AS A BOWL of strawberries bought the day before at the Waverly Farmers' Market got passed around the Easter table, my sister Mimi made a telling comment. She was recalling some our family's eating practices and recalled that no matter what the main course was, we always had a dessert, a real dessert, most always homemade and usually pretty tasty.
Desserts always get good press because they are, after all, sweet. And for all the time and trouble it takes to make a good stew or chicken pot pie, all it takes is a good strawberry to steal the dinner-time show.
I grew up in a Baltimore home where there were some really fine final courses. There was a seasonal progression too, with your gingerbread and warm lemon sauce on cool fall nights, strawberry shortcake in June, and lemon meringue pie in the summer.
Desserts were given a serious status in the house where I grew up. Often times, by the time I appeared by breakfast, generally no later than 7 a.m., the evening's treat already had been made by my grandmother or her sister. If it wasn't ready yet, the 12 empty dessert bowls would be set out. Sometime later in the day, they'd be filled. Then by 6, they'd be empty again.
These desserts were anything but fancy and elegant. They were things like brandied peaches, poached pears, fruit cocktail (a huge 1950s favorite, with, of course, the cherry on top), stewed strawberries, floating island, apple brown betty, rice pudding or cinnamon cake. On a really lean night, when the cook didn't feel like turning somersaults, there could be plain old applesauce with cream.
Iced layer cakes were for birthdays and occasions, not everyday.
It seems to me we had an ice cream freezer, but hauling in the ice and the rock salt was too much of an ordeal. My mother was in charge of our alternative operation: She improvised a way to beat cream, add strawberries and freeze it in the refrigerator.
The 1950s were the heyday of the commercial product called Jell-O, which was never used at our Guilford Avenue home. The store brand, A&P, was probably two cents cheaper, but in Baltimore, that counted mightily.
My grandmother was born in the 1880s and her sister in the 1890s, before gelatin products were so common. I think they frowned on their overuse, so they applied their personal touches. They added fruit -- and most important, bought fresh whipping cream and served the red wiggly cubes covered with fresh sugared cream.
They never made cookies as a dessert, except at Christmas, when they made one variety, a rich buttery nutmeg variety. Guests begged for them. The sisters made pounds and pounds and stored them in stone crocks in the cellar or front hall closet. You knew you were in good status when you were selected to make a haul down there to fetch them for the dinner table.
These chefs admitted they weren't great ice cream makers, so they traded heavily with two independent confectioners, establishments located in very different Baltimore neighborhoods: the great Fiske's on Park Avenue near North in Bolton Hill and Horn & Horn near The Block on Baltimore Street.
Both of these creameries required a ride in the car -- although Fiske's also delivered in a handsome dark blue wagon with gold lettering. (It's hard to imagine today calling up a place and having a couple of quarts of ice cream or water ice delivered to your house within a few hours.) The frozen dessert arrived well-packed in dry ice. After supper, we'd put it in a tub of water on the back porch to produce a smoke effect.
My grandfather liked Horn's vanilla so much he would order a half a cantaloupe and instruct the waitress to place a scoop of vanilla in it. My grandmother, on the other hand, acted as a tour guide when we went downtown for a sweet treat. When we visited Horn's to retrieve the precious vanilla, chocolate and coffee ice cream, hand-packed for 12, she always pointed out the dancing girls' legs on the Gayety burlesque house sign.
Pub Date: 4/10/99