Delicious? No. Special? Yes.

I’ve always enjoyed cooking. Even as a child, I loved to experiment with new things in the kitchen.

I was about 12 when I saw a fabulous illustration/recipe in one of my mother’s magazines. It was for a spectacular Valentine Jell-O mold. The Jell-O was red and a massive, jiggling heart sat atop a green bed of lettuce, decorated with white whipped cream, pink candy hearts and deep red strawberries.

I became obsessed with recreating it for my family.

Mom encouraged such activity. She was already training me to take the reins in the kitchen as my interest/age increased and her interest/time went the other direction.

We always had a good supply of Jell-O mix in the house as it was cheap. I crawled onto the counter, looking for three red mixes but was dejected to find only orange, lemon, lime and one red. I decided to mix all the different kinds together with red food coloring. When I realized we didn’t have any red food coloring, I spotted a packet of red Kool-Aid that would become my color enhancer.

The next obstacle was we didn’t own a heart-shaped mold. The next fanciest thing was a bundt cake pan, I decided that would do.

Armed with my multi-flavored Jell-O mixes, red Kool-Aid packet and bundt pan, I still envisioned a magical feast for the eyes and stomach.

As I read the recipe, I realized it called for 7-Up. We didn’t have any 7-Up, but we did have a bottle of flat Squirt leftover from my father’s card night with the guys.

I followed the recipe, putting in just the right amount of hot water and cold (but flat) soda pop. I threw in ice cubes to hurry the process.

The problem was I had no idea of ratios, when it came to a certain number of ice cubes matching a certain number of cups of water. I improvised and dumped in a bunch.

The odd, watery mixture was certainly not red, so I grabbed the Kool-Aid packet. My juvenile brain wondered — if it was Kool-Aid, should I also add water to that? Why not.

Before pouring it into the bundt pan, I remembered the last time we used it we applied non-stick spray to keep the batter from sticking. Would a Jell-O mold be any different? I decided to put a good, steady, oily sheen on the pan to make sure none of my sugary goodness would be left behind.

I poured in the concoction and shoved the whole thing in the refrigerator.

The wait began. I waited, waited, waited.

Every once in awhile, I’d peek in the refrigerator to see if it had set. When I jiggled the pan, all I got was a sloshing mess. At least cleaning up the sugar kept me occupied while I waited.

And waited.

With supper approaching, I began to panic because the pan was still just full of a brownish-green liquid that seemed to have a whitish petroleum-like film oozing from the sides.

I decided to put it in the deep freeze. Of course, I spilled the sweet goo on the floor, as I tried to balance my way to the utility room. My hands quivered as I placed the pan on top of packages labeled as hamburger and corn.

I decided I could at least prep my decorative toppings. I had leftover candy hearts from making Valentines – check. The whipped topping was thawed out – check. There weren’t any strawberries, but we had some bananas . . . so I peeled them and carefully cut them into chunks. I placed the banana pieces on a plate next to the whipped topping – next to the stove. Did I mention there was a meatloaf in the oven at the time and the old gas contraption was putting out pretty good heat?

When I checked the Jell-O, it was certainly more solid. It was an odd combination of frost, brown water, floating oil and a bit of a frozen surface.

But it was time to plate – as chefs say – and I proudly walked back to the kitchen with my bundt pan full of strangeness.

I remember Mom took one look at the situation and gently suggested that “maybe you don’t want to take it out of the pan. I think it looks festive as it is.”

I argued that the entire thing had to stand on its own.

“On that lettuce over there,” I said, as I pointed to a cookie sheet covered in brown, wilted lettuce I had assembled hours earlier during my frustrating waiting period.

Mom suggested we just set the pan right on top of the lettuce. “You can still see how pretty it is,” she assured me.

I worried because the whipped topping was in no way fluffy – it had pretty much melted. But it was what it was, so I poured it on top of the Jell-O mixture.

It was with great joy I sprinkled the candy hearts (which sunk and dissolved in the goo) and added the now brownish-black banana chunks.

I looked at my mess and then at the magazine.

“It doesn’t look anything like it,” I said, almost in tears.

“I think it looks pretty dang close,” my mother lied, putting her arm around me.

When it came time to serve the situation, she brought along bowls and spoons – the family oohed and aahed in tones of which they’d obviously been coached.

Mom ladled the stuff and I remember my dad taking a big gulp.

He proclaimed it was delicious.

I don’t remember tasting it myself or what happened to the leftovers, but I realize that was the first time I felt the excitement and pride that comes with making something special and delicious for the ones you love.

Or, well, at least it was special.


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