Anytime I see banana pudding on a menu, I'm filled with an euphoric sense of well being and taken back to a special moment in my life when I learned an important lesson about jealousy and love.
It all began when my stepchildren came for a visit shortly after their father and I were married. Cheryl was 8, and Chuck was 10. Our small apartment soon became an obstacle course littered with stuffed animals, toys, and games.
But I liked the kids from the start. They were everything I could have wanted in a son and daughter.
Of course, I wanted to win them over. They seemed to like me well enough, but I wasn't sure, especially at mealtime. Cheryl, in particular, enjoyed watching me prepare the evening meal and shadowed my every move in the kitchen. She had an insatiable curiosity combined with an enchanting, yet somewhat disconcerting, honesty.
"Whatcha doing?" she asked.
"Making potato salad," I replied.
She stood on her tiptoes and scrutinized the bowls of chopped pickles, eggs, and onions. Her lips curled in disgust. She pointed at the bowls. "What's that? And that ... and that!"
My answers did not seem to please her. She shook her head in disapproval. "My mama doesn't make it that way," she informed me.
"Well, just taste it at dinner," I countered, smiling thinly to mask my irritation. "If you don't like it, you don't have to eat it."
It became a nightly ritual. Unfortunately, her father believed that children should eat everything on their plate, including a sample of any dreaded dish that their mother made in a different way than I did.
As a result, I started to feel like Snow White's wicked stepmother, plotting against the princess as I willed her to succumb to my culinary magic. Chuck, who at first ate anything and everything, developed critical tendencies. He soon took up the hue and cry of "Mama doesn't make it that way."
Each night after dinner, we sat on the sofa with Dad in the middle, a child on each side, and me on the outside. It seemed appropriate. I was feeling more and more like an outcast.
One night while wrestling with his father on the sofa, Chuck found some stray popcorn kernels under the cushions. Cheryl chastised me, saying that her mama always vacuumed under their sofa seats every week.
By this time, I was developing a serious dislike both for her mother and her methods.
Then, at last, I found a dish their mama didn't make – one both the kids liked – banana pudding. They helped me in the kitchen. Chuck beat the egg whites for the topping while Cheryl carefully lined the pan with vanilla wafers. I cut up the bananas and prepared the filling. They both licked the bowl. We all had fun. It was a time of sharing and laughter.
Later, making banana pudding became a cherished family tradition.
On the last night before they were to return home, we had arranged a family get-together. When the doorbell rang, Cheryl scampered to answer. My sister-in-law Carol stood framed in the doorway with a large bowl clutched in her hands.
"What's that?" Cheryl immediately wanted to know.
"It's banana pudding," Carol offered proudly.
Cheryl took a closer look, then shook her head from side to side and said, "Karen doesn't make it that way."
I dissolved in laughter that no one else understood. Suddenly, my tension and anxiety disappeared, and I knew that when those kids got back home, their mother would be hearing a lot about how "Karen doesn't do it that way." She had my sympathy and respect.
It seemed their mom and I had more in common than I thought, we both used one important ingredient in our cooking, the most active one – love.