Orange Salad and Johnny Marzetti

Louise Buff Christie, my son Rhett’s great-grandmother, was a renowned cook. In fact, from the time of her husband’s death in 1948 until her own in 1972, she baked and sold goodies from her home kitchen for hostesses of almost every event in Denmark, South Carolina, to supplement her income. Her delicious cakes, pies, and party desserts were sought after by brides for weddings and receptions, by organizers of bazaars, and by many a sweet-toothed church potluck crowd.

After I became her granddaughter-in-law in 1963, definitely one who did not share the “renowned cook” status, Grannie Christie’s special treat for me was divinity fudge, a box full every Christmas. I loved it (and her lemon meringue pie, too). The only problem was that other family members near to me when I opened my fudge thought it was for them, too! Sharing her cooking was part of the pleasure, I guess.

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Today, as I started preparing her recipe for Orange Congealed Salad, affectionately known in our family as Orange Goop, for our Abel House potluck tomorrow night, I felt her presence there beside me. I miss her, but readying for Abel House brought her back for a time.

And then I noticed the changes I and health concerns have made in her recipe. Gone are the old Jello that was mostly sugar and the high-fat mayonnaise. Dream Whip is not even any longer available. Now, the dish is just as scrumptious made with no-sugar Jello, Kraft Lite Mayo, and Kraft Lite Cool Whip. I still used the Philadelphia original cream cheese, I confess. I wonder what Grannie Christie would think about those changes.

Still getting ready, tomorrow, I will prepare the Johnny Marzetti as a second dish for the feast time at Abel House. No family tradition with that! In fact, I have never eaten this dish! Don requested it, saying that he used to go to a home church to which one of his favorite people always brought marzetti or “something like that.” Now, I have read every single Donna Leon book and eaten Italian food every chance I ever had in my lifetime, but I had never ever heard of a dish called marzetti.

A quick Google check turned up recipes for Johnny Mazetti or Marzetti or several other names with the story that the dish was concocted not in Italy but in a restaurant owned by Teresa Marzetti on Broad Street in Columbus, Ohio. The legend is that she named the hamburger-pasta casserole after her brother-in-law, Johnny. In one of those strange twists, Teresa Marzetti ran her restaurant until her death, also in 1972. By then, her Johnny Marzetti dish was well known and popular all over the Midwest—and apparently in Florida, too! The green olives in it that Don especially liked were added by someone in Panama.

As almost everyone who knows me knows: I am no cook! But preparing for the Abel House feast is bringing me great joy. I have reconnected with a woman who welcomed me into her family more than fifty years ago and met another family of great Italian cooks making what has become an American dish, and I have begun the preparation of my heart and mind for the fellowship and learning I will find anew Wednesday evening at Abel House. Just as I shared that divinity fudge and those countless Italian meals with people I love, I will share food, time, and God’s word with my new family. That is joy! And along with looking forward to the fellowship, I look forward to the positive changes I know the gathering at Abel House will make in us all.

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