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Butterscotch Pudding

November 14, 2009

Un plaisir délicieux m’avait envahi, isolé, sans la notion de sa cause. Il m’avait aussitôt rendu les vicissitudes de la vie indifférentes, ses désastres inoffensifs, sa brièveté illusoire, de la même façon qu’opère l’amour, en me remplissant d’une essence précieuse: ou plutôt cette essence n’était pas en moi, elle était moi. J’avais cessé de me sentir médiocre, contingent, mortel. D’où avait pu me venir cette puissante joie? Je sentais qu’elle était liée au goût du thé et du gâteau, mais qu’elle le dépassait infiniment, ne devait pas être de même nature. D’où venait-elle? Que signifiait-elle? Où l’appréhender?

Marcel Proust, A la recherche du temps perdu[i]

First Grade

I was overcome with grief when last I stepped up to the all-you-can eat buffet.  I can’t explain what happened really.  I had asked the waiter to bring me a glass of water.  I had served myself a fine salad, topped with all the little things one wishes could be kept on hand at home for just such an occasion, and was on my way to regain my seat.  I was ready to enjoy my greens when out of the corner of my eye, at the far end of the buffet line, I spotted an atrocity the likes of which I had not witnessed in many years.

My youthful innocence had been shattered and broken, but I had long thought that I was over the experience.  With terror in my eyes, and a sudden pallor in my skin, my friend with whom I was to dine that day stretched out a hand, posing it gently on my shoulder.  “Are you feeling ok?” he inquired.  No, no indeed I was not.  I wished for a chair; I wished for a chair sitting all by itself in a nice tranquil place.  I wished beyond my powers to suddenly find myself alone with that cool glass of over-iced water that the waiter had promised to bring me.  Alone.  Not facing anyone else.

Memories of those years when I was first a pupil at the Kenduskeag Elementary School overcame me.  There I was again not weighing forty-nine pounds, in the jean jacket that my mother had insisted I wear, even though I hated it.  There I was again, standing in the middle of the school play yard tucked away at the rear of the school, to keep us safe from the moving buses and cars out front.  I found myself ready to dig in the crushed rocks that kept the mud from collecting on our shoes in that infamous fifth Maine season.  There I was ready to put my hands into those white dust-covered rocks and dig, hoping that Mrs. Hopkins wouldn’t see me.  I was ready to bury those wretched celery sticks that my mother always stuffed with peanut butter and sent with me whenever there was a class party for which I was asked to bring treats.

No.  It wasn’t there that I found myself.  There I was, rather, not weighing forty-nine pounds, seated at my pupil’s desk with my classmates around me.  Mrs. Hopkins had arranged our desks and chairs in little groups of four, each of us able to work in small groups at a moments’ notice.  “There I am”, I think to myself as I stand near the dessert end of the buffet.  “There I am sitting right in a cluster with Wendell Murch, Danny Munson, and her.  Penny Sproul.”

Penny and I had a strained friendship in those years.  She was the kind of girl that for some reason all the other kids liked to pick on, even more so than they liked picking on me.  She had hair like straw, and never really seemed as clean as she needed to be.  She lived with her mother and brother on that road that leads to the old covered bridge in town, though I didn’t know that then.  I just knew that Kenny, our bus driver, drove by that road every morning on our way out of Corinth to take us to school in Kenduskeag.  Yes, Penny was just an odd little girl who sought often too hard to get and keep our group’s attention.  And that annoyed me, especially since I really wanted to learn new and exciting things.

On this particular day, the one which suddenly occupied my mind, I can see Wendell sitting there in his heavy glasses.  He had learned to tie another fly for fishing over the weekend.  Danny was there too, his round face and soft-spoken personality, listening intently to Wendell’s story.  I think his dad was a plumber, but it would be hard to say now.  And then there was Penny.

In those days, there was no cafeteria at the school, which was one of those “Bailey buildings”—a simple building of classrooms surrounding a central hallway, with exits at both ends of the building.  Nope.  No cafeteria with big tables.  Just a handful of classrooms, an office no one occupied, a kitchen serving window, and some bathrooms. 

In those days, we were asked each day to line up, become quiet and then march down the hall to pick up our trays and silver ware.  Horrible looking trays they were, multi-colored green and brown things, with the individual spots designed in it to keep one food from touching another.  The spot that held the little milk cartons that were so hard to open had a depressed little circle in the center of it, distinguishing it from the other little square compartments where veggies went.  Order and structure is what we were being taught by having that depressed little circle.  Order and structure.  And all of that for forty cents a day.

