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Manna From Yah

If love had a taste, it would be her bread pudding

October 29, 2006|Qevin Oji | Qevin Oji is a contributing writer for West.

We called her "Yah," but her name was Inez. She was the woman who raised my mother and grandmother. She was deaf and, as mother would sometimes joke, "blind in one eye and couldn't see out the other." But she could burn. Her treats are what I remember and long for most.

When the cupboard was bare, it was a buttery slice of white Wonder Bread soaked in cream and covered with a layer of C&H sugar. Sometimes it was sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet coffee sipped from the edge of her saucer. My sister Kim and I, on our knees, took turns, drinking the brown stuff tilted onto the saucer from her only fancy white china cup, our mouths open, murmuring baby birds.

Those were hard-time treats. In good times, she had a specialty. Bread pudding. It seems too lowly a name for what was, looking back, nothing less than ambrosia, pure and simple. My stomach purrs thinking about that dessert, snubbed by creme brulee, not so sexy next to tiramisu, but the only thing I really want the recipe for. My tongue remembers, lips smack in yearning for just a taste. The sense-memory transports me back into her tiny court apartment off Normandie and Slauson, where she lived until she went to bed with the stove on, and then moved in with us.

We'd watch her pull out the old loaves and remnants of bread (French, white, spongy dinner rolls) that she stored in the fridge. A 5-pound bag of C&H kept bug-free with a clothespin that looked like a duck's beak. She used real butter, pure vanilla, eggs, canned (PET) milk, raisins and sometimes pecans (but only the ones sent from Mississippi by Grandma Fanny). Brown powders--cinnamon and nutmeg--that made us sneeze, measured in the palm of her right hand and tossed in when the mixture was ready, usually indicated by a spit of the concoction popping from the pot onto her forearm. She cooked by smell, master baker in silver rosette pin curls.

After pouring the mixture into a clear Pyrex pan, she spread it evenly with a wood spoon, leaving it a little lumpy. Kim and I were her tasters, passing the bowl back and forth between us, never letting it go, using our fingers to clean the bowl.

She always smoked when she cooked, her cigarette serving as a kind of timer. Her good eye blinked and winced at smoke curling into it, a tear threatened to fall. "Look, Yah's crying . . . " Kim and I would stand stove-side, giggle and watch the ashes grow longer and longer and longer, betting that this time they would fall into the pot, but they never did.

The tiny apartment became an oven, enveloping us in a warm, thick, sweet smog that we took in deeply, anticipating the treat. The smell of Vicks, mothballs and old silver coins disappeared. We raised our chins, like happy Snoopys, to catch the vapors. It tasted just like it smelled. It melted on the tongue and went straight to the heart, in a good way. As my grandmother used to say, it "tasted like more."

The glory of her creation was a crown of white meringue, candied by putting it in the oven just briefly enough for it to brown.

If love had a taste, it would be Yah's bread pudding. My tongue and heart long for just the tiniest taste, like my ears itch for the toot of the Helms Bakery truckman, the silvery ker-ching of his change-belt contraption, the smooth, well-made drawers opened to reveal sweet stuff. Unlike "the Helms man," Yah never smiled, but her bread pudding did.

For just a sliver . . .

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