How to Eat Pudding

  1. There are the puddings that come in cups that you buy at the end of your grocery store trips with your mother. JELL-O sells them in packs of six, wavy lines of chocolate and vanilla pressed against the plastic cups. At home, you dip your spoon into the pudding over and over, savoring every little bit, making the whole cup last a half hour. Your parents poke fun at you. But there’s something about the silky, sweet-sweet, quivering pudding that you want to make last.
  2. The pudding from Golden Dawn, your favorite diner, comes to the table in a Styrofoam container that dwarfs your hand. Like all portions at Golden Dawn, this pudding could feed two people with leftovers. Your father orders the rice pudding, and you wrinkle your nose. Who wants lumpy pudding? For you: chocolate, chocolate always. Once home and recovered from the massive dinner, you pry open your pudding, lick the lid where some pudding was smooshed, and scoop out a small bite. It tastes truer than JELL-O.
  3. Some years later, you travel abroad, live in Madrid for a semester with Carmen, a woman in her early 60s who has retired from life as a flight attendant. Her spacious apartment is filled with souvenirs from her travels. She talks to your flatmates in English, to you in Spanish. You try to keep up. Her dinners are large: pasta piled high and slicked with pesto, airy tortillas bursting with falling-apart potatoes, chewy rice topped with fried egg and tomato sauce. With each meal, a small salad–dressed with only fruity olive oil and a dash of salt–and a little dessert: store-bought cups of flan or chocolate mousse. An upgrade to those JELL-O cups. You don’t linger at the dinner table. None of you do. No one’s Spanish is that good, and you’ve forgotten how to make friends. So instead of taking half an hour over the mousse or the flan, you eat efficiently, scraping the cup as clean as possible (Carmen is only contractually obligated to provide you with breakfast and dinner, so you make the most of every bite). You learned from your father, who learned from his father who lived through the Depression and often said, “Eat what you like, but eat what you take.” Carmen points out your practice one night–in English or Spanish, you no longer remember, the whole semester a linguistic blur–and she laughs a bit. Your face gets hot. You explain about your grandfather, the Depression, everyone in your family does it. She is satisfied, and you can scrape your flan cups clean in peace the rest of the months you are there.
  4. Now, you are 27. You are married. You live in Minnesota. You try to eat well, so no JELL-O pudding cups. You’ve been eyeing the flan cups in the store, though. But, no, if you’re going to eat a sweet, you try to be the one to make it. This way you learn something. So when you invite friends over for dinner, you decide to make pudding. To make pudding! Why is this so novel to you? You buy the quart of half-and-half and stop wondering. At home, you chop the bittersweet chocolate, measure the cocoa and sugar and salt, heat that half-and-half. You stir and stir and stir, music–Leon Bridges–easing your way into the morning at the stove. Over the span of ten minutes, you notice changes in the saucepan. As the pudding thickens–imperceptibly at first–you wonder if you feel your spoon tugging just a bit. Then you can say for certain the pudding is thickening, that your spoon will soon be able to stand in this dense dessert you’re putting together. Off the heat the pot comes, in goes the chopped chocolate. As you watch it streak into the pudding, the smell of simple bitter chocolate reaches you. Some cinnamon and chile powder in this next time, you think. Later, after the pudding has cooled in its ramekins and you’ve made whipped cream and sliced up candied ginger, you’ll serve it to your guests. They’ll eat quickly, one friend declaring he’d never liked pudding before. Now he says he does. The pudding is almost mousse-like. Dark and dense. Not too sweet. The small bits of candied ginger add spice and bite. The whole ramekin of pudding is enough. But you still scrape it clean.
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