Rice pudding: small pleasures loom large - as do tears

It never occurred to me that when rice is all you have to eat, it is delicious. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
It never occurred to me that when rice is all you have to eat, it is delicious. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
Three bowls in, I realise I have come full circle on rice pudding.

One of my earliest memories is of my parents’ annoying chanting of the A.A. Milne poem Rice Pudding, substituting my name for Mary Jane’s.

What is the matter with Elspeth Jane? /She’s crying with all her might and main, /And she won’t eat her dinner — rice pudding again — /What is the matter with Elspeth Jane?

I also remember the lines: What is the matter with Elspeth Jane? /She’s perfectly well, and she hasn’t a pain;/But, look at her, now she’s beginning again!

Now, I doubt that memory, because I was only 4 when Mum died. Was Mum there or was it later when we were subjected to the cooking of various housekeepers before Dad remarried? Why did I hate rice pudding so?

Perhaps it was baked to a dry standstill.

At primary school, when the only films I recall involved steel making or people in far-flung countries eating meagre rations of rice, I came to think rice must be incredibly tasty (I learned nothing useful about steel making, incidentally).

What a disappointment rice was. It never occurred to me that when rice is all you have to eat, it is delicious.

At boarding school, rice pudding was one of the things our cooks did well (the less said about the rubberiness of eggs baked en masse, the better). Delectable, steamy, creamy rice ladled into our pudding bowls was a triumph.

For years, the Auckland-dwelling sister and I tried to emulate the boarding school pudding.

The closest I came was when somebody gave me their never-fail recipe — it was great, but 45 minutes of stovetop stirring used up more heartbeats than I was willing to devote to the cause.

But then, quite by accident (aka laziness) I discovered I could make the recipe in my old primary school cookbook (although we never made it at school) in the crockpot to produce creamy deliciousness. If it overcooked, a little more milk could bring it back from the brink and it was irresistible, hot or cold, by itself or paired with fruit, yoghurt, or ice-cream. The ultimate comfort food.

I know you couldn’t care less about my rice pudding experiences. I know they are not important. But when I struggle to make sense of the senseless, when I want to show I care about someone’s situation, my instinct is to waffle, cook or knit, or all three, and share my love’s labours.

Sometimes, I am tempted to cookery experiments, which is not ideal when the recipients have already suffered enough (belated apologies if this sounds familiar to you).

I hope I have not thrust a rice pudding at anyone without checking its likely welcome first, because as my early experience showed, it can be polarising.

I worry this behaviour selfishly helps me more than anyone else, but it does not stop the habit.

Last week I did not even bother to question my motives when I was scrabbling around desperately in the nightmare of my cupboards to unearth something for a rice pudding — brown basmati was not quite the go but needs must.

Making rice pudding, eating it and sharing some with my 30-year-old youngest son, might distract me from thinking about him attending the third funeral for a former classmate in recent years — all understood to be suicides.

How does anyone process the pain for all involved, ‘‘ family-close or friendship-wide’’ (to use Elizabeth Yates’ term)?

I realise, despite my age, I have nothing helpful to say. I feel I should be able to rustle up some words of wisdom, but I have no magic wand.

After I have delivered the rice pudding, clumsily I tell him my takeout from the funeral was that we are never alone even if that’s how it feels, but the hard thing is always being able to recognise that.

He tells me he used the rice pudding for comfort after he was up in the wee (no pun intended) small hours tending to his baby son and finding it hard to get back into sleep mode himself.

Small pleasures loom large — a smile and coo from the baby, my granddaughter telling me how kind all the people are at the rest-home we visit because they are so thrilled to see her, sharing a cup of tea in the sun with another son after a tour of the house he is building, a still, sparkling winter’s day, a spectacular moon, a roaring fire after a crunchy frost.

Finishing the last of my pudding, however, I revert to Mary Jane, crying with all my might and main. My kitten looks at me beginning again and climbs up for a smooch.

  • Elspeth McLean is a Dunedin writer.

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