Sunday, May 9, 2010


My editor wanted a story on banana pudding.

People need a break from the flood, she said. You’re helping them by giving them that.

I didn’t believe her.

Sitting at my desk with stacks of cookbooks, I couldn’t keep my eyes on the Word document where I should have been writing about tricks for perfectly peaked meringue or which wafers taste best.

No, my eyes were fixed on Facebook instead.

I read that Jeremy, the chef at Tayst, had made gumbo for a team of volunteers helping Marne Duke, a tireless supporter of the local food community who had lost her home. I saw pictures of food that Tandy and his staff at City House delivered to the Red Cross. My friend Michelle even helped a stranger named Mary clean out the Madison home she had lived in for 50 years.

My city was still underwater. Friends needed help. And I was supposed to write about banana pudding?

Then I remembered my grandfather. He ate banana pudding every chance he could get.

A tall thin man with a booming voice, I had seen him clear out half a casserole of the stuff, scooping it into a soup bowl rather than a dessert plate. He ate it at his sisters’ houses. He ate it at restaurants. He made it at home. But I also saw him eat it at a makeshift table of plywood laid across two sawhorses in the middle of a flooded hardware store. It was 1990, and the family business that his father had started in the 1930s – and that he later sold to my parents – had just been carried away.

The plywood table was a drop-off spot for donated food. Church ladies brought potato salad. Neighbors brought green beans and crock-pots of soup. My grandfather’s sister Ruth had brought my grandfather a specially prepared gift.

So okay, I thought. A story on banana pudding, it is.

My parents were inside the hardware store as it began to flood. The mayor of our small town, McCaysville, Georgia, had called early that morning to warn them that water was lapping the town bridge. My mom grabbed a broom on the way out the door thinking she might need to sweep out some water.

About 200 yards from the store my dad’s truck flooded out. They rushed on inside to cut the power and pick things up off the floor. The little hardware store represented three generations of livelihood for our family. They weren’t about it to leave it easy.

They filled a garbage bag with the accounts receivable, cash (about $500) and insurance papers (“Which didn’t mean a hill of beans,” mom learned later) and started out the door. But the water against the front door was already over 3-feet high. They couldn’t push it open using both their body weights. Lucky for them, because the current would have carried them away, too.

Trapped, they called 911. Maybe we’ll wait it out, they thought. But the water was thigh-high at that point. They started to look for other ways out, and my father literally shoved my mom out a back door and up a ridge behind the store giving her a momentum. He yelled for her to climb with all her might. He went out a second side door, where water had began to eddy at a slower rate. He grabbed a ladder from the lumberyard to climb to the top of the building. And as my mom watched from a rock on the ridge, he took a running leap – about 15 feet — throwing himself onto the bank. And then she lost sight of him. “The water was so loud,” she said of the driving rain and river. “I was yelling for him, and I couldn’t hear a word until he showed up.”

The water rose to 7 ½ feet inside the store that day.

I have heard the story hundreds of times. It happened when I was 16. But hearing it last night, after I called mom to quiz her about banana pudding, my grandfather and the flood, I realized for the first time how close I truly came to losing them. The aftermath of the flood here somehow brought it home to me.

The water receded quickly at my family’s store – much quicker than it has here. We started cleanup the following day, but it took us two days to clear a path to the office. It was a mess of paint cans, overturned display cases, rolls of wallpaper and cabinetry. A chair from the office sat on top of the front counter. But my mom remembers the florescent light bulbs. “They had floated all over the store, because we sold them,” she said. “They were like swords.”

But when the cleanup came, so came the friends. And the food. Which brings me back to banana pudding.

My grandfather had a very particular way of assembling his banana pudding. He would make a layer of wafers with a slice on banana placed precisely on each cookie, while my grandmother stirred the custard in the pan. He whipped up a meringue and baked it just until the peaks toasted. It was often a Saturday-evening process for a Sunday lunch or potluck. He was precise about many things, even insisting that my brother and I never call him grandfather, only J.J. That was his name.

