I believe in cakes made with dissolved Jell-O and instant pudding mix. I believe in Dream Whip, Cool Whip, Miracle Whip and all the reverie they suggest, the clouds of white, puffy sweetness that you slather atop cakes and pies or mix into congealed salads. These spreads hold together more than appetizers and desserts, they bind me to the generations of women who came before me—my grandmothers, my aunts, my mother—who showed their love and creative imagination by cooking with convenience foods.
Today, as society turns ever-more gourmet, these short cuts have become taboo; their contents deemed lacking in nutritional value. Foodies scoff at these instant fixes and dismiss them as kitchen kitsch. After all, what would Alice Waters say? Dieticians and doctors point to them as the cause of obesity. But I say do not throw out the casserole with the Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup!
Last time I visited my mother, she and my father had picked strawberries that morning from a local farm that opens their patches to the public. For breakfast, I had a bowl of beautiful berries, the small, flavor-packed ones, perfectly ripe and tasting of spring. I fell back into nostalgia, the way taste bud time travel so often occurs. I asked my mother if she remembered a cake that my Aunt May used to make: it came to me vividly, a moist, white cake with Barbie-pink marbling running through it and icing that tasted like pure strawberry cream. Did she remember it? Aunt May made it for the Ladies Aid meeting when I was, what, five or six? The women were working on a quilt in the next room, and that I was small enough to sit under the quilt stand, eating a piece of cake beneath a giant fabric fort.
What made that cake so moist? So delicious? So special?
It’s a box cake you add strawberry Jell-O to, my mother informed me.
The next morning I woke up to a house smelling of burnt sugar. My mother had made Aunt May’s cake. I downed a slice with a cup of coffee for breakfast. It was good to be home, where women whip up cakes before I’m out of my pajamas.
Both my Aunt May and my grandmother lived on farms in the Midwest their entire lives. They grew most of their own food from massive vegetable gardens and raised livestock. They sold eggs for extra spending money and killed chickens for Sunday dinner with their bare hands. These were women who worked hard to put a meal on the table and never complained about it.
I like to imagine the moment when my grandmother met Betty Crocker. “Just Add Water and Mix,” must have seemed a miracle for someone used to making everything from scratch, including all her family’s clothes. Slow cooking is a great idea, but what really impressed my grandmother was the wonder of one-minute rice. For a generation of women whose lives were devoted to cooking, convenience food permitted something truly unique: a moment of rest.
I believe that recipes are the most valuable family heirlooms, be they for Nana’s Boiled Custard or Strawberry-Pretzel Salad. But tragically the words written down don’t carry all the information you learned from waiting nearby to lick the spoon. Try as I might, I can never perfectly recreate the taste of childhood, but as long as there are still envelopes of Dream Whip available at the grocery store, I will try.