Robert had an intense dislike for rolled oats, which his mother often served for breakfast. He despised the texture, and he found the taste repulsive. He was forced to choke down many a bowl filled to the brim with the disgusting stuff. Cream of wheat was almost as bad, but he could swallow it with less trouble. During the year when he was in Mrs. Hail’s class, Ida began to give up the fight for rolled oats and occasionally set a Kellogg’s Variety Pack in the center of the table.
Robert felt a huge relief! Even if his brother took the best cereals (Sugar Smacks, Sugar Pops, Raisin Bran, or Rice Krispies), Robert could easily eat Sugar Frosted Flakes or Special K. Robert found Corn Flakes marginally acceptable. OKs were—well—OK!
On the happy mornings when the Variety Pack made its appearance on the breakfast table, Robert emptied the cereal into a china bowl, put two heaping teaspoons of sugar on top, and poured the fresh milk straight from the cow around the mound of sugar. He was fascinated to watch the milk soak into the sugar, transforming it from white granules to gray layers that gradually slipped below the creamy surface. He spooned the cereal carefully, so that, by the end, the bottom of the bowl would have a thick layer of sugar that he could spoon out with the last of the milk. Kellogg’s had been offering variety packs as long as Robert had been alive, but Ida did not yield to their convenience until Robert was in school.
Jell-O was a different story. Ida had fallen fast for the convenience of Jell-O dishes, and she was quick to use all the recipes in the women’s magazines. Jell-O (a mixture of gelatin, fruit flavors, and sugar) was served at almost every dinner and every supper.
Orange Jell-O packed full of shredded carrots and chopped raisins was a popular item on Ida’s menu. Lime Jell-O featuring crunchy chunks of celery was another. Robert greatly preferred fruit in his Jell-O. Black cherry Jell-O harboring large bing cherries was one of Robert’s favorites. Then came lime Jell-O with crushed pineapple and heavy cream mixed together on a bed of crumbled graham crackers and topped with a layer of whipped heavy cream and chopped walnuts. The latter dish became a staple.
On special occasions, Ida made a mold of a fruity Jell-O with mandarin orange slices. A topping of whipped cream was available for most of the Jell-O dishes made with fruit.
Ida bowed to convenience when it came to international cuisine, too. Italian food was Chef Boyardee from cans. Asian food was LaChoy’s Chop Suey Vegetables with chunks of pork added and with the dish poured over LaChoy Chow Mein Noodles. Mexican food was Van Camp’s Tamales with Sauce (also from a can). Ever since the Korean War, Ida had witnessed a time of a burgeoning variety of foods and ever-greater convenience—a convenience that she embraced enthusiastically (sooner or later).
Even though Ida was a skilled baker, she enjoyed buying doughnuts and bread from Graves Bakery on the State Street hill near Purdue University in West Lafayette. Almost every week, she successfully made the turn from State Street, across the oncoming traffic, over the gravelly hump just beyond the sidewalk, and down into the parking lot, where she moved her foot back and forth from the brake to the gas pedal to the brake and to the gas pedal until she felt the car was parked well enough. Once Robert’s nearly carsick vision had cleared, he waited in the Chevrolet Bel Air while Ida gained the sidewalk and hurried out of view toward the front door of the bakery. Robert looked up in fascination at the large billboard on the side of the building.
Regularly, the billboard changed, but it always announced the delights of baked goods from Graves Bakery and it always included a painting, usually a child with rosy cheeks and an endearing smile who was enjoying a jelly-filled doughnut or similar sugary treat. The painting on the huge poster always exhibited a heartwarming realism reminiscent of Norman Rockwell’s work but lacking a complete background so that the words could be prominently displayed against a plain backdrop. Robert studied the colors and the ways the artist fashioned the facial features, the clothing, the hands, the light, and the shadows.
Soon enough, Ida returned with two big bags of doughnuts and sweet rolls.
“They had a sale on cinnamon twists, and I bought extras,” Ida said with evident glee, as she carefully placed the white paper sacks in the back seat.
The bakery items usually were devoured before the next week’s trip to West Lafayette, but, when they were gone, Ida might make cinnamon toast for breakfast.
After many glum mornings staring down a bowl of rolled oats, Robert was ready to dance a jig whenever he awoke to the fragrance of cinnamon toast. Ida mixed butter, sugar, and cinnamon and lightly toasted it on slices of bread that were spread on a cookie sheet and placed in the oven. The satisfying crunch when he bit into the caramelized sugar was only part of the pleasure of eating his mother’s cinnamon toast. The sugar coating would flake slightly to reveal the hot buttery toast beneath. On especially fortunate mornings, Ida served mugs of hot cocoa. Dipping half a slice of plain buttered toast in hot chocolate was a delicious experience, but dipping half a slice of cinnamon toast in cocoa would make anyone over the moon!
Yes, Ida could bake cookies with the best of them, and her persimmon pudding was out of this world. Her forte, though, was pie. Robert could not remember a time when there was no pie cooling beside the meat grinder attached to the enameled counter of the Hoosier. Apple, peach, banana cream, cherry, blackberry, sugar cream, pumpkin, lemon meringue, chocolate, mince (but not made with meat), rhubarb, gooseberry, and even mulberry (on rare occasions) were only a few of the pies that came hot and mouth-watering from Ida’s oven. Almost every dinner was fortified with a generous slice of pie for dessert. It seemed she never missed! Ida’s pies never failed!
In addition to being baked in a pie, rhubarb took several delightful turns toward the dessert side of the dinner plates: rhubarb cobbler (sometimes mixed with strawberries), rhubarb coffee cake, rhubarb sauce (sometimes mixed with cherries) for ice cream, rhubarb crunches, and rhubarb crisps.
Ida’s gooseberry shortcake stole the show.
Quite often, Ida brought her brown cups of custard hot from the oven. Using a rasp, she grated nutmeg on top of each. Sometimes, the custard cups were filled with butterscotch pudding, chocolate pudding, or vanilla pudding.
Cakes were plentiful, too. Ida, Aunt Margaret, and Grandma Rhode all made delectable German chocolate cakes. Robert’s favorite birthday cake was a white layer cake with pink peppermint icing, but black walnut cake was also high on his list.
With the butter and cream that were fresh from Joe’s Holstein cows and with lard that was truly lard and with flour that knew how to behave, the baked goods that flowed from Ida’s oven were delicious beyond anyone’s powers of description. They more than compensated for the rolled oats and the cream of wheat that Robert had to consume at the start of the day now and then.