One Thanksgiving, the thing I was most grateful for was my husband’s only friend. John became Dan’s only friend when Dan was on his way to ultimate burn-out at work. John was there to listen, which he did exceedingly well. He was my friend as well because we shared similar tastes in books and music.
John was a welcome addition to our small family holiday gatherings. Often the guest list was me, my mother, Dan, and John. All of us lacked other family in the area, so we’d gather at my mother’s and order in Mr. Kroger’s holiday fixin’s.
Occasionally, one of us would cook. That year I felt ambitious. Not Martha-Stewart-huge-turkey ambitious, but I thought I could manage a one-pot meal – ratatouille. I was in the habit of preparing non-traditional holiday meals because they annoyed my sister, who was old-school in her thinking: Thanksgiving and Christmas must feature turkey, Easter is for ham, Fourth of July is for hamburgers and hot dogs, and Earth Day is for, I don’t know, mud pies? She wasn’t present that year, but it’s the principle of the thing.
So I chopped eggplant and onions and zucchini and yellow squash and mushrooms and tomatoes and put them in a large pot, along with stock and garlic and assorted herbs and spices, and left it to simmer until all the ingredients got acquainted and agreed to play nicely together. Because John was a committed carnivore, I added some kielbasa as well. I like to think the kielbasa would have added a level of outrage had my sister been there, but really, the ratatouille would have been enough to set her off.
Dan was visiting his mother that year, so my Mom and John and I gathered in the living room for chat and shrimp cocktail. So far, so good.
Eventually we moved into the kitchen and I dished up heaping bowls of fragrant, chunky ratatouille. I watched in anticipation as John dipped his spoon in and lifted it to his lips.
He swallowed. Then he raised his hands to his throat and started making hacking noises.
Now, most cooks would be alarmed by this sort of thing. And I was.
I rushed around the table and attempted the Heimlich Maneuver, but discovered my arms were too short to Maneuver properly. “Do you want us to call an ambulance?” I asked.
“Yes,” John croaked. (This actually calmed me an infinitesimal fraction. A person who can talk under those circumstances is not going to die right then.)
Shortly a fire truck, an ambulance, and two police cars pulled up in front of the house. It must have been a slow Thanksgiving. Emergency personnel trooped in as each vehicle arrived, decided that John was unlikely to die in the next few minutes, and turned their attention to the aromas wafting from the kitchen.
“Wow! That smells good! What is it?” each asked.
“Ratatouille,” I would reply.
“A Mediterranean vegetable stew made with eggplant.”
“Maybe he’s choking on a bone.”
“An eggplant doesn’t have bones,” I would explain. This entire conversation was repeated, verbatim, each time another would-be rescuer walked in.
John was hauled off to the emergency room and I followed. Medical-type events ensued. John was asked to cough, substances were sprayed into his throat, and an x-ray was taken. It took a while.
It took so long that our friends, the ambulance people, brought in another patient, saw us in our little cubicle, and said in amazement, “You’re still here?”
At this point I gave up and went to the hospital cafeteria for a festive Thanksgiving cheeseburger, and thought about my sister while I ate it. When I returned, John was still waiting patiently (no pun intended).
Finally, a truly clever doctor arrived and looked down John’s throat with a scope. “There’s something lying on top of his vocal cords,” he reported. “It looks like … some kind of leaf.”
Instantly I knew what had happened. “It’s the fucking bay leaf,” I said. John had swallowed it with his first spoonful of ratatouille, and it had lodged in his windpipe. The doctor asked John to cough really hard, and the bay leaf came flying out. It was the first time the doctor had ever encountered a bay-leaf-related emergency, he told us. It was our first, too.
We went back to my mother’s house, fed John some ice cream for his poor, abused throat, and he left to go home and lie down. As the door closed behind him, my mother turned to me and said, “I don’t think he’s going to sue us.”
Forever after, the dish was known as my killer ratatouille recipe. Not many people ask for it, for some reason.
This year, I’ll use a bouquet garni! Then I can be thankful that everyone will live through Thanksgiving dinner.
This is a revision of a post from a couple of years ago, but I thought it was worth resurrecting.