Reminiscing about desserts of childhood
At 3 a.m. — sleepless yet again — odd memories can flit through what’s left of one’s brain.
The other night, for no particular reason, I conjured a vision of a dessert I haven’t eaten in more than 65 years. It was called Apple Brown Betty.
Perhaps it was a mainstay of elementary school lunch for you. It certainly was for me.
There it sat, in a little circular dish, sliced apples swaddled in very sweet, gooey, glistening sauce, topped by a crumbly baked finish. And how could I forget the cinnamon that was always sprinkled liberally on top?
My classmates, ingrates all, liked to make fun of this simple, straightforward staple of a dessert.
They called it Apple Brown Heavy. Or Apple Brown Boredom. Or they made fun of uncool Betty Crocker for lending her first name to the dish. Or all three.
But, hey, sue me, I really liked ABB. Always finished mine. Sometimes traded a baseball card for the ABB of a classmate.
Even though I’ve never been a big fan of any dessert, ABB saw me through those rocky elementary school years of being snubbed by girls, of being chosen last in pickup basketball games, of struggling with long division.
ABB was to me what the blanket was to Linus. It comforted. It consoled. It never failed to deliver.
But as 3 a.m. gave way to 3:30, and sleep still hadn’t returned, I made a mental list of other desserts of the 1950s, none of which I have eaten in decades, all of which appeared regularly on my school’s lunch menu — and almost all of which have fallen totally out of favor.
Rice pudding —This one always puzzled me, because at home, rice was served by itself, alongside meat and gravy. Nevertheless, my sweet tooth told me: “Go for it.” I never regretted it.
Angel food cake — Remember how that wonderful rubbery texture melted in your mouth? I shudder to think how much sugar went into the AFC that my neighbor’s mother used to serve us. But the real shudder was what happened after the first bite. Pure bliss. Those angels knew how to eat.
Pineapple upside-down cake — I actually got into an argument with my younger brother once about whether this dish would taste the same if it was served right side up. He said yes. I said no. I’ve never admitted that I was wrong (older brothers are a tough bunch).
Jell-O with fruit inside it — I remember approaching my mother (precocious 8-year-old that I was) and asking her if the fruit cocktail ever got sad because it was imprisoned inside the Jell-O. As Art Linkletter used to declare, kids say the darnedest things.
Icebox cake — To say the least, I am the worst cook ever visited upon the planet. But I used to make this one: chocolate wafers separated by, and then topped with, whipped cream. Even my little brother admitted that he liked the results (older brothers are saps for praise).
Banana cream pie — Emboldened by my Jell-O question, I once asked my mother if bananas minded being swaddled in cream. She told me, very patiently, that bananas don’t have feelings. Maybe not, but this pie was certainly a keeper in our house, feelings or no.
Baked apples — If you were a cinnamon fan (see Apple Brown Betty, above), this was an automatic pit stop along the dessert highway of childhood. Once I figured out how to avoid the stem and the seeds, this dish was almost — almost — the equal of ABB.
Rice Krispies treats — These were rectangular bars of a very popular cereal, studded with marshmallows. On my block, some enterprising pal (I’m sure he became a lawyer) convinced his mother that these treats were healthy because they contained cereal. He never convinced me, but so what? The taste made up for it.
Coconut cream pie — My mother refused to serve this at home because she said it contained too many calories. And the other choices didn’t?
Peach cobbler —Thirty years after I last tasted this one in grade school, I discovered it at a roadside cafeteria one day. I’m sure the family at the next table was wondering about the sanity of that gray-haired man who was spooning, spooning, spooning as if he might otherwise starve.
And the pièce de résistance (because it couldn’t be resisted)…
Lemon meringue pie — Ah, that flaky crust. Oh, that squishy lemon filling. Mmmmm, that silky meringue finish that (cliché alert) melted in your mouth.
Every one of these desserts rotated regularly onto my elementary school tray. But by the time I got to high school, dessert at school had become dull apple pie, yawn-inducing vanilla ice cream or a dumpy, chewy brownie.
Obviously, I (and all of you) have survived both the evolution of dessert menus and any disappointment.
But wouldn’t it be great if we could once again sink our teeth into a bowl of ABB, a nice cold piece of icebox cake, a heaping dish of…
The alarm clock rang. Time to rise and shine.
“Were you having a bad dream last night?” my wife asked. “You were moaning a lot.”
“Oh, no,” I said. “I was having a good dream. Very sweet. Very tasty.”
Bob Levey is a national award-winning columnist.