Comfort Me with Pop Tarts
At her school’s annual fete, Anne and I are trying to guess the number of marshmallows in a jar. I don’t particularly want Anne to win the marshmallows, but I can’t resist approaching it as a math problem—sorry, a math opportunity.
We first imagine how many of the small pink cylindrical marshmallows would fit in Anne’s hand; then, how much of the jar that one handful would fill, and how many handfuls it would take to get to the top. When we have our number, we write it down, and skip off to the bouncy castle. We are surprised, hours later, to find out that Anne’s guess was exactly correct, to the marshmallow.
Anne loves marshmallows, but I convince her it will be more fun to give them away to her friends by the handful than hoard them at home. We walk back through the crowd, greeted like heroes, passing them out to kids who are already sticky from cotton candy (called Candy Floss here) and ice cream cones. The last twenty or so will make their way to our pantry and sit in a bag until a month later when they make a handy bribe for potty training my youngest. Years from today, will he find that every visit to the men’s room brings on an inexplicable marshmallow craving? If so, he will have me to blame. I still remember when my brother made the lucky guess on a 5-liter jar of jelly beans when we were kids. Of course, the big winner was our dentist.
Ten years after moving to London, and twenty-three years after leaving my family home in Florida, I don’t get homesick very often. But when I do, my feeling of longing is not for a place; it’s for familiar people—the best people—and nostalgic foods, the worst foods. (Find me someone who longs for enemies and celery. I’ll wait...) Sometimes books help get me through these feelings more reliably than anything else. My daughter and I are working our way through the Ramona Quimby stories. Last summer, we read the first 6 Nancy Drews (until all the plots started to run together and we took a break). The year before that, it was the Anne of Green Gables books. But so far the biggest hit of my childhood library has been Roald Dahl.
We have just finished re-reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The book has me thinking about the outsized role of candy in a child’s imagination. When we got to the part about how Charlie was so poor that he only got to eat one bar of chocolate each year, on his birthday, Anne’s breath caught audibly in her throat. For Anne candy is more a once a week sort of treat, but she and her friends spend a lot of time thinking about it anyway. So did Dahl, who ate a Cadbury bar after lunch every day and saved the foil wrappers, one rolled around the next, until they resembled a cannonball. Go ahead--Google it--it’s now part of the permanent collection at the Roald Dahl Museum.
Anne’s friend Matilda, who has visited the US before, is particularly fascinated by American candy, which in her mind is of limitless variety and (ironically) Willy Wonka-style inventiveness. She describes in salivating detail the American candies she knows, like Twizzlers, and she loves to invent her own candy bar combinations and ask me if they exist “in America.” And I’ll say, “No—but listen to this!” Then I describe my favorites and watch the kids’ faces register delight (Almond Joy, Snickers) or disgust (Peppermint Patties, Atomic Fireballs).
Because they are 7, and the daughters of health-conscious mothers, what Anne and Matilda love most are the real tooth-achers: Jolly Ranchers, Nerds, Starburst. But Anne may be alone among 7-year-olds in not understanding the purpose of chewing gum. The first time a friend gave her a piece, she put it in her mouth and chewed for a minute, then bent over and started spitting on the ground to get rid of the taste. Anne got really mad when everyone laughed.
Although I don’t chew it much anymore, in my experience American kids are born knowing how to chew gum, and don’t require lessons. This wasn’t the first clue that Anne gave me that she is actually an English child. The first time she saw ice water, at age two, she asked what was floating in it. Sometimes I feel conflicted about the cultural experiences she is missing out on.
I adore British candy, and if you check my suitcases on the way out of the Heathrow you will find all the sweets I am sharing with my American family and friends: Cadbury Dairy Milk, chocolate buttons, Smarties (like M&Ms, but the orange ones have orange-flavored shells), Flake Bars, and Bendick’s Bittermints (my and my parents’ favorite). But if you check my bags on the way home, the Toll House Morsels, Peppermint Patties and peanut butter M&Ms are mostly, as they say on the customs forms, for my own use. Sometimes, when homesickness hits, books aren’t enough.
