My mother and I had a secret tradition while I was growing up. During what were High Holy Days in my family (which were Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years), as our family slept, I would get up and keep my mother company while she prepared food for the day. I felt honored she would let me keep her company while she chopped, sliced, minced, peeled, ground, mashed and stripped onions, potatoes, celery, sage, thyme, giblets, eggs, peaches and yams. I would be the first to sample the sweet potato pie, dressing, giblet gravy and potato salad, and first to smell the hot sweet steam that rose from the browned crust of the peach cobbler.
“Stacey, pay attention to what I am doing,” she would say exhaustedly, amid the scents of fresh herbs, her fifth cup of Folger’s coffee, and smoke from her gazillionth cigarette. My mother used to tell me that if I did not pay attention to her cooking, I would not remember the recipes once she was gone. She was right about this! Well, sort of. I do not remember how she made her dressing, with that incredible balance of cornbread texture, turkey broth, finely chopped celery and onions that remained crisp but melted on your tongue underneath a creamy layer of giblet gravy. I do not know how to duplicate her earthy red sweet potato pie, nor her al dente potato salad. Though I did manage to graduate from the school of peach cobbler, and execute it with supreme perfection, according to my siblings.
Instead, what I take from all those years of High Holy Day overnights with my mother is a deep sense of connection to the foods that shaped my palate, not only for flavor or texture, but for what I understood to be American dietary staples and brands. In my household, the standard “holiday food” mirrored the national standard of “traditional” holiday cuisine. Turkey, dressing, gravy, potato salad, and pie were fine-tuned to our family’s sense of flavor and sat alongside grits, pigs’ feet and ears, collard greens, salmon patties, blackeyed peas and hot-salt-water-bread (cornmeal, salt and hot water, deep fried); but they were still reflective of an American identity centered around holiday food.
Jiffy Cornbread/Muffin mix, Quakers cornmeal, Morton salt, C & H sugar, Arm & Hammer baking soda, Clabber Girl baking powder, Dole canned peaches, Pillsbury pie crust, S & W candied yams, Saran Wrap, Reynolds Aluminum Foil, Folger’s coffee, Lipton tea, and Viceroy cigarettes were the brands that cluttered our cupboards, refrigerator and large freezer (that was locked and kept in the garage with loads of extra brand-named meats). This was only just the tip of this brand-name iceberg known as holiday Americana that laid the foundation for what I would come to know as the “common sense” of holiday food preparation, preservation, presentation, and consumption.
However, at the core of this inspired reflection on my family food practices at this time of year is not only the approaching holiday season, but remembrance of food from my childhood causing an onslaught of memories of my mother and condensed milk. Her diligence in feeding her family “homemade” goodness predates the Nigella Lawson’s glitzy meals made of pre-prepared canned, frozen, and dry foods mixed with fresh ingredients for sumptuous dinning. My mother has Ms. Lawson beat hands down!
One Smith family classic that both my mother and father got in on was banana pudding. Between the two of them we would get banana pudding at least 3 times a year, and no holiday was needed for this special occasion. When I asked my brother what he remembered about banana pudding, he literally sounded like a Food Network promo: “Banana pudding was the one thing you could look forward to. No matter what mood you were in, it would bring a smile to your face.” When I asked my father what he remembered he told me he’d loved it since he was a child and that whenever he returned home from service that his “mother would have a big bowl of fresh pudding waiting for him as he walked through the door.” He recalled times that when Jason and I would get super excited, all in the kitchen getting in the way, trying to help make the pudding from scratch.
My sister Michelle, on the other hand, hates bananas, always has, and remembered dreading its preparation because “the whole house would stink of bananas!” She recalled one time watching my brother begging for the spoon from the cooked pudding. “When he finally got it, he licked the pudding off like it was his last meal. I thought, ‘GROSS!’” she said. She also recalled that our mom would make her a special dessert, often something like lemon meringue pie, as a consolation for her exclusion from the family banana pudding fest. Of course, she pointed out that since it took longer for the lemon meringue pie to set up than it did for the banana pudding to cool off, she still felt cheated out of the whole “DIG IN!” fun.
Central to my family’s banana pudding recipe was Carnation’s condensed milk. It seemed like it was always present in our pantry. It was the “special” milk from a can that we used to make thick sweet fruit pudding. When I asked my dad for the recipe, he offered this version:
• Some bananas
• Vanilla Wafers (Nabisco Nilla Wafers, of course)
• Vanilla Pudding
When I asked for more specific details, my dad said:
Layer the vanilla wafers with slices of bananas in a thick glass bowl (use any clear Pyrex cookware here or a very sturdy ceramic bowl). Cook the pudding. Then pour the pudding over the sliced bananas and cookies. Then bake at 350 ‘til you think it’s done cooking.
Not bad for a seventy-five year old retired army sergeant, but I think there are maybe some other details to pulling off the best banana pudding for your family, if you should feel so inclined. The following recipe is from brandcooking.com and sounds familiar, without the oven part. For the lemon, I would go for fresh-squeezed Meyer lemons if you can find them, or a least a fresh lemon of any variety. And only Nabisco Vanilla Wafers will do. Bon appétit!
• 1 (14-ounce) can Eagle Brand Sweetened Condensed Milk (NOT evaporated milk)
• 1-1/2 cups cold water
• 1 (4-serving size) package instant vanilla flavor pudding mix
• 2 cups (1 pint) Borden Whipping Cream, whipped
• 36 vanilla wafers
• 3 medium bananas, sliced and dipped in RealLemon lemon juice from concentrate
• Vanilla Pudding
In large bowl, combine sweetened condensed milk and water. Add pudding mix; beat well. Chill 5 minutes. Fold in whipped cream. Spoon 1 cup pudding mixture into 2-1/2 quart glass serving bowl. Top with one-third each of the wafers, bananas and pudding. Repeat layers twice, ending with pudding. Chill. Garnish as desired. Refrigerate leftovers.