Nonfiction: Helena Writes #63--On the transportive power of writing about food

Helena Writes, Helena Clare Pittman's monthly Center column on her writing life
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Helena Clare Pittman, one of the Center’s most dedicated teachers, has written, painted, and taught her entire life. In her monthly Helena Writes series, she shares a lifetime of wisdom, one pearl at a time.

In her 63rd post, Helena goes deep into a childhood memory of eating chocolate pudding with her sister. Enjoy!


Eating Chocolate Pudding With My Sister, Jo

My mother has made chocolate pudding for my sister and me. It is cooked chocolate pudding, from a small box.  My mother never used instant chocolate pudding. She used the kind that needs milk added to it, the kind that had to be stirred and stirred on our gas stove, until it bubbled. Then she poured it into four glass dishes—Pyrex. She stood them on the counter until they cooled, then put them into the refrigerator.  

But that day, the day I remember distinctly, though it was one of many days, so it may be a general image of a memory, the chocolate pudding was room temperature. That means my mother will have left two servings out on the counter, refrigerating only the other two.

This chocolate pudding is fresh. It’s warm, but not too warm. Not too warm to be its wonderful self. Hot would be out of the question, impossible to taste. Just warm enough, not too warm, not too hot, not too cold, but just right, like the Three Bears’ porridge. But porridge is porridge. And chocolate pudding is chocolate pudding.  

The tops of the chocolate pudding have developed a rubbery layer, as they will, when they cool. That rubbery layer is my favorite part. I call that rubbery, circular thing—that hardening layer in the shape of the glass Pyrex bowl, Side. Side. I call it Side. Why do I call it Side? I don’t know. But that’s my word for it, Side, capitalized for its importance. As if it is a proper name. And it is, to me, the younger of the two of us, Jo, for Jolene, and me. Side. The name has a content, a character, it holds the distinction of the part of the chocolate pudding—the chocolate pudding only my mother makes—that seems the crescendo, the point, the essence of the chocolate pudding. The reason for the chocolate pudding. The culmination of its unimaginable deliciousness. It is the diamond of that melty, perfect, light brown sweet chocolate stuff. It is its gold.  

Everyone in my family, my mother, my father, and my sister, knows I call the top of the chocolate pudding Side. Everyone, I realize now, seems to accept that I call it that; no one questions the name, nor me about the name I call it. It seems taken for granted, a casual reality in the life of our family. Wendy—my given name, taking the gift of the name Helena later, in my twenties, from a holy man—Wendy calls the top of the chocolate pudding Side. It is a fact of life, growing up.

I don’t feel embarrassed about the name Side—in fact there is some kind of respect and self-respect my understanding of and relationship to the Side of the chocolate pudding carries with it.

That shiny, chewy circle is so beloved, the treat beyond description, beyond anything rational. I think now I named it because it had no name. It was an experience so sensory, so transporting, so almost beyond the world itself that my young being, four or five years old, if that much, found a name for it. It strikes me that Side was parallel to the characters I write in my stories. The persons that come alive, whose names come to me from somewhere, not my thinking, but by sound. Side. That was the name of the experience.


Eating the Side

I take the spoon, silver-plated, a pointed oval, my parents’ everyday ware—feel the Side, then let the spoon make a small tear. The soft pudding underneath, oozes through the puncture. I draw the Side onto my spoon—a slow, careful pull, eat it first. I’m gone—purely in the sensation of that tough, nearly leathery thing of chocolate. I have caught it with my tongue, pressed it to the roof of my mouth, then chewed and swallowed it. Nothing exists but Side. Time stops.

When the moment passes, I settle into eating the warm pudding, until I’ve scraped the glass dish clean, first with my spoon, then with my pointer, my finger. Isn’t it wonderful, I think now, that my mother didn’t reprimand me for using my finger to clean that dish of its chocolate pudding to get it into my mouth? That chocolate pudding my mother has prepared for my sister, Jolene, and me. 

Eating our chocolate pudding, seated, me at the head, she at the, well, side of the dinette table, cattycorner to me, my sister and I don’t speak. We are absorbed in the pudding. My mother is in the kitchen.  The dinette is a kind of antechamber attached to the kitchen. My mother has made that pudding for us. My father doesn’t eat chocolate pudding. He has other treats, like Ptcha—cow’s feet. He grew up eating that dish. That was the treat his mother, my grandmother, Rose, who died before I was born, cooked for my father, and I assume, for all my father’s family, his father, his sister and his brother—my grandfather, Joe, who also died before I was born, and my Aunt Laulie and Uncle Leo, before I knew them. My father loved Ptcha. No one but my father ate it. Not my mother, and not my sister, and not me. That was unthinkable. I didn’t judge Ptcha harshly; I didn’t feel an antipathy toward it. It just wasn’t for me. And, I see now, we also did not laugh at my father, or think it strange, that he loved Ptcha. I dimly felt the Ptcha came from Russia, The Old Country my family left—fleeing for their lives. The Ptcha was a connection for my father, I’m thinking now, a first-generation American, through his parents, to his ancestral roots. My ancestral roots. He sat with us at that same dinette table, at the head of it, bent over the bowl of Ptcha, right there with my mother, my sister and me, eating salad, meatballs and spaghetti, or my mother’s wonderful pot roast, sweet and sour. My father would get to the rest of the meal, after his bowl of Ptcha. He was not set apart from us, just as no one set me apart for Side. And how good of my mother to cook Ptcha for my father, when she would not join him in that treat.   

But chocolate pudding was the treat of treats for my sister and me, not an everyday thing, as Ptcha was not an everyday thing for my father.  

Chocolate pudding was as special as a birthday. We ate it two, maybe three times a year. My sister and I at that dinette table, on chairs covered in oilcloth that stuck to my naked legs in summer. My sister and I ate, we savored the chocolate pudding slowly.  

It comes to me now that my sister ate hers  v e r y   s l o w l y. More slowly than I.

I realize it’s something she can hold over me. I’ve finished. She’s still eating that wonderful pudding. And now it comes back to me! I glimpse her face. Her green eyes are looking square at me, under her eyebrows, spooning onto her tongue a mouthful of pudding. I think she says, “Mmmmm,” a subtle sibling rivalry! 

But I have eaten Side. And that outdoes sibling rivalry. Side is such a cross-over experience—the Side— it is almost a spiritual thing. It is about me and something so irrational that it distinguishes me in some authentic, some essential way. 

Side. Only I value it this way. Only I call that air-thickened top layer of the chocolate pudding, Side. It is as intimate a thing as my relationship with my stuffed bear, Brownie, who still lives and breathes with me, here in my woods, alive as he has always been. We have been together since my parents and I found him at toy store, when I was four, about the age of this memory.  

Side is an experience that is completely original to me. Completely my own.  


This writing is the fruit of the prompt: Food. A friend and I get together as often as we can to write. My friend Carol is a wonderful writer. It is a good thing to have someone to write for, Carol—and the readers of this blog.


What food is emblematic of your childhood—what food that, when you eat it, transports you back in time? Have you ever written about it? What did you think of Helena’s latest column? Share with us in the comments.

Related reading: Helena Writes

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