A few weeks later, on my way to the gym (anyone with a sweet tooth like mine has to atone for it somehow) I notice a new shop. Chaotically, thrillingly colorful and stocked to the rafters with American junk food—all of the tastes of my childhood, plus. Not only Oreos, but birthday cake-flavored Oreos. Not just Jell-o but Jolly Rancher flavored Jell-o. M&Ms in flavors I love already—peanut butter, almond, mint—and flavors I never imagined. Pretzel? Yes, please. Coffee? Bleurgh!
Then, I see the Pop Tarts. They have every kind, but my eyes find Strawberry right away. I haven’t eaten a Pop Tart in 20 years at least, maybe twenty-five! I buy a box, along with pretzel M&Ms and cherry Jell-o that will endear me to every kid on Anne’s next play date. The total comes to an eye-watering 14 pounds—about $18—but I’m so eager to introduce Anne to the nostalgic flavors of my childhood, I don’t even care. When we were in college, my half-English husband once hosted a “Low Tea,” serving Twinkies, Oatmeal Cream Pies, Entenmann’s Coffee Cake and powdered donuts. Our tastes were still childish back then and I’m afraid my palate hasn’t matured much.
I already know my son, Henry, won’t be trying any of these treats because he is, to put it mildly, a conservative eater. I have one child who has been slurping down raw oysters since the age of three and prefers her shrimp to be served with the heads on so she can suck the brains. Her little brother will go on a 24-hour food strike if you serve him the wrong pasta shape. They both have a sweet tooth like their mother, but I’m not optimistic about Henry and Pop Tarts. Anne’s Dad introduced her to shellfish. It’s one of many special things they like to eat together. Pop Tarts can be ours.
Back at home the next morning, I unveil the Pop Tarts with real ceremony. Anne is suitably impressed. Is she actually about to be offered what appears to be a plate-sized frosted biscuit full of jam FOR BREAKFAST? Yes, yes she is. Let me tell you, a strawberry Pop Tart is my Proustian Madeleine. It comes out of the toaster hot, Hot, HOT and I juggle it to the plate. As I taste it, my thoughts travel immediately to the other 6 packs of two in the box on the counter. This is going to be trouble. Oh, well, probably best if I eat most of them, as they might stunt Anne’s growth...
My greedy reverie is interrupted by the voice of an outraged child. “YUCK! THIS IS DISGUSTING! Mom, you eat mine, okay?” Anne hadn’t spit her first bite of Pop Tart out, but she’d pushed her plate away and the look on her face was eloquent. Anne would rather have a nice buttered crumpet or even a bit of baguette with butter and a wedge of comté. She loves bagels. (We can buy them on Brick Lane, but only the plain kind. The rainbow bagel and the everything bagel have not made their way here yet. I miss sesame.) She even appreciates a pancake with butter (a theme emerges) and maple syrup, but days later, she will still be talking about how putrid Pop Tarts are. Pop Tarts are apparently not going to be our thing.
We have a rule in our house that no one is allowed to ridicule anyone else’s food preferences. We all break it constantly. Anne will cross the kitchen to escape the aroma of Henry’s apricot yogurt. Anne and Tom like to visit London’s many cheese shops and skulk home with great wedges of Stinking Bishop, Stilton and rank rounds of goat cheese. Which they eat with relish, as Henry and I retire to the far end of the house. Tom likes cheese-flavored crackers which smell like feet. Dry sausages redolent of a barnyard that could use a good mucking-out.
I myself can clear a room with my alarming-looking green algae shots, kombucha with skeins of live and active bacteria floating within, and “ice cream” made of cashews and coconut. I still have a soft spot for real junk, though, and those Pop Tarts are calling to me every day. Maybe I’ll invite Matilda over and give them to her. If anyone can understand their pink appeal, she can. I know it.
[This column originally appeared in Anglotopia Magazine. If you'd like to subscribe, check it out here.]