When I was young, I spent a couple of weeks every summer in South California with my aunts, cousins and grandma on my dad’s side. Dan and I relished these visits, partly because we happen to have a very fun family; with our beloved gaggle of cousins we would swim, stage plays, perform concerts, play backyard games vaguely resembling baseball and occasionally have big-time adventures that the grown-ups sponsored (think Disneyland, Universal Studios, Sea World, etc).
But mostly, we relished these visits because of the cereal.
Like many Berkeley-raised kids (then and now) we were not allowed to have the rainbow-hued, chemical-frosted, cartoon-endorsed breakfast fare that we longed for. Our cereals were brown, and grainy, and toothsome. And totally, completely disappointing.
But our cousins were lucky, lucky, lucky – their moms (our dad’s sisters, our aunts Debbie and Marty) were so much cooler than our parents … and so much less steeped in Berkeley whole-grain haughtiness. And our Grandma figured, I think, that she was giving my dad a little taste of his own authority-questioning. Whatever the reason, though, one thing is true: when we were visiting our extended family, we ate sugar-frosted-sugar for breakfast, for snacks, for anything we possibly could … Dan and I would wake up and feel a sense of excitement as we headed to the kitchen, ready to peruse the pantry and choose whichever cereal we wanted.
The summer when I turned six, there was a particular cereal that I longed for with all my heart. It had been around for a while, but I had yet to taste it: a favorite doll and a favorite flavor combined in what I was positive would be a food-joy to top all food-joys. Described by General Mills as “an artificial strawberry-flavor frosted corn,” to me it was simply Strawberry Shortcake cereal. And it haunted my dreams.
I found a box of that cereal in my Grandma Jan’s pantry that summer, waiting for me when we got there. I am pretty sure I ate the whole box at the first sitting, but Dan remembers having some too, so maybe not. At any rate, I felt loved and cared for and completely understood by my Grandma; she got it. She knew that some things, when we want them, can drive us to distraction. Some things can make us forget that there might possibly be anything else, ever, to eat. And sometimes, we have to have those things.
Even if what we come away with is the sad realization that the long-sought delight tastes just like our Strawberry Shortcake doll’s hair smells – and not at all like the juicy ripe berries and drifts of cream that our dad set on white cake for our birthdays.
It takes us all a little while to figure out what we want. From food of course – and from our lives, too. My friend Eva is leaving a job today, headed for bigger and better things, things she has wanted for a long time. The job she is leaving is one that we shared – literally – and as she leaves it, I feel my own connection to it whispering away. For each of us I think our job there was one that, for a moment in time, we coveted. We needed it – to bring us back home to the place where we grew up, to bring us into our marriages, to bring us to what was next and help us find what we actually wanted.
I would never eat that cereal today, and I cringe thinking about my little guys eating it – but if ever they want to try it, or whatever the new one is like it, I’ll let them. Just once.
I have a feeling that in tasting it, they won’t find what they’re imagining. But they might find something that will help them discover what they’re actually dreaming of.
Buttermilk Muffins with Summer Fruit
I learned how to make muffins from The Joy of Cooking, so this recipe no doubt has roots there. These are not the summer-fruit shortcakes that Dan and I preferred each year for our birthdays – but they are definitely reminiscent of them. They have a bit of tang from buttermilk, and sweet jammy pockets of fruit, and a little bit whole-grain chew, but still a soft bite. You can use whatever fruits you want – they are great with berries, peaches, nectarines, plums, or some combination (for the muffins in these photos I used one large plum, one peach, and four strawberries). Also – they freeze well. In fact, my favorite way to eat them is toasted out of the freezer, with a little cap of creme fraiche.
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup spelt or whole wheat flour
3 tablespoons sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup buttermilk
1 large egg
1/4 cup butter
1 1/2 cups chopped summer fruits (see headnote)
1-2 teaspoons Demerara sugar
Heat the oven to 350°F. Butter your muffin pans (I use one mini and one standard).
Toss the chopped fruit together with the Demerara sugar, and set aside. Melt the butter.
Whisk together the flours, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a bowl. Whisk the melted butter in a separate bowl with the buttermilk and the egg (make sure not to let hot butter touch cold egg!).
Pour the liquid ingredients over the dry ingredients and stir gently until just incorporated. Add the fruit and gently fold in.
Spoon the batter into the muffin pans. Bake for thirty minutes, or until the muffins are slightly domed and golden.
Best eaten the day they’re made, or frozen and then reheated in the toaster.