On my tray, there were green beans, a piece of corn bread (one of the best parts of the lunch), milk and a hamburger wrapped in an oddly textured foil wrapper.  And in the last little compartment.  Yumm.  Pudding.

We marched back to the classroom and sat down with our trays.  We would hear Mrs. Hopkins speak, making announcements, or worse.  “No.  You absolutely cannot sit on your knees to have your lunch.  Who do you think is going to pick up that mess?”  So there we were the four of us, Wendell, Danny, Penny and me, enjoying our lunch when Penny started in…

I could not believe my eyes and begged Mrs. Hopkins, who had at first had trouble remembering that my name was James and not Jim, to move me to another grouping.  Perhaps not begged.  Supplicated.  Nothing doing.  I was told to sit back down and finish my lunch.  But how could I?  How could I enjoy lunch when Penny was threatening to play “See Food” again?

Perhaps it is a genetic thing, this way that we associate food with good times and bad in my childhood home.  My grandfather, Gene, suffered from it.  Why even my own mother spoke of foods which she simply cannot tolerate because of some bad memory.  “My mother was not a real soup maker like I am,” mom would say to me later in life, when I was old enough to understand.  “We had turkey soup only at Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Soup was not served and neither was chop suey or macaroni products as Dad said he had had enough of them in the military.  I actually never remember a spaghetti dinner being served at our house.”  Imagine.  No spaghetti, but Grampy couldn’t stand it so that was that.

For mom, it was corn chowder.  She wouldn’t even make it at our house, let alone speak freely of it.  Corn chowder was on that list of things we were never to mention.  “When less money was around we had corn chowder (I refuse to make this) and “spare” spare ribs.  We also had eggs with crackers on top and Welch rabbit on toast.  And milk toast. ”  Days of poor economics at the farm, and my mom was marked for life.  Of course, if I had to recount what I won’t serve in my own home as an adult because of poorer days, I would have to say liver and onions—liver that my mom used to by on outer Ohio Street at the butcher shop there for about ten cents a pound.  Disgusting smelling stuff.

But this day which had made me shiver at the all-you-can eat buffet wasn’t about liver and onions.  It wasn’t even about a food which I didn’t enjoy.  It was about that last little item on my tray, the one I thought was so yummy.  That day’s “See Food” was pudding.  A tan colored, non-descript pudding.

 The rules of the game were simple.  In “See Food”, one wasn’t talking about the fruits of the ocean.  No, one was talking about those foods that were already in progress of being eaten suddenly becoming public art, viewable to all.  I wince even now just writing about it.

“Are you feeling ok?” my friend inquired.  No, no indeed I was not.  I wished for a chair; I wished for a chair sitting all by itself in a nice tranquil place.  I wished beyond my powers to suddenly find myself alone.  Instead, I replied gently, “I’m fine.”  Quietly, I gathered my composure and sat down to enjoy my plate of greens.  I was overcome with grief when last I stepped up to the all-you-can eat buffet, mourning the loss of my old friend, butterscotch pudding.

(For those of you who still love this delectable treat, I propose this recipe by Donna Diegel, a Rhode Island Foodie.)

Homemade Butterscotch Pudding Recipe

       2 Tablespoons butter

       1 cup evaporated milk

       3/4 cup brown sugar

       2 cups whole milk

       3 Tablespoons cornstarch

       1/4 teaspoon salt

       3 egg yolks

       1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla

How To Make Homemade Butterscotch Pudding

       Melt butter in a medium size saucepan. Add 1/4 cup evaporated milk and brown sugar. Stir and cook for 2 minutes, bring to a boil for 30 seconds longer. Remove from heat.

       In another pan, scald whole milk, and remove from heat.

       Combine the remaining 3/4 cup evaporated milk and cornstarch in a small bowl. Add salt and egg yolks, using a whisk to mix well. Very slowly, add hot milk to the cornstarch mix, whisking constantly.

       Carefully, whisk hot mixture into the pan with the brown sugar. Return the pan to the stove and cook on low-medium heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon until the pudding comes to a boil. Boil 1 minute longer, stirring all the time. Remove from heat and stir in vanilla.

       Cool for 10 minutes, then pour into a glass or ceramic bowl and place a piece of plastic wrap directly on the pudding to prevent a skin from forming. Let cool completely before serving with whipped cream.

       Makes 4 – 1 cup servings.

