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Food Issue - Hillbilly desserts

Strange sweets have been known to cross the Southern dinner table. Here we reflect on three of them.

Pear Salad



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Up in the hills of northwest Georgia, my mother raised my family never to waste food. Six-day-old pot roast appeared in next week's hash; stale stewed carrots made cameos in chicken pot pies; seven layer chip dip sat in the refrigerator until someone gathered the gall to polish it off.

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"Finish yer bologna," my father would threaten from the head of the table. I couldn't be excused from dinner without eating everything on my plate first.

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But there was one dish I always got away with dodging: pear salad. I loathed the dessert, but my father loved it and would conveniently ignore my refusal to touch it. While my mother was occupied with mashing my sister's potato or pushing the cat off the table, my father would stab his fork into the repulsive pear on my plate and vanish it with one gulp like a snake swallowing a field mouse.

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The typical pear salad comprises a canned Bartlett pear half with Duke's mayonnaise, shredded cheddar, and a maraschino cherry jammed into the divot where the core used to be. To lighten our caloric intake, my mother substituted the mayonnaise with Miracle Whip. For my father, pear salad functioned as both a side dish and dessert. He consumed pear No. 1 somewhere between the salted tomato slices and fried okra. He pilfered my pear last, punctuating his supper with something sweet.

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I would say that pear salad has disappeared from the modern dinner table. After all, even my mother stopped making it in the early '90s. But during my investigation of its history, I discovered a 2009 article from international agriculture and horticulture research journal Postharvest Biology and Technology titled "Effect of harvest maturity on quality of fresh-cut pear salad." Apparently five scholars care about when they pick their pears and how that timing affects the fruit's "browning potential" and taste.

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One event where pear salad can still be found is a Southern grandmother's post-funeral potluck. It rests on a platter of iceberg lettuce in the vicinity of the salmon croquettes. Overwhelmed toddlers clutch them like teddy bears, mayonnaise streaming through their fists. Teenage boys snigger as they compare pear salads to boobies. Newly anointed matriarchs replace each pear as soon as one vanishes — an homage to the hospitality of the grande dame who just passed. Teary-eyed men thoughtfully nibble their pears while squinting at old photos and remembering their own childhood dinners, especially the mothers who made them.

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White Stuff



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The first time I brought my future husband Ryan home to meet my parents, my mother presented an elaborate fat kid feast: peppercorn pork tenderloin; slow-cooked creamed corn swimming in diced pimentos, cream cheese, and butter; ham bullion-laced green beans; oil-soaked cucumbers; deviled eggs; and cornbread stuffed with banana pepper rings, minced onion, cheese, and Mexicorn — a Green Giant product that intermingles whole kernels with bell pepper.

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"What do you do, Ryan?" my mother asked.

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Despite feeling terrible, repressing gas, and needing to lie down after all that food, Ryan followed my mother to the kitchen where she began making the topping for our gingerbread dessert. Ryan explained his role at a logistics company, but she focused more on churning a pot of Karo syrup, salt, and egg white with a rubber spatula than his reply. (In my mother's defense, if not closely monitored, the topping could become as hard as the concrete brickmasons use to mortar houses.) By the time the topping thickened and turned bright white, the three of us stood mesmerized by the creamy maelstrom.

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"Mmm, I love gingerbread," Ryan said. "What's this topping, though?"

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My mother dipped her finger in the pot, covering it from tip to knuckle, and licked it like a popsicle.

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"I jest call it white stuff," she said.

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The first American cookbook, Amelia Simmons's American Cookery, published in 1796, offers three gingerbread recipes, including the cake variety my mother prepared that night. My mother owned white stuff, though. It was her personal Southern stamp on the Old World confection.

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Although ginger can be a remedy for nausea, Ryan's white stuff-drenched piece of gingerbread only exacerbated his intestinal distress that night. He slumped against one side of the sofa while my mother and I watched back-to-back reruns of "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit." Likely sensing his allergies, both my parents' dogs boarded his lap and one cat mounted the head rest as he slept. Ryan woke up with sneeze attacks from both ends.

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A menacing double thunk plays between scenes in every "Law & Order" episode. The same sound effect clamors through Ryan's subconscious every time my mother sets a side dish on the table.

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Five Cup Salad



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On a recent summer night, my friends hosted a dinner party on their deck. The subject of antiquated desserts arose, so I mentioned both pear salad and white stuff, almost inciting a contest to determine who was more hillbilly than whom.

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"Oh yeah?" said John Vournakis, lead singer of Atlanta band New Junk City. "I grew up eating five cup salad."

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A loop hangs from the middle of John's nose; gauge earrings stretch his lobes; an owl tattoo covers his bicep. I expected him to possess a mastery of Dischord Records' discography, not the contents of the Mt. Gilead First Baptist cookbook. Based on the concoction's name alone I knew it would be good and nasty.

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"What the hell is five cup salad?" I asked. Every five cup salad recipe on the Internet contains the word "grandma's" or "old-fashioned" or both. It calls for a cup each of what Kraft calls "five fabulous ingredients": mandarin orange slices, crushed pineapple, miniature marshmallows, coconut flakes, and sour cream.

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John's nose crinkled in disgust as he described five cup salad and his cousins who fervently gobbled it at every Thanksgiving celebration.

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"This five cup salad tastes good tonight!" he said, impersonating their West Virginia drawl.

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I can imagine John's family encircling him in metal fold-up chairs, scooping five cup salad like ice cream from his grandmother's turquoise Pyrex bowl. A dollop of sour cream falls from his Aunt Dorris' mouth and into the sound hole of his acoustic guitar, which he had been minding his own business strumming.

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Maybe he stomped upstairs and slammed his bedroom door. Maybe five cup salad enraged him enough to write his first rock song.

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Bobbin Wages runs Hot Dog Beehonkus, a blog comprising humorous and gut-wrenching stories about her father's progression through Alzheimer's disease. Bobbin also performs at literary events around Atlanta such as Write Club and Scene Missing.

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