Josh Lieb: “Review: Aunt Betty’s House”

( ) zero stars

The critic endures a thousand-and-one annoyances whilst plying his trade, but none is more common (or annoying) than the overenthusiastic dining companion. The one who says You simply must try the strudel even as a cold and plasticene lump is set sur la table. It’s as if Bombo, King of the Jungle, were warned by lesser lions “You cannot catch Zambeezi! She is the swiftest gazelle in all of Africa!” Only to find, at hunt’s end, a gamey old nag who can barely drag her udders across the savannah.

Which brings us to Aunt Betty’s House.

My companion bounced with eagerness as we mounted the plain flagstone steps to Aunt Betty’s door. “Wait ‘til you taste her sweet potato casserole, and her marshmallow-fudge yummy squares” she enthused, “And her cornbread stuffing! Her stuffing is so… so… so…” here words failed her, even as a combination of ambient saliva and November air conspired to fog the little round eyeglasses she affects. This kind of thing usually makes me suspicious, but Liz is one of my more frequent partners-in-crème (you might remember her as “Woman to My Right” in my review of Jenny’s Apartment and “Sugar Lips” in the rave I gave to My Place), so I was inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt. After all, I once discovered the most delightfully bitter jar of kim-chee hiding behind boxes of laundry detergent at a 7-11 in Secaucus. Surely Aunt Betty’s inspired cuisine could survive the dead grass and faded whitewash of suburban Baltimore.

A sour-faced teenager greeted us at the door. Actually, “greeted” is a gross exaggeration. She grunted like a wounded calf, then turned her greasy head and bellowed, “They’re here!” before trudging upstairs. She did not offer any assistance with our coats.

This signal appeared to be expected. “Helloooo, there!” boomed a bosomy woman of advanced years, hobbling toward us while wiping her hands on a stained apron. She proved to be the vanguard for an army of over-perfumed and aftershaved ambassadors. They quickly consumed us, peppering our tiny landing party with a wet barrage of How-was-the-drives, So-nice-to-finally-meet-yous, firm handshakes, and kisses.

It was like drowning in a pack of Labrador Retrievers. The lead bitch turned out to be our eponymous proprietress, a pink and whiskery matron whose exuberance was a little off-putting. Maybe you like that sort of thing, but I made a quick note to myself: Not appropriate for a romantic liason.

Liz and I were swiftly separated – she to join in some sort of hushed-conversation-and-giggle contest in the kitchen. I was sent to the den, an overwhelmingly brown room dominated by the presence of Aunt Betty’s silent (and I do mean silent) partner, “Uncle Leo,” who sat in a well-used armchair glaring hate-rays at the television. The Cowboys were winning, apparently. I was warned, very unnecessarily, against engaging him in conversation. Hors d’oeuvres had been set out: celery stalks filled with Mr. Safeway’s finest pimiento cheese spread, as well as a bowl of those licorice-flavored hard candies so popular during the Eisenhower Administration. This portended no good.

One of the other diners, “Cousin Teddy,” caught me eyeing these dainties and warned (again, completely unnecessarily) against filling up on them. “Save room for Betty’s stuffing, dude. It’ll blow your freaking mind,” he admonished through a Heineken-laced cloud, “Your freaking mind. I guarantee.” This sentiment was echoed warmly by the other men, all repeat diners, who slapped their hard little bellies with such fervor my mind was thrust back to an unfortunate undergraduate encounter with the Wesleyan steel drum band.

Dinner was served forty-five minutes late, but the kitchen offered no apologies or explanations. Diners at Aunt Betty’s house eat en famille, and our chef beamed blithely as she perched herself at one end of the long table. Her partner sat at the other end, carving knife in hand, glaring hate-rays at an underbrown bird (the Cowboys had won). “We’re just so happy to see so many familiar faces, and a few new ones, too,” she gushed, darting a significant glance in my direction, “And I hope you enjoy being here as much as we enjoy having you.”

“Enough talk. Bring on the stuffing!” crowed Cousin Teddy, to a ragged chorus of Hear-hears. “Freaking magnificent. Freaking out of freaking control.”

“Now, Teddy…” said Aunt Betty, by no means annoyed. “Well, do we have any volunteers to say grace?”

She looked at my raised hand with some surprise. “Yes… you want to –?”

I gave her my blandest smile. “Actually, I’m just requesting a change of seat.”

Her surprise deepened. I kept my eyes trained on Aunt Betty, ignoring Liz’s ridiculous hand gestures. “It’s all to your benefit,” I explained, “There’s simply no way I could concentrate on my meal with this woman– ” here I gestured toward “Frank’s Wife, Angela”, who held a phlegmy infant on her lap, “—sitting next to me. You understand.”

At some length, she did understand, and I was transferred to a more congenial spot next to Liz. But I jotted down a note about Betty’s strange intransigence during the Grace.

Enough about the atmosphere. How was the food?

It was still a few minutes before I found out, myself. My soupspoon was dirty. So was the replacement they offered me. So was the replacement for that. The management was not gracious in this matter – not at all – which came as a surprise, since my dining companion is allegedly their “favorite niece.” But the squeaky wheel gets the grease and eventually Liz herself provided me with a suitable utensil.

She shouldn’t have bothered. The best that can be said about Aunt Betty’s soup is that it was seasonally accurate. I’m no historian, but I imagine this lukewarm mélange of Coffee-Mate and pureed vegetables is exactly the sort of thing our starving Pilgrim ancestors glutted themselves on before they ran outside to die of dysentery.

