If my mother taught me one thing about food, it’s that it can be a secret pleasure. There’s a naughtiness to surreptitious eating, a deep sense that you’re indulging yourself away from the eyes of others. It’s the same reason we go to the movies: We sit in the dark, watching the lives of others—and there’s pleasure, a tiny sexual charge.
A good girl by sensibility, my mother was famous for sneaking the icing off the cake in the fridge–one forkful at a time–or eating just the top of a halved watermelon “because it was the best part.” She took her pleasure in small bits, saving cans of Pepsi in the fridge with plastic lids so she could pour a few sips at a time over ice into a rocks glass the same way someone might dole out two fingers of bourbon. In this way, my mother eked out gratification; these pleasures she allowed herself in a life that didn’t serve up much of a sensual experience.
In my own life and my own kitchen, I’ve tried to make indulgence an art form. I want to meet flavors and sensations on the plate, in my mouth, with my hands. It’s only recently that I’ve seen my mother’s influence in this. Her forbearance, her secret indulgences and her pretenses, made me curious to go where she wouldn’t, to give myself permission to explore food out in the open.
Still, we share of a love of indulgence. Here is a list of foods that my mother ate that I now count as secret pleasures. I turn to them when I’m frazzled, needing comfort, or feeing nostalgic. Each has its own capacity to light up my brain, soothe and make me smile. Somewhere, mom is smiling too, eating whatever the hell she wants whenever she wants. Happy V-Day.
1. Cheesy Garlic Bread – made with Kraft Parmesan cheese mixed with Miracle Whip (Mayo for me) on top of already slightly toasted bread laden with butter and garlic salt, then put under a broiler until bubbly and just brown.
2. Baked Clam Sandwiches – Minced clams mixed with cheddar cheese and a bit of chopped onion with Miracle Whip (it was the 70s!), then slathered inside a hoagie bun, wrapped in tin foil and baked in the over until crunchy on the outside and gooey inside.
3. Bread slathered with butter. Need I say more?
4. Cupcakes – Always store bought, with the icing three times the size of the cake. I like the white ones, my mother preferred chocolate.
5. Buttered popcorn. With a soft drink. Diet coke for me. Pepsi for mom.
6. Buttered toast dipped in runny yolks.
7. Fratuda Dusa (Piedmontese for fried sweet) or the more common Italian, Frittura Dolci di semonlino – Lovely semolina (mom used cream of wheat) cooked with milk, eggs, almond extract and then once set, cut into squares or logs, dipped in egg, rolled in crushed vanilla wafers and fried in butter. We had it every thanksgiving with Turkey.
8. Lays Potato Chips – My own spin is to make home-made onion dip (saute a sweet yellow onion is a ton of butter, cool, add Worcester and mix into sour cream) or to get the kettle cooked variety and bake them with blue cheese.
9. Braunshwieger on white bread with Miracle Whip. Now I’d eat it with crunchy French bread and, you guessed it, Mayo.
10. Ice Cream Sandwiches – Eaten when they’re slightly thawed so you can press the chocolate halves together and lick vanilla ice cream out.