In my home growing up, the family meal rarely revolved around stimulating dinner conversation or even the meal itself. In all of our minds, the main purpose of dinner was dessert. You could serve my father an old shoe basted in tar and he wouldn’t say a word. But if there was no dessert, he’d hit the roof. My two brothers and I each had designated days of the week for picking up groceries and one item that was always on the list was dessert. Being the shopper of the day was in some ways a coveted position because it meant you had the power to select the family dessert. My brother Jeffrey and I always went into a funk on the days our older brother Stuart got to pick the dessert because he always picked the Entenmann’s cake with the yellow frosting and coconut. Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against Entenmann’s; it made an appearance in our household so frequently that it should have been the fourth child. But that particular cake…ugggh! Stuart also frequently selected butter pecan ice cream, another dessert Jeffrey and I hated.
Jeffrey, being the clever one that he was, often selected the Entenmann’s six-pack cupcake assortment with two white and four chocolate cupcakes (I never understood why it wasn’t three and three). He picked this dessert for a reason. There were five people in my family and six cupcakes. Jeffrey would wolf down one cupcake and then go for the second. When we screamed bloody murder that he had already had his cupcake he would reply, “No, I already ate the EXTRA cupcake; now I am going to eat mine.”
On the days I got to pick dessert, I usually opted for the Entenmann’s chocolate cake with the chocolate frosting. I mean, really, is there any other acceptable choice? In my world, there is a social hierarchy for desserts and anything chocolate tops the list.
My father was so desperate to make sure there was always dessert on hand for him that he started buying what the family called “really bad cookies.” Really bad cookies were the equivalent of a generic version of Oreos. The cookie part tasted like cardboard and the filling tasted like sand. He viewed this as some sort of insurance policy; protection that if someone neglected to get dessert or finished whatever other treats were in the house, there would always be something sweet to dunk in the cup of coffee he drank every evening following dinner, But dad was sorely mistaken. We frequently gritted our teeth and held our noses and ate those cookies too, well before dinnertime, so he was sometimes left with nothing.
When I was about nine or ten years old, a new pie shop opened in the neighborhood called Four & Twenty Pies. They made fruit pies and cream pies that were so high in fat content, they should have included the same warning label you see on a pack of cigarettes. The pies were packed in neon orange cardboard boxes with a repeating geometric hexagon pattern resembling pies. Mom had to pass this pie shop on the way home from work and she started buying one or sometimes two at least once a week. But after a steady diet of lemon meringue, graham cracker pie with pudding, and a peach or apple pie here and there, dad’s weight began to balloon to close to 200 pounds. Mom quickly put the kabosh on the Four & Twenty Pies routine and put dad on a strict diet. The pie store closed about a year later (probably due to a lack of business from us) but it really was the best thing that could have happened. If we had continued down the slippery slope of pie-eating gluttony, a neighbor would surely have found us all dead with remains of blueberry and whipped cream on our faces.
Dessert wasn’t limited to dinner. When mom packed us school lunches there was always a dessert, usually a Drake’s or Hostess cake like a Ring Ding, Twinkie, or a Yodel. Judging from the majority’s reaction to coconut, mom knew better than to throw a Snowball in there. Mom was pretty predictable; there was always only one dessert in the lunchbox. One day I opened my lunchbox and found three Ring Dings in it. I thought I’d hit the mother lode. Obviously, mom was preoccupied or under a lot of stress the day she made this monumental mistake. She was probably obsessing about her job or an important family matter and just wasn’t paying close attention to where she was putting each of those Ring Dings. But did I care? Hell, no; I had three Ring Dings and my brothers had none.
Growing up, my kids never had a Ring Ding or a Yodel. My father thought this was appalling and considered reporting me to child protection services. He was determined to put my kids on a path of processed confections and my parents’ house quickly became the place with all the good stuff.
Dad didn’t live to witness the Twinkie debacle and if he had, he would have been gravely concerned. And while I no longer eat Twinkies myself, I gave my dad a silent high-five when they were bailed out of bankruptcy. Dessert may have made dinner fun, but the love of the people surrounding me at those dinners didn’t hurt either.