I’ve got a serious jones, and I can’t shake it.
This is nothing new: I’m prone to obsessive behavior, to fixations and addiction. Always have been. If a substance or experience has the potential to inspire addictive behavior I’m generally in the market to try it. Again and again and again.
If I dip in the memory banks, I find odd attachments lurking in the depths. They’ve been with me all along. For example, I recall an infantile preoccupation with female circus performers and if I dig down another level I dislodge a later fascination with the uniforms and saddle shoes worn by the winsome students at an exclusive girls school in southeast Denver. I can’t tell you how many afternoons I spent at the edge of their field hockey pitch, hypnotized by the flash of blue tartan skirts, sunlight glinting off those shoes.
But these and other enchantments were eventually unloaded or, as in the case of the saddle shoes, sufficiently subdued, rendered ineffective. I’ve sublimated some of my urges and put them to productive use.
The last few years I’ve done just fine, having traveled a far piece retaining only a few, obvious OCD quirks, things like having to take the first step in a flight of stairs with my left foot or beginning any unilateral exercise with my left hand — residue from my days in the Blue Knights drum and bugle corps and ROTC. These obsessions are slightly annoying, not burdensome. Nor is my reluctance to take more than two steps within each standard-sized block of concrete in a sidewalk. Nothing to worry about, as long as the squares are standard size.
Things were proceeding smoothly when, four months ago, the monkey climbed on my back again, locked on with its gnarly digits and held tight. I can’t get the beast off.
It’s the worst kind of monkey — the pudding monkey.
The rice pudding monkey.
Specifically, the Kozy Shack Rice Pudding monkey.
I can’t shake this beast.
My problem began when I made a turn down the last aisle of the grocery store, moving past the dairy cases, veering toward the butter and the cheese in search of bel paese (as if I could find bel paese in Siberia With a View).
For no reason at all (oh, really?) I glanced to the top shelf of the refrigerated case and spied a display of nondescript, 22-ounce plastic tubs of pudding. My first inclination was to ignore the containers. After all, most store-bought puddings consist of weak artificial flavors and bits of indistinguishable organic matter suspended in a distressing and, I suspect, polymerized emulsion.
Then, I read the label on one of the containers: Rice Pudding.
There was no way I could resist. At that moment, a dangerous and delicious relationship began with my pusher, my connection: Kozy Shack Inc., of Hicksville, N.Y.
Why this attraction to rice pudding?
Easy to explain: rice pudding was one of the first, semi-solid comfort foods that passed the lips of little Karl. Rice pudding was an eagerly anticipated gift grafted to some of the most pleasurable activities I experienced as a tyke. Norman Rockwell moments, with Nonny.
Nonny cared for me and my brother and sister when we were young and rice pudding was one of the few foods Nonny made well. Really well.
Though she cooked frequently, high quality was not one of the earmarks of Nonny’s cuisine. On the contrary, Nonny was renowned for her ability to orchestrate meals in terms of the color of foods, rather than their tastes. At times, the motif matched the occasion: nothing but green foods on St. Patrick’s Day, red foods on Valentine’s Day, red, white and blue foods on the Fourth of July, etc. At other times, different foods were on the menu simply because their colors went well together: all earth tones, for example, assembled as a tribute to autumn, or complementary colors and the ripping optical effects produced when they are placed side by side. Nonny had a real thing for liver and onions (a symphony in greys, a full palette that would have pleased Constable) and the horror of the meal is indescribable.
Her rice pudding, on the other hand, was the food of the gods — pale, pure, ambrosial.
Nonny cooked her rice pudding in a double boiler, and she plunked some raisins in it.
I remember the pudding clearly: white, warm, served in a small glass bowl, the surface of the pudding barely covered with a sheen of cream. I sat at a table with an enameled metal top, in a small room off the kitchen, my feet dangling above the linoleum, delighting in each spoonful of the pudding, gazing out the window at the hedge-enclosed back yard, watching the clouds move east from the Divide, listening to the Arthur Godfrey radio show. I was adrift in a rice and cream-fueled reverie.
Husserl tackles the notion of time dilation in several of his works, including the obscure “Phenomenology of Internal Time Consciousness,” but his efforts to describe the effect fall short. If only he had sat at that table, eating Nonny’s rice pudding, the universe framed by that window, defined by a perimeter of hedges, his consciousness focused on each bite of that incredible food and nothing else … then, he would have known. Time stretches, grows tissue-thin, dissolves, becomes vaporous like the notes from Arthur’s ukulele as they pass from electrical impulse to a vibration in a fiber cone to a sound wave and out, ever thinner, trembling an eardrum until they evaporate in the aether.
