moment she would give you two.  Several newcomers suffered from such delusions until we set them straight.

The drill when one was about to receive the new pencil/pen/what have you was always the same:  Arlene would put the switchboard on “transfer calls” and then would walk, slowly and stately, to the file cabinet, with the requestor walking behind at about five paces – kind of like the Duke of Edinburgh does with the Queen of England.  Heads were also respectfully bowed.  And then she would open the cabinet a mere crack, just enough to get her hand (never yours) in there and then would ask you again what you needed.  And out came the one pencil and you bowed appropriately and perhaps curtseyed and then she resumed her stately walk back to the front desk.  I tell you what she could have substituted for the Queen as she was just that regal. (And I love the Queen so…)

Well one day, toward the end of my time at the company, Arlene was busier than a bee and she didn’t have time to do the “perp” walk (I’m referring to all of us underlings, never Arlene) and so she handed me the key.  Oh.My.God. I got the key to the cabinet!!!  So I ran over to the programming department and said “You guys, you guys.  Arlene gave me the key!!!!”  And just like rats deserting a sinking ship, they fell in behind me and we ran with lightning speed to the cabinet.  This time around, the doors fell open automatically revealing quite the stash of supplies and let me just say that for one, brief shinning moment I swear we saw a glow and heard the most beautiful celestial sounds.  It was just like Christmas only better: “Look at all those notepads,” we chimed.  “Look at the pens – holy cow!”

You might think that with access to all those goodies we would have raided the cabinet but you would be wrong.  The one thing one did not do at that company was to get on Arlene’s bad side, a side she rarely displayed but you knew you were in deep doo-doo if she went there.  And so out of respect for the woman and out of fear for our work lives, I took the one thing I needed from the supply cabinet and with one last, longing look from me and from my coworkers, I shut and locked the door and walked back, as Arlene-like as I could to give her the key. 

Now some people might have walloped me over the head for retelling that story over and over again but Arlene loved it.  She was the quintessential Executive Assistant—loyal to her boss and to the company, gate-keeper (literally since our building was a secure building and she had to buzz you in if you didn’t have a pass), better than an attorney at keeping secrets and keeping her mouth shut, all-wise and all-knowing and above all, professional.  She would listen to your tales of woe but in the end she would often say quite simply and without a touch of snarkiness – “Well, if you don’t like your job here, perhaps you should find another one.”  Above all, Arlene wanted our workplace to be a happy, harmonious one and those years that we all worked at that company were just some of my favorites.  When we experienced a corporate take-over by a much larger company we grew bigger but experienced a lot of growing pains.  Our work family sort of fell apart and eventually we started experiencing a ton of layoffs, layoffs that Arlene knew about in advance but obviously couldn’t talk about.  A few of the layoffs pained her greatly and it wasn’t too long after I left that she decided to retire.  And out of those "ashes," the Ladies Lunch was born!

Being free from the confines of her Executive Assistant position didn’t automatically make Arlene sing like a canary but over the years, she shared her thoughts and insights with me and Vicki.  She was always so funny about how she did it, usually sweeping her gaze around the room to make sure there weren’t any “enemies” afoot and then lowering her head to deliver the dirt.  She would often start out lunch (really brunch-I cannot recall a time when we actually had lunch) by asking (hilariously) “Who has had a sighting?” By "sighting," she meant “of a former co-worker” and not UFO’s.  Just so we’re clear.  Then she would regale us with tales of work as well as family stories and friend stories that had me and Vicki doubled over.  She never thought she was that funny but she was and we told her that a thousand times over.  Vicki and I also told stories but somehow the stories always sounded better coming from Arlene.

Out of all the things that made Arlene unique, her thoughtfulness stood out as her number one best quality.  When she was invited to a party at my house, she always brought a hostess gift and frequently sent a thank-you note on note cards she made herself.  (She was also well-known for the fabulous jewelry she made after her retirement and at her funeral service, there was hardly a woman in attendance who wasn’t wearing a piece by Arlene.) When my parents died, she sent cards and when I lost one of my best friends of almost 32 years to cancer in March, she sent me a card for that as well.  And when Vicki and I took her out for her birthday lunch, she sent a thank you card out despite having thanked us in person.  It goes without saying that I’m keeping that one.

Now I’ve said before in this blog that I have a cookbook for about every occasion and wouldn’t you know, I already had this book on my bookshelf – Ladies Who Lunch – and so the day after her service, I made this wonderful Sour Cream Soufflé. If Arlene was alive, I know she probably would have tried it at home, likely saying “Well this was just delicious and so easy, too.” 

And so my dear Arlene, Vicki and I will soldier on with our lunches with the heaviest of hearts as we miss you already, and this special recipe is a final homage to you.  I know you were watching when I made it.  And I will never see a supply cabinet or a switchboard without thinking of you.  I do so hope that there’s a huge switchboard in the afterlife and that you are at the center of it all saying “God, line one.  God, line one please.”  It’s only fitting.

Sour Cream Souffle – serves 6
1 ½ cups sour cream
¾ cup sifted flour
1 ¼ tsp salt
¼ tsp pepper
2 tbsp chopped chives
½ cup grated (nonprocessed) Gruyere cheese (Ann’s Note:  I have no idea what nonprocessed cheese means!)
5 eggs, separated

Preheat oven to 350.  Thoroughly blend sour cream, flour, salt and pepper.  Stir in chives and grated cheese.  Beat egg yolks until thick and stir into the cheese mixture.  Pour into a 2-qt soufflé dish.  Place dish in a shallow pan of hot water and bake about 30-40 minutes or until puffed and set.  Serve immediately.

Ann’s Note:  I roasted some small yellow potatoes at the same time I baked this soufflé and tossed them in olive oil and sea salt for extra flavor.  I also served the soufflé with asparagus to add a little green to the plate.  Enjoy!

1 comment:

Terri said...

Hi Anne: This made my day! Thanks so much for your memories of my Mom - I laughed...and cried!