How many of our fondest early childhood memories are tied to sweets? It seems to me that all my kindergarten friends loved helping in their kitchens at home with making desserts — especially cookies, since they could go from warm oven to warm mouth so quickly, needing much less irksome cooling time than cakes or pies.
I vividly remember one rainy day when Mom and I were in the kitchen in 1953, making her special sour cream cookies. Luckily, my big sister was in elementary school and wouldn’t be home until later. Not only was she sibling competition and always grumpy around me (I never saw the causal connection), but she was one less big mouth to devour my favorite small cookies. Mom told me that the sour cream not only gave flavor to the cookies but also made them really soft and crumbly, just the way I loved them.
But what I remember most about that afternoon was what happened when the cookies were baking, and I was helping mom clean up. I defined “help” as licking batter off the beaters and whining ‘how much longer til they’re done?’ every minute on the minute. I saw Mom pick up the Borden sour cream container and eat the little bit remaining with a spoon while standing at the sink.
“Mom!” I cried out, “It’s SOUR cream!” I thought maybe she had confused it with whipped, my all-time favorite type. “How can you eat that?” I made a gruesome face usually reserved for my sister.
“You’ll see, Honey” she smiled, spooning the last drop. “One day you’ll like sharp tastes as much as you do sweet.”
Ah, Mom. Right about so much, but so wrong about that.
I am that rare adult with not one sweet tooth; I possess a full set of thirty-two, many with fillings (once again, I see no causal connection). I suppose there are certain sweets that I would not care for, but at this point in my brief seventy-five years of eating, that is a purely hypothetical speculation. Strangely, I was the only member of my family who was crazy about sweets, and even our old dog Bobo turned up his nose at my favorite caramel shortbread chocolate bars — until I patiently trained him to enjoy them with me, proving that you can indeed teach an old dog new Twix.
And so now I come to my petty complaint so early in this new year. I cannot tell you how many food gifts I have given to friends — be it cookies or honey or muffins or cobblers — and when they tell me how much they enjoyed the item, they’ll invariably say, “I loved it. It wasn’t too sweet!” I have always had this sinking feeling that in the highfalutin culinary world, a sophisticated palate is one that always eschews too much sugar.
Of the five distinct tastes that all tongues can detect — bitter, sweet, salty, sour, and umami — nobody seems to belittle the other four categories as being immature or juvenile when detected in any excess. And let me add here that the Japanese-borrowed term “umami,” meaning “the savory taste of meat broth and fermented products,” reinforces my belief that food snobbery is getting out of hand. Why not just call that particular taste “tangy” or “savory” rather than the pretentious-sounding “umami”? The last time I made that particular sound was when I was five and my mother was taking those delicious sour cream cookies out of the oven. ”Ooooo-Mommy!” I enthused.
“Sweet” doesn’t have the same stigma outside the food world. Is there a better adjective for an adorable baby or playful puppy than “sweet”? And on the other end of the spectrum, nobody ever wants their revenge to be salty or umami. No, we always want our revenge to be oh-so-sweet and therefore oh-so-satisfying.
As I close, I realize that I began writing these little essays in March, 2020, at the beginning of Covid, in order to keep in touch with all of you who have attended my talks or gone on our many Dickens Destinations travels and more recent conventions. Since we email these writings every other Monday, my next essay will be rather a special one. Do you realize that it will be my 100th?
What is there to say but — SWEET!
Elliot writes: With the start of 2024, Darian and I want to remind you how much I enjoy hearing from you when you respond to my essays and share your opinion of them or your personal experiences that they might inspire. I always respond personally to you. We've just had a large number of readers added to our email list after last week’s Best of Our State convention where I spoke on Mark Twain. I would love to hear that you are onboard.