Mouth Feel

I first became besotted with mouth feel sitting to the right of my grandmother at Sunday lunches.  The main course typically consisted of beef tenderloin cooked to a perfect dusty rose hue accompanied by roasted potatoes whose shiny and auburn surface gave way with a gentle crackle to the tender middle.  But the star of the meal was always the dessert.  My grandmother would give me the initials and let me guess.  HM – honey mousse – was the best.  

Even now looking back some fifty years, I honestly believe I can isolate the very moment that honey mousse hit my tongue.  There were no other senses involved.  After all, honey mousse was odorless and the visual was not compelling – a scoop the color of old dishwater quivered on my plate.   Nostalgia for the total experience was not something a ten year old could appreciate.  Sunday lunches at a formal dining room table with aunts, uncles and cousins were just part of the routine.  I was certainly unaware that I was witnessing a rapidly vanishing lifestyle – one that included Mar, the cook in the kitchen, and Mrs. Dixon, the waitress in the pantry.  It wasn’t until years later that I realized a secret buzzer beneath the rug was responsible for impeccable timing of the courses as Mrs. Dixon emerged from the pantry with platters of food.

Honey mousse was a pure mouth feel experience.  The sweet molecules just plumped into beckoning taste buds and any overflow had the equally important job of cloaking the roof of my mouth – my hard palate – with the smooth but slightly grainy softness of a sheet with a low thread count.  Dear, sweet honey mousse did not overstay its welcome – there was no cloying smear of an aftertaste.  It was there and then gone and I could start fresh with the next spoonful.

I had a glorious four or five year run with honey mousse until my grandparents died and we moved on to the next iteration of family gatherings.  Sunday lunches transitioned to a fully loaded sandwich bar in my parent’s kitchen.  We ate standing up at the counter wearing wet bathing suits that dripped on the floor and rummaged for dessert in the huge mudroom freezer that my mother kept fully stocked with popsicles and ice-cream bars.  Honey mousse vanished from my life.  My mother never attempted to make it because the vagaries of gelatin  unnerved her.  She liked to tell the story of her attempt at tomato aspic when she overshot the gelatin and ended up with an inedible rubberized tomato concoction that could bounce on the floor.  Jello desserts in overly bright carnival colors were the only gelatins allowed in the house.

However I do credit honey mousse as the gateway to more accessible mouth feel desserts such as pudding and ice cream.  My grandmother also served homemade strawberry ice cream flecked with seeds and nuggets of strawberry pulp.  Another favorite was small pyrex dishes filled with gleaming rennet custard adorned with chocolate shavings the size and shape of commas.  These desserts made me realize that mouth feel need not be limited to the unalloyed creaminess of honey mousse, but could accommodate carefully titrated textural variety.  Nuts or raisins in ice cream destroy the optimal balance with their chewiness or crunchiness.  Small pearl tapioca presents a pleasing mouth feel, but the large pearl variety, well I’m sorry, the pearls are just too assertive – the overall visual reminds me of knobby loogeys suspended in a tenacious sea of phlegm.

My most enduring relationship with mouth feel desserts is chocolate chip ice cream – as long as the chips meet my exacting specifications of the right size, quality, quantity and dispersal in the ice cream.  The chips must be shavings really, small enough that they don’t require a separate chewing motion.  The best chocolate provides a soft giving crunch as the ice cream is pressed against the palate.  This noise must be consistent throughout the serving, thus requiring even dispersal of the chocolate.  Chips must be high quality semi-sweet chocolate – fake chocolate is abhorrent.  For those of you on the East cost, I am sorry to report that the chips in Friendly’s ice cream are too large and poorly distributed.  Based on my vast experience, Baskin and Robbin’s chocolate chip ice cream meets all of the specifications.

Even though I substituted other mouth feel desserts over the years, honey mousse has always held a ground-zero soft spot in my heart.  As my grandmother’s 110th birthday approached, I decided to take my chances with gelatin and revive the dessert.  The cookbook, “Have Fun with Herbs,” was self-published by my grandmother in the late 1950s, and there I found the recipe.  I thought it would be a fitting family unity exercise to dedicate a weekend when all of us, now sprinkled across the country, would concoct one of the recipes in the cookbook and then share our experiences in remembrance of my grandparents and our Sunday lunches.

As I perused the book, I realized that while being a cherished family item, “Have Fun with Herbs” was seriously flawed.  There were many instances where the temperature of the oven was omitted, and that maddening phrase, “cook until done,” appeared frequently.  The cookbook’s dated quality was charming; many recipes focused on the novelty of frozen vegetables and processed foods.  For example, the recipe for “String Beans and Mushrooms” called for a package of Birdseye French Style frozen beans and a can of mushroom soup.  Other expressions included eggs that were “high and scarce,”  presumably describing the high price and scarcity of eggs during World War II, or “an egg of butter,” referring to an estimated quantity of butter in the era before quarter pound sticks were wrapped with conveniently marked tablespoons.  My cousin Susie thought that the theme of the recipes was to add wine early and often, while I detected that many of the recipes included the unhealthy trio of butter, cream and eggs.

