Memoir Notebook is a monthly (sometimes more) column dedicated to longer works. We want you to meander, get caught up, find yourself taken to places you hadn’t intended to go (but are so glad, in the end, that you went). You’ll get thoughts on aesthetics, craft, latest issues, tips and books to read. But it will feel like poetic narrative. And sometimes it will simply be poetic narrative. Come away with us and Kathryn Neel. In today’s story, she’s making banana pudding and remembering Uncle Sonny.
“It’s the first time the banana pudding has been safe, ” Kim said after my Aunt Martha brought in a brown paper cube that contained Uncle Sonny’s ashes and placed it on top of the piano in my parent’s living room. Kim and I broke out in exhaustion-induced laughter until tears rolled down our faces and we collapsed into each other’s arms on the couch. Aunt Martha, always the staunch Southern Baptist, who never danced and never, ever saw the humor in anything, turned a sharp disapproving eye on us. Mother just looked at us as though we had gone completely mad. Perhaps we had. We were certainly not showing the proper stone-faced decorum that was expected of us under the circumstances. It always felt like we needed visas when we returned to Alabama. We had done the unthinkable and moved away from the “true South” when we both decided to go to college and stayed and built lives in that questionable “border state” of Maryland. Admittedly, as the oldest it was entirely my fault for doing it first and then leading my younger sister astray.
A few days earlier, while sitting in a cubicle in a nondescript government building in Washington, D.C., I had gotten the call, “Fred has died.”
I was momentarily confused, “ Fred who?”
“Uncle Sonny, that Fred, remember him?”
This conversation was the precursor to an almost nonstop 18-hour drive from D.C. to Tuscaloosa, Alabama–what my sister and I refer to as a bombing run. In our terminally southern family a death requires you to drop whatever you are doing, even if it’s brain surgery, and rush home immediately. Home, for the uninitiated (or non-Southerner) is not the place you reside or have resided for possibly many years; it’s where your parents and possibly even your grandparents reside. It is the land of your people, the familial stomping grounds so to speak. In our case, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, a bastion of antebellum architecture and debutante balls or pickup trucks and gun racks, depending on what side of the tracks you are from.
Many people believe that a common sense of history or place binds Southerners together, and while that is true to a certain degree, I believe that the thing that transcended religion, politics, socio-economics or what college football team you rooted for is food. It was and still is the social glue that holds the South together. World peace could be achieved if all the world’s leaders could just attend Sunday dinner at my Aunt Snook’s house. It is hard to be cranky and stern when faced with a mountain of fried chicken hot from a black cast iron skillet, whipped potatoes with perfect peaks and lakes of butter, biscuits made from scratch slathered with homemade fig preserves, sliced tomatoes and cucumbers fresh from the garden, and of course, my favorite, banana pudding.
I do not view banana pudding as a dessert so much as an art form and a portal to times past in my childhood. If it is to be used as a portal, then the strict rules of the art form must be observed. You can’t run down to the local grocery store, buy a box of Jell-O banana-flavored pudding, dump it in a bowl with cold milk and call it good. That would be the equivalent of smearing some finger paints on a sheet of paper and declaring it a Picasso. As my grandmother would have said, the niceties need to be observed, even when it comes to selecting ingredients and preparing banana pudding. In an ideal world, all your ingredients would come from a Winn-Dixie or Piggly-Wiggly grocery store, but if you were to find yourself in some far off land, like say, Massachusetts, any decent grocery store would do. (I once brought 75 pounds of corn meal back from Mississippi to D.C. on an airplane because I couldn’t find any in our nation’s capital with the right texture for corn bread. My sister said it looked like I was smuggling drugs as I had carefully wrapped my precious cargo in black plastic and sealed it with duct tape. Either TSA thought I was an extreme foodie or they were fellow Southerners who understood how hard it is to find proper corn meal. But I digress.)