When the store flooded, my mom told him to stay away. “Please don’t come, you will be heartsick,” she told him. “That was three generations of work gone in that few hours. Gone.”

But then again, he could never stay away. Even after “retirement,” heart surgery, and a loss of most his hearing, he’d mosey on down on most afternoons. Customers had to shout at him to say hello.

I asked my mom if J.J. had any words of wisdom after the flood – even during cleanup.

“He just got quiet,” she said. “He was always there, but you could tell he was hurt. Probably hurt for us, because when we bought the business he said, 'if you guys can work this for 10 years you can retire no problem.’”

But our little mining town had gone through two employee strikes and two layoffs. The mines closed. Then came the flood.

My parents did bring the business back to life. They sold it eventually. They still work at 63 and 65, but they’re okay with that. “I have my kids, I have my health,” she said. “Stuff is just stuff.”

And thinking back on J.J., I don’t remember his quiet moments during the cleanup. I can’t imagine it, frankly. He had charisma that could fill the cracks of a room like floodwater. I remember him finishing his banana pudding at his sister’s house, dramatically scraping his bowl with the spoon — making a racket until she offered him more.

Maybe he had been subdued during the days after the flood, but I like to think – I hope – that his sister’s banana pudding brought him a bit of comfort, too.

So that’s my story on banana pudding. I don’t have anything to say about meringue or wafers. But tonight I think I’ll make a batch. Now, who needs it?


The J.J. method.

Banana pudding waiting for volunteers at the Nashville Farmers' Market.

I asked mom for J.J.'s recipe: "Oh he always used the one off the box."

Original Nilla Banana Pudding
(from Nilla Wafters, Kraft)

3/4 cup sugar, divided
1/3 cup flour
Dash salt
3 eggs, separated
2 cups milk
1/2 tsp. vanilla
45 vanilla wafers, divided
5 medium ripe bananas, sliced

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix 1/2 cup of the sugar, flour and salt in top of double broiler. Blend in 3 egg yolks and milk. Cook, uncovered, over boiling water 10 to 12 min. or until thickened, stirring constantly. Remove from heat; stir in vanilla.

Reserve 12 wafers for garnish (if desired). Spread small amount of custard on bottom of 1 1/2 quart baking dish; cover with layers of 1/3 each of the remaining wafers and sliced bananas. Pour about 1/3 of the remaining custard over bananas. Continue to layer wafers, bananas and custard to make a total of 3 layers of each, ending with custard.

Beat egg whites on high with electric mixer until soft peaks form. Gradually add remaining 1/4 cup sugar, beating until stiff peaks form. Spoon over custard; spread evenly to cover entire surface of custard.

Bake 15 to 20 min. or until lightly browned. Cool slightly. Top with reserved 12 wafers if desired.

7 comments: said...

J- this is beautiful. My reaction and thought process would've been the same as your's if someone asked me to write about food during this. Until I would come around to the realization, like you did, that food is one of the things that brings us together during this. Everywhere I've volunteered, people have brought food. It's something you don't think about until you can't make it because your fridge is flooded and your counters are ripped out. Beautiful story. I've never had banana pudding but this will change that. You captured food as a healing agent so well. Loved it!

LG said...

Great story! That pie looks delish and I want to eat it up! Mighty sweet of you to make that for the clean up crew!

angie said...

i think this is your best work yet. seriously.

CaRoLiNe said...

I can't BELIEVE they wouldn't run that!!! Not only was it wonderfully written - but what a perfect tie in!!1 Ridiculous =(

Beth said...

I agree with Angie- this is one of the best pieces of food writing I've read in a long, long time!

Holly said...

Beautiful storytelling! Indeed, food is a tonic for the soul...

Sending many, many well wishes to Nashville.

VmarksTheSpot said...

That was lovely, Jennifer. It could easily have been a Sunday feature. Thanks for posting it.