So, suffice it to say, with a linkage that powerful, the lure of the tub of Kozy Shack was difficult to resist. I rose to the bait. I needed to sample the stuff expecting, of course, to be disappointed.
I opened the tub the moment after I stepped into my kitchen. I sampled the pudding.
The stuff was unbelievably good!
I was hooked.
Quick as that. Quicker than crack.
I read the label as I continued to eat from the container: all-natural ingredients — rice, milk, eggs, sugar, salt, vanilla. I ate the entire 22 ounces of pudding.
I bought another tub of Kozy Shack the next day and ate the contents. A week later, cognizant of my excess, I cut myself back to half a tub per night and I have been able to maintain that dose since.
My nightly maintenance dose involves two and a half of the recommended servings of the pudding, or 11 ounces of rich goodness. This includes 350 calories, 75 of the calories generated by fats. My dose provides 60 grams of carbohydrates, 2.5 grams of dietary fiber, 45 grams of sugars, 50 milligrams of cholesterol, 7.5 grams of fat, 5 grams of saturated fat, and 10 grams of protein.
It is a perfect food!
Kathy says I have a problem. She’s right (about this and the many other problems she highlights). She feels compelled to say something every time she comes into the front room and finds me watching television, sprawled on the couch, a tub of Kozy Shack on my chest, spoon in hand, a bit of gooey pudding smushed on my sweatshirt. She says snippy things like “Do you want me to call 911 when you go down, or just take out a section of wall and rent a frontloader to haul your dead ass out of the house?” Kathy is very sensitive; that’s why I married her. She grew up in a small hut of a house smack dab in the middle of a triangle whose points were the dog food factory, a serum plant and the slaughterhouse. She has an edge and, should a fight break out, she is trouble squared. No tartan skirts and saddleshoes for this girl. Had she met one of the private school girls in days gone by, all that would have been left of the prissy princess were a few scraps of skirt and a large pool of blood turning dark on the sidewalk.
I know I have a problem. I attempted to wean myself from the rice pudding last week by substituting a tub of Kozy Shack chocolate pudding — Kozy Shack methadone, if you will. It did not work. The chocolate pudding is mighty good, too.
Kathy and I went to Phoenix to visit our granddaughter, Forest. I planned to take a small cooler with four or five tubs of Kozy Shack — one tub for the drive in either direction, the remaining tubs to keep me going while we were in Arizona. There was no guarantee that the grocery retailers in that overheated furnace of a town stocked ambrosia. Kathy knew something was up when I tore the garage apart in a frantic search for the cooler and she stymied my plan.
“No pudding, fat boy,” she cooed. “I refuse to drive in a car with some chump eating rice pudding out of a tub with a plastic spoon. I have my limits.”
I sensed trouble ahead. This was worse than being hooked on oxy or smack. You know: You’ve scored and you’re firing up and yet, at the very moment you’re getting off, feeling the rush, you’re wondering where you can score more. You now about this, don’t you?
Oh, no? Well, forget I said it.
We drove to Phoenix and by the time we motored through Gallup, I could think of nothing but Kozy Shack.
Once I got dinner cooking at my daughter Aurora’s house, I used the old, “ I think we need some olives. I better go to the store” ploy, zipped out of the house and was speeding away before Kathy could stop me.
Can you believe there isn’t a grocery store on the west side of the Phoenix metro area that stocks Kozy Shack? What kind of world does my granddaughter inhabit?
I went into Kozy Shack withdrawal. I developed a nasty case of the shakes and I perspired freely. I reduced the number of times I kissed Forest’s head to six per minute and I refused to pet the dog. I was staggering on bad turf, blinking like a faulty fluorescent fixture. To say I was erratic company is to minimize my performance.
Later that night, I lay in the dark in our room at the Sheraton wondering if I could call the concierge and have him locate a tub of the precious stuff — have it express-mailed from Hicksville if need be. A handsome tip would be forthcoming if he succeeded. I was desperate. No one answered my frantic call to the front desk. I have every reason to believe Kathy had a chat with the staff.
When we returned to my daughter’s house the next day, I forced Aurora to let me use her computer. I figured, without the big fix, I would find something to tide me over. I got on the net and went to www.kozyshack.com. I read the history of the company, tracing its operation from modest beginnings in New York City, to its home in Hicksville. I lingered lovingly on photos of a ’40s-era delivery van. I entered my name on the Kozy Shack mailing list along with an effusive salute to the company’s prowess. I analyzed the numerous home and institutional uses of Kozy Shack products. I stayed on line for more than an hour, until Kathy forced me to pay attention to Forest. And the dog.
