Thursday, September 13, 2012


One of my all-time favorite cartoons shows a man seated at the dinner table, eating something with apparent disapproval; his wife stands beside him with a satisfied smirk; and behind him an older woman wearing an apron and holding a spoon looks around what must be the door to the kitchen.  Wife:  "That may not be the way your mother used to make it, but it's the way she makes it now!"  A wife can get really tired of hearing about how delicious her mother-in-law's preparation of something was, especially if it can't be reproduced.

I never got that from any of the guys I cooked for, partly because their mothers weren't stellar cooks.  My father wasn't into criticising anyone's cooking, and Mother wouldn't have taken such criticism well; but he did occasionally speak wistfully of a dessert his mother made called "blancmange."  In my teens I undertook to reproduce it and I was told by every cookbook I consulted that "blancmange" -- literally, "white food" -- was vanilla cornstarch pudding.  Packaged vanilla pudding, Jell-O and the like, are a feeble attempt to duplicate it.

Dad said the vanilla cornstarch pudding I made wasn't quite it. He maintained that his mother's blancmange somehow involved seaweed.  Mother took to referring to it as "seaweed pudding," in a tone that didn't convey enthusiasm for or belief in same.  Dad explained with a touch of impatience that it was not "seaweed pudding" but merely had something to do with seaweed.

I eventually tracked the seaweed issue to a substance called "agar":  "A gelatinous material prepared from certain marine algae and used . . . for thickening certain foods" (The American Heritage Dictionary), not to be confused with the agar found in apple juice some years ago that made such a stir.  Presumably, Dad's mother had a recipe that used agar instead of cornstarch to thicken vanilla pudding.  The substitution might result in a
somewhat different texture; I can't imagine that the flavor would be affected much, if at all.  Why would Dad have remembered this version of vanilla pudding fondly for the rest of his life?

Memories of youth often are highly colored, and probably nothing in middle age looks or sounds or tastes quite the way it did twenty or thirty years earlier.  Dad would have experienced his mother's blancmange under the influence of what Laurie -- notorious in childhood and adolescence for eating everything in sight -- termed the Hungry Horrors.  Probably the guy in the cartoon, and any number of real-world husbands, have had the same

For a while, my first husband kept requesting steak and kidney pie as he had encountered it in pubs while bicycling through England.  As described by my cookbook, it would have been a whole lot of work and probably wouldn't have passed muster.  A dish you've never seen yourself is always chancy, and cooking anything for Danny was an exercise in humility.  I said I would produce a steak and kidney pie if he would ride his bicycle to San Jose and back while I did so (about eighty miles).  As Cervantes observed, there's no sauce in the world like hunger.

Dad's mother may have had better ingredients than we did.  She would have used milk from her husband's dairy and eggs from their chickens, and perhaps vanilla in the form of beans (my mother bought fake vanilla extract from the First National, which in itself could explain the difference in flavor).  If there was butter involved, Mother's would have been margarine.  In Dad's youth, margarine didn't exist.

I never thought about the ingredients until this moment, nor did any of us at the time.  According to the 1950s gospel of Better Living Through Chemistry, the inexpensive substitutes being developed were at least the equivalent of butter, vanilla, fruit flavors, etc., if not better.  And Dad seemed so sure that the excellence of his mother's pudding had something to do with the seaweed thickener, that his account of it was generously seasoned with red herring.

Unfortunately, by the time the blancmange question came to the fore, Dad's mother wasn't available to tell us exactly how she made it.  My money would be on the difference in ingredients, especially vanilla.  But Dad also isn't available for comment, so I can't try it out.  The secret of my grandmother's blancmange has passed into the mists of history, never to be recovered.