I whispered as much into Liz’s ear, but she didn’t seem to catch it. Instead, she turned to the man on her right (the uglier of the two “Uncle Johns”) and loudly remarked “Isn’t the soup divine?” I smirked, audibly, but again she paid me no attention.

So she was ignoring me! Well, perhaps it was for the best. Liz can be voluble at mealtime, and nothing destroys the critic’s concentration like unnecessary chatter. Remember, the brain is the largest taste bud of them all.

Not that this meal required deep thought.

The presentation was perfectly acceptable. It certainly looked like food. But beyond that, well… nothing. Whatever magical genie exists in food, whatever ineffable spirit inhabits it, and makes us enjoy it, was completely absent. This food was dead, meaningless. It was like attending some weird baseball game where all the bases were touched but no one bothered to hit the ball.

It was the sort of meal that can best be summarized with snarky faux dictionary definitions.

Roast Turkey : Gross Truck Tire
Giblet Gravy: Glib Grease
Mashed Potatoes: Missed Opportunities
Cranberry Sauce: Canned Sadness
Sweet Potato Casserole: Like Watching a Car Run Over Your Dog

As for the wines served, well… best not to linger on that. It would test my famous politesse.

Not that you’d know it by the effusive praise rolling around the table. There is nothing more depressing than watching good people enjoy bad food – except, perhaps, for a bad chef enjoying undeserved praise. Aunt Betty, who’d appeared a little tense at first, soon relaxed into easy conversation about her hip replacement surgery.

“What’s that you’re writing in?” asked “Cousin Frank,” staring at me with unaccountable hostility.

“It’s his notebook. He just takes notes,” said Liz quickly.

“What does putrid mean?” asked the sour-faced teen, peering over my shoulder and making a strong case for the failures of the American public school system.

“It means nothing,” said Liz, “It means he’s writing about a movie we saw last night.”

Salt-free, flavorless,” continued the teen, finding a few words she understood.

The merry war of clashing silverware and boardinghouse-reaches had ceased. A few throats were cleared awkwardly. Aunt Betty looked tense again. “Leo’s blood pressure,” she murmured uselessly and stared down at her lap.

“Please,” I cautioned “Wait until you’ve read the full review. This pasty creature,” here I gestured at the sour-faced teen, “has taken my words completely out of context –”

“He’s really sweet,” spouted Liz, apropos of nothing. “He’s sweet. I promise. Did you see the coat he bought me? He picked it out himself. I didn’t even have to go with him. It’s just when he gets around food… he, he can’t — ”

Musty. Mealy. Vomitous,” intoned Cousin Frank, who had snatched my notebook and now read from it like a Priest reciting The Black Mass.

Look at all the stuffing he’s eaten!” yelped Liz. “Look! He piled it on his plate. He hogged it all! Now there’s hardly any left! Look!” She was out of her seat now, pointing emphatically at my plate. “Honey, tell them how much you like Aunt Betty’s cornbread stuffing.”

All eyes were on me. It’s moments like these that make a critic. Or neuter him. My decision was not hard. “I don’t know, darling,” I said truthfully, “I’ve never tried Aunt Betty’s cornbread stuffing.”

Liz’s smile froze painfully. “Don’t be silly. It’s right there on your plate.”

“Oh, this?” I said raking my fork through the savory yellow-and-brown mulch. “I’m afraid you’re mistaken. This isn’t Aunt Betty’s cornbread stuffing.”

The whole world held its breath. “This is Julia Childs’ cornbread stuffing.”

Silence. Uncompromising, complete, silence. The sound of thirty eyes turning on their hate-rays. Broken finally by: “Un-freaking-necessary, dude.”

Then the deluge. Shouting, screeching, recrimination, sobs. The friendly atmosphere that had been the establishment’s only selling point was forever shattered. Chairs were knocked over, wine was spilled, voices were piled upon voices. It became impossible to hear anything… until an unfamiliar basso profundo boomed, “Elizabeth”, and flattened every other throat beneath it.

Uncle Leo, owner of that voice, stood at the head of the table, carving knife in hand. Staring at me like I was the Dallas Cowboys, the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders, and Lee Harvey Oswald rolled into one. “Elizabeth, get this little shit out of my house.”

Silence reigned for another endless split-second. I stood and put my napkin on my plate. I retrieved my notebook with a significant look at Cousin Frank. I would try to make a dignified exit of it…

But it was Liz who left the house. Liz who didn’t bother to grab her coat and ran out into the street. I ran after her. It had started sleeting, hard. She had taken off her glasses so she could swipe at her eyes with the sleeve of her fleece overshirt.

“Lizzie, baby, I’m sorry –”

“My God, Hughie! My God!” she spat pathetically. “Why do always you have to be such an asshole?”

“Please… I’m so sorry – ” I was on my knees in the neighbor’s lawn, fumbling towards her. Hate rays again. I could feel the eyes of the entire clan at the window behind me. “I can’t help myself… This is who I am…

She put her glasses back on. They were spotted with sleet and gravy spots. Her face had suddenly become red and chapped and old. She opened her mouth to say something cutting, but the words froze in her throat. She shook her head and looked at me again. She looked almost wry with frustration.


She turned and tottered away from me, down the street, like an insufficiently stunned lamb wandering out of the slaughterhouse.

Reservations are not accepted.

Josh Lieb is a television writer and producer. He’s also the author of the Young Adult novel I Am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil And I Want to Be Your Class President. He lives in New York and Los Angeles.

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