[i] An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected with the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could, no, indeed, be of the same nature. Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it?  –Marcel Proust

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Erica Parkhurst Atherton permalink
    November 14, 2009 3:42 am

    Are you kidding me? Pudding days were much better than Jello days. (I won’t elaborate on that one) My worst lunch memory of Kenduskeag Elementary is when Jimmy threw up in the middle of the room in the middle of lunch. It’s not like we had a cafeteria where we could leave the smell behind.

  2. Carrie Pierce permalink
    November 14, 2009 3:43 am

    Your story made me cry! I can really relate……. (and it took 11+ years of therapy!) and as you know it has NOTHING to do with the food. Just whatever else we may or may not have BLOCKED out.

    Thanks for sharing it. Maybe it will help me write more on the issues with my mother’s kitchen. I am sure those school “cafeterias” didn’t help me either, not understanding what was/is going on so just keep shoving it down. Quickly. I think we could write a book on this!

    I recently had a food intolerance test, finding out that I was intolerant to 45/100 foods. I have been eating less of those 45 foods and that has been helping some.

    Good luck dealing with the memories…. quite a challenge.


  3. Ellie Aldrich Bell permalink
    November 14, 2009 3:43 am

    I love it! You have a remarkable capacity to take the reader back into the classroom and into the memories that make childhood rich and challenging. Thank you for sharing it with me. I also enjoyed the beginning and ending of the memoir neatly tied together. Bravo! Ellie

  4. BJ Bowden permalink
    November 14, 2009 3:44 am

    Oh my god, I had really put that scene out of my mind! What I think made it worse were those blue crystals that they would sprinkle on the stuff to absorb it. As if the one weren’t bad enough but to turn it into something worse!?

  5. Judy Olinick permalink
    November 14, 2009 3:44 am

    Wow, I certainly enjoyed reading this! Yesterday’s was sad. How awful to have butterscotch pudding ruined for you. It was my favorite comfort food when I was a kid. My mom always made it for me when I was a sick—and I was often sick– not instant pudding, the kind you cooked on the stove. If I was really sick she added chocolate chips. (The other luxurious food she made for me was a piece of toast cut into squares with butter on one, peanut butter on another, cream cheese on the third and strawberry jam on the fourth. It could take me an hour to eat a piece of toast like that. I tried to describe to Annie once what a wonderful thing this simple food was. Annie repeated the story to my mother and my mother was very hurt and offended because she understood Annie to say that I had said this was the most important thing she had ever done for me. I in turn was so offended by her offense that I didn’t explain—something I’ll always regret.) I was telling Mike just today that even better than butterscotch pudding in a lovely little glass bowl was butterscotch pudding straight from the stove in a glass, still liquid and just barely cool enough to drink. I bet you know how to make it from scratch!
    This is a great story. How wonderful that you had all those mentors in the kitchen—and how far you’ve gone with your love of cooking.
    Are you writing a memoir?
    Please keep ‘em coming

  6. David Powell permalink
    November 14, 2009 3:45 am

    Ewww! yucky flashbacks! That’s a miserable little story James. I’ll lighten it by flashing forward 10 years and being thankful I ate Jen(aka, Girtrue) McCorrison’s bag lunch everyday until Kennie took over my role. Jen only took the drink box thingy & the snack pack, whatever her mom packed was my healthy lunch for years. :-)”

  7. Kim permalink*
    December 10, 2009 9:45 pm

    Kim LugdonWow, vivid flashback. I mostly just remember Jimmy throwing up. So you makes you wonder where the saying ‘the good old days’ comes from.

  8. Cindy permalink*
    December 10, 2009 9:45 pm

    Cindy SmithGreat story James! That stuff they put on vomit in schools is awful!!!

  9. Marion permalink
    February 2, 2011 4:26 pm

    To this day I cannot eat butterscotch pudding and not for the classroom experience you had as a child. Mine I consider much more yucky. Growing up on the farm you have young calves who get sick like any other animal including humans. Dad would feek the calves raw eggs [don’t get the connection, never did] and the result was loose bowels and it really looked like butterscotch pudding. YUK! I cannot do that pudding without seeing my poor sick baby cow.
    My husband, on the other hand loves butterscotch pudding so I buy it and send it in his lunch where I never see it again. He’s retired now and guess what we now buy tapioca pudding and I never see the other again!

  10. theassabs permalink
    May 22, 2011 5:21 pm – Orange Julius Recipe

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