The Accidental Potluck Party

by Michelle Cromer

" let's have a party!" was the first thing i said when barry, my husband, announced he was being considered as the chief of his orthopedic surgery group.

Being a good Texas girl, I thought it would be a great idea to host a luncheon at our house for all the wives. I am a partner at an advertising agency, an author, and the only wife out of the twenty-seven who works, so I'd never really had the opportunity to get to know these gals. I didn't really fit into their herd. It's a high-maintenance group, on the princess side. But any excuse to throw a party, and hopefully this effort would help my husband. Barry rolled his eyes a little at the idea—the luncheon wouldn't be cheap—but he also muttered a faint "thank you." He understood that it was smart politics.

I don't cook—or should I say, my family has asked me not to cook. The last time I tried, I put a plastic meat thermometer into a pork loin and baked it. So I hire a caterer for the food. I always take care of the other details—the overall theme, the invitations, the flowers and decorations, mixing the drinks, etc.—but leave the food to the professionals.

The day of the party, the weather cooperated magnificently. My backyard had never looked better. The water in the pool was a gorgeous turquoise, the purple gladiolas and the yellow sunflowers seemed to bloom on cue, even the birds were sing ing. The uniformed servers I'd hired were in place; the mojitos were chilling in crystal pitchers with freshly cut limes.

The first guest arrived at high noon, and the other twenty-five ladies arrived within ten minutes of one another. But, uncharacteristically, my caterer was late. I wasn't worried. We'd had three phone conversations in the past two weeks, and she had always been reliable. But by 12:15 I was getting concerned. And at 12:30, I reached for my cell phone.

"Where are you?" I demanded when she answered. "Everybody's here, and we have no food."

Silence.

"Michelle . . . OH MY GOD . . . I AM MORTIFIED. . . . I FORGOT," said the new sister of Satan.

I had no time for my usual slice-and-dice routine, although I do remember saying something about cutting her head off and serving it on a platter. I hung up, feeling the panic wash over me. I had no Plan B—no backup, nothing. I was standing in the middle of the nine circles of hell. I tore open all of my cabinets. I prayed for a miracle, or at least some bean dip. I took a quick inventory. A can of green beans, a box of macaroni and cheese, a can of ravioli with meatballs. Could I serve macaroni? Would they notice? Can I make that?

I picked up the phone and called my country club. I had been a board member for four years and had never cashed in my favor chip. The head chef answered.

"Please, for the love of God," I pleaded/screeched, "bring anything you have in the refrigerator, take things off people's plates, I don't care, just bring me some food, fast."

"No problem, Mrs. Cromer," he replied with confidence. "We will be there in less than an hour."

Thinking I had solved the problem, I walked across my kitchen and looked through the window. My backyard looked like the second floor of Bergdorf Goodman. All the big boys were out there: Ralph Lauren, Giorgio Armani, Michael Kors. One size zero even wore Valentino. And then I saw the tall, blonde, runway-model-looking one sneak a peek at her watch. The dark, petite one pointed at the empty plates in front of them. An hour? I had inside of fifteen minutes before these babes bolted. And what would they tell their husbands, each of whom had a vote in Barry's future? This was not good.

Just as I was about to fake a heart attack (anything to get out of here), I turned and looked out my kitchen window, and the sun seemed to shine directly onto Mrs. Elizondo's white stucco house across the street. "That's it:' I said under my breath, "I will go door-to-door and beg for food."

The only problem with this solution was that I'd never met my neighbors—not even one. We live in one of the oldest sections of El Paso, and most of my neighbors are a day away from a toe tag. Mixed-up mail is the only reason I knew any of their names, and I'd lived there for five years. "I hope to hell they have something other than green Jell-0;' I muttered to myself as I sprinted out my back door and across the street.

In less than ten minutes (in my new chartreuse Manolo Blahniks, no less) I had gone to six houses, introduced myself, pointed to my house, explained I was their neighbor, and asked if they had any food for the stylish yet angry mob in my backyard. To my astonishment, no one threatened to call the cops. Mrs. Elizondo, who most likely had not had a visitor since the disco era, was downright chatty. She spoke in her perfect Spanish as I explained my situation in my not-so-

perfect Spanglish. When she tried to hand me her cat, I knew we had a breakdown in communication. I smiled as I shook my head and walked across her living room, into her clean kitchen and over to her refrigerator. And there I hit paydirt: an astonishing bounty of homemade Tex-Mex. My other neighbors were nearly as neighborly: my scavenger hunt scored salsa and chips, chile con queso, fresh jalapenos, nuts, and, yes, pigs in a blanket. I felt like I'd stepped into a Southern revival. I was saved!

In the end, the party was a complete success. The country club did eventually deliver, but by then I already had so much food, I packed the club food into brown bags and sent everyone home with a snack for their husbands. Several of the ladies asked me for the chili con queso recipe, which I provided after Mrs. Elizondo translated it for me. A few of the wives became my friends, I finally met my neighbors, and, yes, my husband got elected.

Michelle Cromer owns and operates her own advertising agency in El Paso, Texas. She now has a new caterer.

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