THIS IS A GUEST POST FROM MY DEAR FRIEND STUART SHELDON. IT'S DESTINED TO BECOME A CLASSIC. ENJOY AND COMMENT, PLEASE.
Food is magic.
We all have that special dish, the one that instantly activates the way-back machine and jumpstarts a potent emotion. What is yours? For me, it’s banana pudding.
Whenever we visited my grandparents mobile home on the other side of Florida, my younger brother and I beelined it to the fridge the moment we arrived. There, bathed in cool light on the second shelf, stood neatly arranged cups and cups of pudding. Banana and chocolate. Smooth as velvet and dolloped into small glasses the size of an open palm.
My mother’s parents loved each other with a rare intensity that started as handsome high school kids in Queens, New York. They never went with anyone but each other, and when he asked for her hand, my grandfather bestowed upon his beloved a simple elegant diamond solitaire which cost all his money and which she cherished and wore always … until a three-pack-a-day habit killed her at fifty five. That was July 1970, a month before I turned seven.
My mom was crushed to lose her anchor so young. To watch her mother succumb to the brutality of lung cancer. See her lithe body dwindle. Hear her gasps.
Me? I saw none of that. I ate pudding.
My specific memories of my grandmother are scant. A squinty smile dusted with a marvelous hint of naughtiness. A nonchalant way of standing with her hip cocked. She was not girly but certainly feminine. She favored pants to dresses. Camping out West to fancy hotels.
One memory, however, burns bright yellow. Standing before the glowing fridge, I’d seize a cup of banana and begin my ritual with the big cold door still open. The tip of my teaspoon cut a fingernail-sized crescent into the unwrinkled, neon-lemon-colored skin. I dabbed the tip of my tongue, shut my eyes and absorbed. The next bite got slightly larger, half a spoon’s worth, eaten slowly to savor. Those that followed increased in size and vigor until I scooped like a gravedigger, occasionally pushing pudding through my missing front tooth hole to make my brother laugh. Lastly, I scraped and clinked and licked that glass clean of every trace.
Unbeknownst to my grandmother, her pudding was the magic potion she conjured to make her eternal in my heart.
Last night, my wife and I attended a dinner party, where a guest brought banana pudding made with love from a recipe gleaned from an upscale Manhattan bakery. The color resembled French vanilla ice-cream, not the too-bright synthetic “banana color” in the stuff my grandmother made. Instead of little glass cups, my friend scooped her pudding into ceramic dishes from a large glass bowl that featured crushed Nilla Wafers across the top. The surface was lumpy with chunks of banana, not flawlessly smooth like my grandma’s little servings.
BUT … that first bite was all Marian Saltzman.
Flooding back through 50-year-old lips came the selfless love of a woman who knew how much two little imps cherished her simple treats. Who made trays and trays of the stuff so we could finish one and grab another. And even a third. Whose whole face laughed when she did, her joy ironically amplified by laugh lines deepened by cigarettes.
Today, Marian Saltzman lives in the rich, squinty smiles of my sons. My mom still speaks with her out loud. And my wife proudly wears her engagement ring, a daily reminder of what a marriage is supposed to look like.
And, for me, my grandma lives forever in the tip of my spoon.