The base ingredients for banana pudding are fairly simple and straightforward to the uninitiated. Sugar, cornstarch, milk, egg yolks, vanilla extract, butter, bananas and a box of vanilla wafers. Then there is the meringue that goes on top consisting of egg whites, cream of tartar and, of course, more sugar. The combining of these simple ingredients, however, is a symphony that I would witness and participate in from the time I was big enough to pull a kitchen stool up next to my grandmother’s kitchen counter. The sugar and cornstarch would be mixed together and then fresh whole milk would be slowly added. If we were cooking at my grandmother’s house I would know the name of the cow who graciously donated the milk for the day. The sugar, cornstarch and milk mixture would be cooked in the top of a double boiler over a low to medium heat. It would be stirred and watched constantly until it had thickened. This was a grave responsibility that was sometimes given to me after the ripe old age of 6 or so. I felt very grown up helping with this. Eggs would be broken and the yolks separated out. Usually I had collected the eggs from under the hens earlier that morning. An ancient gnarled peach tree that bloomed white and snowed blossoms every spring shadowed their hen house. One of the older women; an aunt, an adult cousin, someone older than I, would take the egg yolks and beat them slightly and then temper them with a small amount of the hot custard. The eggs would be added to the custard pot and cooked for a few more minutes then removed from the heat. At this point, a small dark bottle of vanilla would be produced and a crock of homemade butter. A teaspoon of vanilla would be added to the custard, it would create a dark swirl as it was mixed into the pale yellow custard. Then at least the equivalent of half a stick of butter would be added, maybe a little more just for good measure.
The assembly of the dish was where the individuality of the creator showed up. Everyone had a slightly different way of constructing their pudding that was as distinctive as their fingerprint. My grandmother always insisted that vanilla wafers line the bottom and sides of the blue bowl that she used. They were allowed to touch their neighbor cookie, but never allowed to overlap. She made it seem that there were biblical references to back this up. Then the pudding was added, then a layer of sliced bananas, alternating layers, but always ending with the pudding. This was put aside either on the windowsill or in the refrigerator depending on whose house we were at.
My Aunt Onte always insisted on creating little flower patterns with the vanilla wafers on top of the pudding before the meringue was added and she always used a 9×9 square clear Pyrex dish. Cousin Shirley, who was considered a little fast because she smoked cigarettes and flirted with boys, allowed her vanilla wafers to overlap. My grandmother’s lips always made a tight thin line when Shirley made the pudding. I think she (and God) did not approve of vanilla wafers consorting that way.
The final touch was to prepare the meringue to top the pudding. Some people have the meringue touch and some do not. While stirring the custard and minding the pots I heard endless discussions of proper meringue-making technique.
One time cousin Bessie Nell said there was some sort of meringue in a box that you just added water to and stirred. The silence that followed in the kitchen was as profound as the time as Davy Langford fell asleep in church. When someone poked him in the ribs to wake him up, he jumped and yelled, “Craps!” at the top of his lungs and everyone knew what he had been doing the Saturday night before.
The recipe for my grandmother’s meringue was quite simple: take egg whites, add cream of tartar and beat until soft peaks form. Then gradually add sugar until stiff peaks form. The final touch is to spread the meringue on top of the pudding and slide it into an oven and bake it until the meringue is a gradient of eggshell color at the base moving up to a golden brown on the upsweep of the peaks with a touch of darker brown on the very tip of the peak.
Usually around the time the pudding was being removed from the oven and a final verdict was being passed on its worthiness to be served, my Uncle Sonny would show up in the kitchen. As a rule, the kitchen–especially when cooking was going on–was a women only space. On more than a few occasions my grandmother had run male cousins and even my grandfather off with a wooden spoon when they dare enter her sacred space. But Sonny had diplomatic immunity. Perhaps it was because he was the only son, perhaps it was because he would charm all the women present, maybe it was because he would grab my grandmother and twirl her around and sing to her. In any case he was the only man allowed into the hallowed halls of the kitchen. He was tall, over 6 feet 4 inches, with broad shoulders and an infectious grin. I was quite sure I was going to marry him when I grew up. He was my knight in shining armor. Once he tied a rope around my rocking horse’s neck when it snowed in Alabama and pulled me from my parent’s house to my grandparent’s house like a sled. It seemed a long trip to me at the time; when I walked that same distance as an adult it was only half a mile. He would also play the ukulele and sing while I danced. What more could a girl ask for? Well, there was one thing. My knight had one maddening flaw: he loved banana pudding almost, or maybe more, than I did and in the dark of night he would often raid the refrigerator and eat all of the banana pudding and leave none for me.
The morning sun would rise, the rooster would crow, the world would stir, the smell of coffee, bacon and biscuits would waft down the hall to the room where I slept, and I would hear the sound of adult voices in the kitchen. I would lie there buried in quilts that had been piled on me so I wouldn’t get cold during the night and debate whether to leave my warm nest and put bare feet on cold linoleum to make a run for the warm space of the kitchen. At some point I would make a dash for the kitchen with nightgown flying and jump into the nearest lap to survey the kitchen terrain and in that moment my eyes would fall on the guilty mixing bowl in the sink with a lone spoon in it and the scant remains of banana pudding. My knight had fallen off his horse again. I would fly about the kitchen, searching the pie safe, the icebox, or any place I could think of where the banana pudding might have been put up, but there was no sign of it anywhere. The adults present, especially the men, tried not to laugh, when faced with a female of their line, even if she was only 6, in a complete snit. No offer of homemade biscuits with strawberry jam and butter could soothe me. No offer to bring in a baby chick to play with could dissuade me. I had a few words to say to Sonny.
