Saturday, November 30, 2013

Indian Pudding

Written for the Oncology Memoir Group reading, Nov. 2013
Indian Pudding is dark and rich, all molasses and cornmeal and raisins. Although it's out of fashion today, when I was in grade school, Indian Pudding was a New England Thanksgiving favorite.  I lived on the north shore of Massachusetts surrounded by colonial history.  As a kid, when someone said "Indian Pudding" in my mind's eye I saw an Indian—or native American today-  standing among the trees with dark braided hair and one feather hanging down the braid. I'd never seen an Indian in the flesh, but I'd seen plenty of images of pilgrims and Indians sharing a Norman Rockwell meal. -- A long table under the trees. half-dressed  Indians  despite the November temperatures. Pilgrims in black with white collars, cuffs and aprons, and several big fat supermarket turkeys  on platters surrounded by vegetables arrayed down the middle of the table. I'm sure there was Indian Pudding on that table, too.

I'd never eaten Indian pudding. I'd never even seen it served. I only imagined it. Why wasn't Indian Pudding one of our family traditions? True, my father was a only a first generation Finn, but my mother was a DAR-eligible WASP. Her mother was about as genuine a New Englander as one could get, except for her divorce during the depression when her husband's company sent him to St. Louis to work and he fell in love with a woman there. But that's a whole other story. Anyway, Indian Pudding was a real new England tradition but I had no idea what it tasted like. 

It never occurred to me to ask my mother why we didn't have Indian Pudding  on Thanksgiving or any other day. I just knew it should be served warm with vanilla ice cream melting over it. It would be delicious and I felt deprived. I loved our family's Boston Cookies and apple pie made with Macs from the orchard on the hill where my father lived as a child. And, I'd even have a little bit of squash pie, which was pretty daring for the finicky eater I was then. In reality, I wasn't deprived of either desserts or tradition but it wasn't good enough for me. 

Years later, when I was a young hippie living in a small Cambridge communal house, I was going to spend the holiday with the family for the first Thanksgiving in some years. The dinner was planned for my parents’ log cabin on a quiet pond in New Hampshire. Yes, a great New England Thanksgiving setting.

What should I bring? AHA! Indian Pudding. I'd make traditional Indian Pudding as a surprise. I'd still never tasted it. I pulled out the Joy of Cooking, a gift from a bunch of campers and co-counselors one summer when they discovered I couldn't cook -- but that's another story.

My mother, who I was always trying, but failing, to please, wouldn't touch it. She hated even the smell of it. (You know something went wrong. Would I be writing this otherwise?) The Indian Pudding was delicious----- just as I'd imagined. Warm and rich, ice cream offsetting the molasses. I loved it, but my mother's disdain took the Joy right out it. I couldn't understand it.

I needed to know why. What's wrong with Indian Pudding I asked. She shrugged vaguely. "I served too much of it to ever want to see it, smell it, or taste it again," she said.
I didn't get it. What do you mean you served too much of it? We never had it. What did she mean?

During the depression, when she was in high school, one of her mother’s friends arranged for her to waitress at a popular and expensive restaurant in Framingham.  .
This job meant traveling for hours every weekend to get there, staying in a little room above the restaurant, and working long hours while missing her friends and their parties. Her family was dependent on her tips.

“ My father was gone,’ she said. “Gram needed the money to support us. And I was miserable. Indian Pudding was their most popular dessert. I served gallons of it every night. Gallons and gallons. I hate it. It reminds me of that terrible time in my life.
“You eat it. Enjoy it. But, she said, “please don't bring it again.”

I have never made it again, but I woke up thinking about it this week. 

What evokes these food memories? Why are they suddenly resurrected from the recesses of our brains? I still don't cook much. I no longer live in New England. But, I guess that's still who I am -- the little girl trying to find my identity through the foods I eat and the pictures evoked in my mind's eye. That Indian in the trees is still as vivid as he was fifty years ago.

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