Seasons by the Sea: Guilty Pleasures Past

An array of books and ingredients to recreate nostalgic dishes and current popular fast foods Laura Donnelly Photos

This column was inspired by a nonagenarian friend who gave me his copy of “When Everybody Ate at Schrafft’s” by Joan Kanel Slomanson. It is an excellent book full of history, recipes, gossip, and photographs. 

I have never lived in New York City, but I vaguely recall being taken to Schrafft’s as a tot, and my mother, Honoria, rhapsodized her entire life over the butterscotch sauce served on sundaes at the soda fountain at Schrafft’s. This was her “Proust’s madeleine,” an expression/reference that is so overused in food narratives that I would like to change it for the purpose of this column to “Honoria’s butterscotch sauce.” I am sorry I cannot shorten it to “Honoria’s B.S.,” as that would not be proper and it would make her cross.

This got me thinking about guilty pleasures of the past, guilty memories, dishes or foods that either no longer exist or have changed from their original form, or that you just shouldn’t be eating anymore, perhaps never should have in the first place (hello, Cap’n Crunch cereal and Underwood deviled ham).

People love to talk about food, and Facebook, as you may well know by now, is my favorite Lazy Research Tool for such broad and far-reaching stories as this. I grew up outside Washington, D.C., so I have “Honoria’s butterscotch sauce” memories and cravings for a sandwich called the Teen Twist served at Hot Shoppes. 

Hot Shoppes was a tentacle of Marriott, but I had mistakenly remembered it as Howard Johnson’s. 

I can still taste the Teen Twist. It was no more than a soft, white bread twist roll with shredded iceberg lettuce, tomato slices, ham, and American cheese. Supposedly the secret sauce was tartar. It was a warm sandwich, not panini-ed, not grilled, just mysteriously warm. I ate it often with my boyfriend Joey, who was driving a car at age 15, and I swear I can remember exactly what it tasted like.

So many other people’s “guilty memories” were Entenmann’s and Sara Lee products. Remember when they were good? And naughtier? Entenmann’s brownie crumb ring was mentioned by chef Susan Moore, and she has perfected her own recipe for it. Sorry, it involves black walnut mocha icing and is too complicated to share here. Entenmann’s banana crunch cake was Albert Fierro’s guilty memory, and Sara Lee pound cake was mentioned quite a few times.

A lot of my friends are baby boomers and frozen TV dinners were a reality growing up: Swanson and Banquet Salisbury steak and fried chicken dinners. Kraft macaroni and cheese, Twinkies, and Lunchables also came up. Personally, I miss a sugar-fat bomb called Morton’s Honey Buns. They were frozen, sold four to a package, doused with sugar glaze, and they got me through senior year of high school. I got straight As, by the way, so maybe sugar was the Adderall of 1972.

Howard Johnson’s was mentioned as well, especially for its Ipswich clam plate. Well, of course it was good; the iconic dish of clam strips was created by Jacques Pepin and Pierre Franey when they cooked at the flagship restaurant on Queens Boulevard.

Just as George Plimpton sparred with Archie Moore and Sugar Ray Robinson, and trained with the Detroit Lions, I, too, like to dabble in participatory journalism, especially when it requires finding, testing, and eating retro recipes. F.Y.I., when Mr. Plimpton trained with the team, only the coaches knew of the deception. But it became apparent to the other players when they noticed that he did not know how to receive the snap from center. One player also noticed that he looked “too emaciated” to be a football player.

I began, naturally, with Honoria’s butterscotch sauce from Ms. Somanson’s book. She enjoyed it as a child on top of coffee ice cream with toasted almonds on top, so that’s how I prepared it after making the sauce. It was divine, and teeth-numbingly sweet. I added a little dose of sea salt to the sauce ’cause that’s how we roll in this decade.

Next up were a few recipes from Todd Wilbur’s “Top Secret Recipes: Fab­ulous Kitchen Clones of America’s Favorite Brand Name Foods.” This book is dedicated to his doctor, Stanley Silverman, “for his comforting reassurance that my cholesterol count has not yet reached dangerously high levels.” 

Since I love Popeye’s, I tried the red beans and rice recipe. It involved canned kidney beans, garlic powder, Uncle Ben’s quick cooking rice, and more butter than seems necessary. It was quite accurate — tasty and soft. Next was a McDonald’s Quarter Pounder. (These two recipes do still exist out in the fast food atmosphere and they are not something I crave, I just wanted to test the recipes for accuracy.)

While shopping at King Kullen, I felt determined to get the lowest quality ingredients to mimic the practices of junk food empires, so I got the cheapest looking pickle chips and forlorn American “cheez” slices. I couldn’t bear to buy the ultimate el cheap beef patties, but I did get pre-shaped, four to a package, high fat, thinly packed burgers. Once in the checkout line with my immoderate plethora of dreadful ingredients, an attractive man behind me seemed to want to chat about my meat choice. As if it weren’t bad enough that I was in the middle-aged Sag Harbor singleton uniform of fleece jacket, jeans, Merrells, and unkempt hair, there he was with a virtuous array of fresh fruits and vegetables. My basket held the equivalent of whale gurry. 

Did I mention that I also got one of those cans that spray whipped cream and a bagged mix of Sylvia’s of Harlem peach cobbler?

The Quarter Pounder turned out as I expected, soft and salty and strangely pleasant. Was it the pickle chip? The Sylvia’s peach cobbler (recipe: melt butter, mix batter, dump a can of peaches with syrup on top, bake) was alarmingly good, good enough that I sincerely believe I could fool some dinner guests one night with it.

Some foods that we are nostalgic for are best forgotten. Some that still exist should also probably be forgotten. Some can magically be recreated. I wish my mother were still alive because I could make her her beloved butterscotch sauce and listen to her reminisce about sitting at the counter of the soda fountain at Schrafft’s. The good news is, the Marriott Marquis in Washington, D.C., has opened a lunch spot called Anthem. It has revived the Hot Shoppes classics: Mighty Mo, Orange Freeze, and Teen Twist. I am literally getting on a plane to D.C. today and plan to make a pilgrimage. What’s old is new again.

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Sylvia’s peach cobbler, which was made from a mix for the batter plus a can of peaches, was “alarmingly good.”
Schrafft’s butterscotch sauce on coffee ice cream sundae