A chocolate pudding made with love

Story highlights

  • Valentine's Day prompts Val Lauder to recall a family memory.
  • It began with the pasting together of homemade Valentines

Val Lauder, a former reporter for the Chicago Daily News and lecturer at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is the author of "The Back Page: The Personal Face of History." The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)With all due apologies to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, I had never heard of her that Saturday morning before Valentine's Day. No disrespect, or disregard for English literature. I was 7. Or would be in two weeks.

I knew nothing about St. Valentine either -- the legend or the lore. That came years later when, as a writer, I did research for a story on Valentine's Day. Nor did I have a Great Love that long ago February day. That came in the fifth grade.
Valentines I knew. They were part of Valentine's Day. Something you gave to classmates or nice neighbors or loved ones. And that Saturday morning being well before the rise of Hallmark, there were no ready-made cards to show I cared enough to send the very best.
    I made my valentines. From a packet of colorful Valentine's Day cards that my grandmother had bought me, very old-fashioned -- roses and hearts and cupids by the yard, as they say. Straight out of the Victorian era, they even came with lace-like papers, first cousins to the paper doilies still used today with candies and cookies and other goodies.
    The lace-like papers were not to be pasted to the cards; they were to go over the roses and hearts and cupids. About a half-inch above, actually. Narrow strips of paper, bent to have little flat "feet" on each end, were provided to attach the lacy papers. Not having Scotch tape, I used paste. And, still deep in the Great Depression, we made the paste.
    I forget the proportion of flour to water, but my grandmother knew. And I spent the better part of that long ago Saturday making my valentines, the hard part being the attachment of the lacy papers, even with the thin strips of paper with the little flat "feet."
    Perhaps it was all that labor, or the sweetness inherent in the occasion, but when I finished, the afternoon sun starting to fade and the first hint of dusk showing through the living room windows, I decided I wanted chocolate pudding for dessert that night. My grandmother was occupied with the laundry in the basement. So I went to the kitchen, took down my grandmother's cookbook -- we didn't have mixes then, either -- and began to assemble the ingredients.
    The milk was in quart-size glass bottles in the icebox. The cocoa in a tin in the cupboard with the sugar, flour, and vanilla. I measured carefully, stirred everything into a pan that I placed on the front burner. The stove sat up on curved legs, the knobs across the front easy to reach. I adjusted the flame. And stirred.
    And stirred. And stirred.
    My pudding still had the consistency of chocolate milk.
    Looking back, I think that while I could read, I did not go deep into the fine print. Or, perhaps the recipe didn't get into thickening, presuming anyone making the pudding knew that.
    I did not.
    Stirring -- in vain, still -- I decided it must need more flour.
    Which is when I thought of the paste. The flour already mixed with water.
    And was it not thrifty to use up what had been made for the Valentine's Day cards?
    I stirred the unused paste into the pudding-to-be and ...voila!
    A few extra stirs for good measure -- it was getting harder -- and I poured the pudding that had thickened up so nicely into the pretty glass dessert dishes.
    At the given hour, we sat down to dinner -- my grandmother seated opposite me, my father and uncle at each end of the long dining room table, with curlicues of dark mahogany peeking through the lace tablecloth. We talked ... and passed the salt. Another family dinner.
    When we finished, I helped my grandmother clear the table. Then, proudly -- vanity before the fall -- I brought in dessert.
    Alas, while it was still chocolate to the core and had a pudding heart, it had taken on certain qualities of concrete. My grandmother gave up trying to get her spoon into the mix, as did my uncle. Not my father. He chipped off a piece, swallowed it, and managed a smile.
    "It's very good, honey."
    How's that for love?
    What's more he took a second bite.
    True love.
    And a third with another smile -- if somewhat lower on the Richter scale of sincerity.
    Even the poets concede love has its limits.
    The love my father showed that night has come to be more fully appreciated with the years.
    Today, when the red hearts appear in the stores, the candy boxes become heart-shaped, I think of those long-ago valentines with the lacy papers.
    Putting the paste in the pudding.
    And I hope that Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who was thinking of Robert Browning when she asked, "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways," won't mind if I think of William Lauder.
    Chipping off a bite. Managing a smile. Even an "It's very good, honey."