My situation was pathetic. I realized it. The monkey was shredding me. I was helpless.
On the drive home, I tried to enjoy the scenery and think positive, sparkly thoughts. I listened to the Arizona American legion baseball championship game on the radio and tried my best to enjoy Payson’s dramatic victory. I tuned to three hours of Navajo radio as we shot east to Gallup on the 40 before hooking a left on the old 666 — the Beastmaster’s Highway— for the drive to Cortez. I resolved to rid myself of the Kozy Shack habit, to clean up, to go to rehab if necessary.
Who was I kidding? From Cortez, it was east on 160, up, up in elevation, toward the peaks, to the high country. I tried to converse with Kathy, but fragments of thoughts were the best I could manage. I had rice, eggs, milk, sugar, et al, on the mind.
When we arrived home in Siberia With a View, Kathy wanted to get a few things at the grocery before we went home. She was exhausted from the trip and she let her guard down. I volunteered to run into the store and before she realized what was happening, I was out of the car, hustling across the parking lot to the entrance, credit card in hand.
I bought what we needed: two tubs of Kozy Shack, a loaf of bread and some cheese.
I knew it: I needed to deal with this problem, stop chasing the ghost. But, I was helpless.
As I stretched out on the couch to watch an episode of Real Stories of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, a tub of fresh pudding resting heavy on my chest, I figured the only way to break the spell was to dampen the Kozy Shack glow, to strip the veneer off the product, to throw a blanket on the sheer delight of the Kozy Shack experience.
In other words, make a pudding that is better than Kozy Shack.
There are variations to consider when you make rice pudding: with egg, without egg, baked or on the stovetop. I tried them all.
One thing you definitely need is rice. Long-grain or medium-grain white rice. For six to eight servings, as much as a cup of rice. Don’t let some health food goof tell you that brown rice will do the trick; these people are dolts, born to lie. Their ascetic regimen has dulled palate and mind and they must be reeducated at a camp located somewhere in the woods on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
While some recipes have you cook the rice in milk, most use water. For a cup of rice, use maybe 2 1/2 cups of water and a bit of salt. Bring the water and salt to a boil, add the rice, cover and cook over low heat until the water is absorbed — about 20 minutes. Cool.
Here’s where you make the choices.
Baked, with egg: preheat the oven to 350. Butter a baking dish. Whisk together a cup and a half of whole milk, a teaspoon of vanilla extract, two eggs plus a yolk, a half cup of sugar, a touch of salt and, if you like, a touch of nutmeg or cardamom. Add a cup and a half of rice and some raisins if you appreciate them. (Soak overly dry raisins in a little warm water and plump them before you add them to the pudding. Do not desecrate rice pudding with inferior or unplumped raisins). Put the whole mess in the baking dish and set the dish inside a larger pan. Fill the larger pan with hot water halfway up the sides of the baking dish. Pop in the oven and bake on the center rack until the pudding is firm. Check at an hour and adjust time as necessary. Cool and eat. Eat all of it.
Craig Claiborne would have you bake the pudding, without egg, putting raw rice, milk, sugar and salt in a casserole and baking it at 300, stirring on the half hour for two hours, then adding raisins, vanilla and nutmeg and baking without stirring for another half hour or so. Each to his own.
Mark Bittman cooks a no-egg pudding on the stovetop, adding milk to the cooked rice and simmering until half the milk is absorbed then adding sugar and spices and continuing to simmer until all the milk is absorbed. He also suggests substituting coconut milk for all or part of the milk in the recipe. Without the egg — a bit weak. The coconut milk is a nice touch.
These are adequate recipes. Merely adequate. They can’t touch Kozy Shack. This is one instance in which industrial America produces an excellent product. It is obvious a large food conglomerate has not yet purchased Kozy Shack and screwed up its pudding.
But, I can’t stop trying to produce a better pudding.
Tonight, I think I’ll settle on the couch with a tub of Kozy Shack and go through Nonny’s old recipe cards. Nonny’s pudding could knock Kozy Shack for a loop. Perhaps she did something different, something related to various shades of off-white.
With luck and the right recipe, there’s a chance I can thrash this jones.
If not, I will contact Kozy Shack and request a complimentary 50-gallon drum of pudding as tribute for pimping the pudding in print. If this fails, I’ll move to Hicksville, N.Y., get near the source, rent a studio apartment, write ad copy for Kozy Shack Inc.
Maybe get a discount.
I’m sad, aren’t I?
Anyone need a monkey?
With saddle shoes?