As I was peeling back the husk of an ear of fresh corn, I was hit with a wave of nostalgia. This is what my mother did when she took me to the farmers market. It sent me right back to childhood summers, when checking for worms in corn was the day’s biggest concern.
Foods are a direct route to memory. The smell, taste or sight of the foods we once ate take us back outside on summer nights, playing until we were called home for dinner, or to holiday meals with friends and relatives crowded around the dining room table.
Many nostalgic foods are personal. They are tied to where you grew up and where your ancestors grew up (hot German potato salad, seafood gumbo). Other evocative dishes cross geographical and cultural boundaries — tomato soup with grilled cheese sandwiches, for instance. Or meat loaf and mac and cheese. Then there are these old-time favorites, which remain as good as ever.
Wherever you’re from, you probably remember this because it was the default dessert in many American homes for those of us born in the mid-20th century. It’s no wonder. The recipe has three ingredients, takes 30 minutes to assemble and must be made ahead. The beautiful snow-white log looks like something you worked on all day. The only problem with the recipe is finding the thin, near-black wafers in what was once a familiar yellow box. Many supermarkets no longer carry them. But don’t panic. They’re available from Amazon and eBay.
In my childhood home, this was the go-to dinner. It was practical — used up leftover chicken — and it was comforting — white, creamy and served over a simple carbohydrate. My mother stayed with us for three weeks after my son was born, and I asked her to make the same dinner every night — chicken a la king.
This was the first food I learned to cook in the days when girls were in home economics classes while boys were in woodshop. One bite and I’m back in the wood-paneled dining room at a downtown department store where my grandparents would take me for lunch, which started with a basket of popovers.
My favorite childhood dinner also speaks to a different era, a time when American Chinese food was chow mein and chop suey. My mother used a recipe for Cantonese-style from her beloved The New Antoinette Pope School Cookbook, first published in 1948. The book has a whole section on the Cantonese cooking, which became popular after World War II as soldiers returned from the Pacific. I still love that fried rice on Sunday nights.
My parents’ fancy dinner parties in the 1950s and 1960s often ended with this wildly glamorous dessert. Guests were passed an orange or lemon to rub with a sugar cube which was tossed into a chafing dish filled with melted butter and liqueur. Then the whole thing was set ablaze before the sweet little pancakes went for a swim in the boozy liquid.
If there wasn’t a Nabisco chocolate wafer cake in the ice box, there probably was one of these in the oven. My mother’s standard was chocolate-pistachio made with, yes, cake mix and instant pistachio pudding mix. We got way too sophisticated for that, although I have been to 21st-century weddings featuring Bundt pans on the gift bridal couple’s registry. I hope they use them to make cakes that will give their grown children a catch in their throats when they remember.
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