I was hosting a smattering of local relatives and in addition to the mousse had considered a variety of unique items from the cookbook to round out our memorial meal.  A buffet of tripe and tongue seemed to fit the bill, but this menu was greeted with outright hostility by the senior members of the group.  When asked which he preferred, Uncle Frank said that he would prefer not to come, and my father begged to have something different.  I got the message and was secretly relieved, since the recipe required me to “skin the tongue,” and “wash the tripe.”  I had no experience with a tongue, but skinning it sounded like something a cannibal might do.  And based on my experience as a pathologist doing autopsies I knew there was no way I could ever clean tripe to an edible level.  I settled on a squash lasagna that my nephew had made, and positioned honey mousse as the nostalgic showpiece.

The recipe fit into the overall unhealthy pattern of the cookbook, consisting only of honey, eggs and cream, all held together with the intimidating gelatin.  I am not much of a cook, but if I had to self-classify, I would say that I am more instinctual than technical, often concluding that a recipe just can’t be correct.  Honey mousse was no exception.  I made the executive decision that the amount of cream in the recipe was way too heavy-handed, so based on Susie’s observation, I substituted a cup of sherry for one cup of cream.

Then the recipe called for placing the sweet creamy concoction in a mold – and I found just the thing.  The previous Christmas, I received a catalog from the Anatomical Supply Company (1-800-ANATOMY) which primarily sold instructional posters and models of body parts -i.e. the circulatory system, the ankle, etc – for doctors’ offices.  But they also sold molds of body parts as a novelty, and I purchased molds of the heart, left hand and a brain.  Buloop, bloop, bahloop, I poured the honey mousse into the brain and let it set.

I searched through my parent’s house in an effort to duplicate my grandmother’s table.  I found long-unused gold filigreed finger bowls and set them on delicate lace doilies in front of each person’s plate.  I retrieved the cut crystal glasses adorned with little star shapes that left imprints on my fingertips.  My dining room table seemed cramped compared to my grandparent’s expansive table.  As a ten year old it seemed to stretch on forever – so far that I imagined my natty grandfather shrouded in wispy mist at the other end.  Fifty years later one complete generation was gone and most of the next, but when I did a head count I realized that I had a similar number of relatives at this gathering.  My elderly Uncle Frank, who had always talked business with his father at the remote end of the table, looked exactly like my grandfather as I remembered him.  Young nieces and nephews subbed in for my generation.  Two brothers and I assumed our parent’s niche.

I was still worried about over gelatinizing, but the satisfactory consistency of the mousse made me wonder why my mother got so flustered with gelatin.  The next challenge was to get the mousse out of the mold in one piece.  My young niece Della and I went into the kitchen and jiggled the thing and then used a little knife around the edges.  Holding our breath, we tipped the mold. With a sucking whoosh noise, the brain plopped on the plate in one glorious and glistening piece.

brain food

 The Anatomical Supply Company had helpfully provided recipes and suggested that watermelon jello would produce a most life like brain.  They obviously never considered the attributes of autopsy-perfect honey mousse – the pallid ecru brain shimmied and shimmered on the plate – if this mousse was any brainier it would have been Einstein’s.  We gave Uncle Frank the honors of serving dessert – and told him that since he rejected other organ meats for the entrees, we had found a suitable substitute for dessert.  The poor man was initially panic-stricken at the sight of the life-like human brain, but then erupted in peals of laughter.

I took a nibble from the frontal lobes.  The sweetness of the honey and sherry combined with the alcohol packed a wallop.  My taste buds rose up in grateful awe as the comforting texture blossomed in my mouth.  Far from the isolated memory of a ten year old with no sense of time and place, the honey mousse transported me to full-on nostalgia.  The dining room table suddenly seemed to stretch on forever.  I noticed the same starry imprint on my fingertips as I gripped my crystal glass.  My brother was attempting to make bread from my grandmother’s vague recipe.  The dough never rose but its earthy smell seeped in from the adjacent kitchen.  Another brother brought the signature “After Eight” dinner mints that my grandmother always had on the side board.   I leaned over and whispered “HM” to my startled niece, whose enduring memory will probably be a brain and not the  glories of mouth feel.

After a few bites, we agreed that from a taste perspective the mousse was not a success – our group of twelve barely made a dent in the frontal lobes and I have never made it again. But honey mousse was a complete success in a more important realm, transcending beyond simple mouth feel to a complete sensory and emotional memory – the invisible thread that connects me to my past.  Mentally I can just pluck that thread and suddenly it is Sunday, I am ten and eating lunch next to my grandmother.

The missing words in the following poem are anagrams (i.e. share the same letters like spot, post, stop) and the number of asterisks indicates the number of letters.  Your job is to solve the missing words based on the above rules and the context of the poem.  Scroll down for answers.

******* are meant to be broken is my basic cooking strategy and scheme,

So I when I made honey mousse I added liquor instead of cream

And then I put it a mold of a brain that was anatomically correct and *******,

So that when it was served, it looked like a perfect human sacrifice.

Picture Uncle Frank’s anguished scream as it ******* the room

The poor man thinks he has to eat what only cannibals consume.








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