With arms crossed and the determined stride of a miffed six year old I would leave the warm sphere of the kitchen to traverse the cold linoleum of the hallway to Sonny’s room. Unlike most of the other adults in my life who all seemed to rise at dawn Sonny rarely rose before nine o’clock. “Sleeping till the middle of the day, ” my grandfather would say, shaking his head as he headed off to the barn.
Using both hands to turn the heavy, intricately carved doorknob of Sonny’s room I entered the dark cave of my uncle’s domain. The morning sun was filtering in like streaks from a prism around the drawn shades. The room smelled like him–or more correctly, smelled like his aftershave. There were stacks of books everywhere and sometimes when I was bored or it was raining out Sonny would read to me about far away places and show me pictures or maps of places he had been. This morning, though, I was not distracted by the landscape of his life. I made a line from door to bedside and stood there, arms crossed, scowl in place and foot tapping. I had seen this technique used effectively by every woman in my family when the men in their lives had done something to vex them.
I could see the top of Sonny’s head sticking out from under the covers on the pillow. His hair was raven black and it was sticking out in funny directions. But I wouldn’t laugh. I continued to tap my foot and stare intently at the cowlick on the crown of his head, since I couldn’t see his face. Eventually, the covers moved a bit. Then slowly a corner of the sheet and quilt near where I thought his head was moved to reveal an eye that slowly opened. His eyes were a marvelous warm brown that usually twinkled when we got into mischief together. This morning the lone eye just stared at me and from the mound of bedclothes came a mumble.
“What? What did you say?” I asked.
More movement from the lump of quilts and bedclothes, then his entire head appeared. “I said what time is it, Short Stack?”
I picked up the alarm clock and stared at it intently. I had just learned to tell time, but it still took some work to figure out all those quarter-ofs, and half-pasts. “It’s 7:30 and I’m mad at you. You ate all the banana pudding, again. I’m telling on you to Granny-Gran this time, I’m not kidding!”
His head disappeared back underneath the covers with a groan.
Having decided that the grown up approach had failed me completely, I climbed up on top of the Army footlocker at the foot of his bed and jumped onto the bed where I proceeded to try to push my 200+ pound All-American uncle, covers and all, out of bed and onto the floor. At some point my attempts to move him would cause me to be reduced to giggles and shortly there after a baritone laugh would be heard from deep beneath the covers. “Okay, Short Stack, I give up. I surrender. I’m getting up. Throw me my bathrobe over there.” I would go and fetch his robe from the chair where it regularly lived. It was red with other colors and the pattern reminded me of an Indian blanket. While he was putting it on, I would fish around for his slippers under the bed or his favorite chair. When the errant slippers were found and were on his feet we would sit on the edge of the bed before making the trek down the hallway. Sonny would push his dark hair out of his eyes, yawn, then lean over and kiss me on the top of the head.
“I’m still mad at you about the banana pudding, just so you know.”
“But you’ll still marry me when I grow up, right?”
“Do you think Granny-Gran would make banana pudding for us instead of a wedding cake?”
“Now there is an idea.”
“Do you think she would make us another pudding today?”
“Let’s go ask”
Sonny would tousle my hair, toss me into the air and carry me down the hallway to the kitchen. My arms would be around his neck and as I peered over his shoulder down the long hallway lined with portraits of my ancestors starched and stern and I would stick out my tongue.
Now, as an adult, I’m surrounded by my mother and my aunt who will have a dreary minister drone on and on about salvation, Jesus, and how Sonny is now in a better place, though the minister will call him Fred. I wonder if he is in a better place or if he has been reduced to just a bunch of ashes in a sad pasteboard box on my parents piano. That would be the saddest of all.
That would not be the way to go, so I take the box of ashes and stroll into the kitchen, still in shades of olive green and burnt orange. I place the box on the kitchen counter and open the refrigerator. An unknown someone has made a banana pudding in a large teal blue mixing bowl. I take a large mixing spoon from the drawer and scoop out a large divot in the center of the dessert, open the box of ashes and pour them into the pudding. Of all the places on earth that Sonny would prefer to be I know here would be his favorite. It would certainly be mine.
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