Chocolate Pudding: Memories for Father’s Day

All my father had to say was “Chocolate Pudding,” and I boxed up my crayons, chose the right coloring book, and slid my best pink poodle barrettes into place.    It was my father who needed more time, as he mulled through recent prints, cleaned up a Rollei or Leica, tenderly wrapped a broken exposure meter, and let my mother know that we’d be back for dinner.

There’s never a right time to brag, but since this is a Father’s Day ode, better now than never.  My father was the man who named the Pentax.  The Japanese originally called it the Pentaflex, and George Gilbert, an ad man by day, shook his head. Too long, he told them  – it has to be shortened.  Let’s try Pentax.  Not a mouse stirred and from that day on, the Pentax, not the Pentaflex, became a coveted camera to sling over the shoulder.

Back to Chocolate Pudding…   With our gear in the trunk, we’d drive off to a gathering of photographers someplace out on Long Island , in the same home where Chocolate Pudding lived. Chocolate Pudding was a good-sized black poodle who licked my knees and watched me color, while the men critiqued new images and pulled apart meters.

Chocolate Pudding was Chocolate Pudding, but for us she has been much more.  Just saying her name sustains our affection for her, for old days past.   Chocolate Pudding is a joyous tribute to my early days with my father, one of my first memories.

Growing up with George Gilbert was full of Sunday mornings tiptoeing around  b/w prints still drying wherever there was flat space in our living room. The morning after a night of sloshing trays filled with chemicals in a kitchen/darkroom, with the lights turned off… Contact sheets, hypo,clothes pins,  and every sort of exposure.  Images jumping off the white paper amidst chemical smells in an elbow to elbow rush hour, when neighbors came along, too.

I grew up in the company of my father’s exuberance. Not just about photographica –but it surfaced each time his latest magazine article arrived in the mail, lemon meringue pie was set on a table,  new accounts came through the door, and a  rush of facts about an esoteric subject debuted  at dinner.

Watching my father grow, as I added inches, gave me a ringside seat to unusual ways of doing things. I won’t harp on the carpentry that favored speed over finesse, although the sailboat he built with my brother came out beautifully.  He  taught himself  how to use a vise and saw, but he handled measurements in  a less obsessive way than most. Perfection only mattered sometimes.

Clearly,  he reserved the aches of precision for more important specialties —   such as Mallomar consumption. Mallomars?  By my father’s decree, these cookies (which ranked second only to Fig Newtons ), were Break-Em-Up cookies.  Eating them entailed skill, and there was one only one correct way to proceed.  First, we applied enough manual pressure until the chocolate mound lost its shine and cracked into countless immoveable pieces. Then, we carefully picked  the little chocolate pieces off the marshmallow and let them melt on our tongues.  One solitary Mallomar – I mean “break-em-up cookie  — was enough per sitting.   Once the marshmallow was undraped, the marshmallow was passed around, and with a signal from my father, the lovely cookie on the bottom was our prize. (Am I right?  Or did we save the chocolate pieces for the end, eat the cookie, and then later,  the chocolate and the marshmallow? How even the best-trained Break-Em-Up cookie eaters can forget!)

I won’t say a word about our peerless affection for Charlotte Russes.  It’s just so hard to describe the push-up cardboard base and the whipped cream in a way that captures this masterpiece’s splendor.  Oh, little compares to the delight of  watching the cardboard base rise, airlifting the cream to your lips – knowing that this can be done again and again, until everything’s gone but the sponge cake below.

Oh, Charlotte Russes — eaten on the spot or carried home in a box secured with bi-colored string (put to use in repeated games of Cat’s Cradle) made our hearts spin.  And if the Charlotte Russe confectioner  was on sabbatical,  my father would point to a Napoleon, and have it boxed for home.  Then for me,  he’d order a  chocolate hot dog (I mean éclair) which he had wrapped in a doily so I could bite my way into the luscious custard immediately –without having to endure the drive home.

Food and photos fill only one column in this memoir of exuberance.  I think he enjoyed my teen years as much as I did. Come the Beatles, and he surprised me with  a copy of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” for Valentine’s Day.  None of my friends could figure out where I sourced my one-of-a-kind Beatles fan club magazines, or my paper mini-dress, or my wooden trolls (not the plastic kind everyone else had).  And when I picked out new buttons at the tiny button store In the Village, my father always eagerly reviewed my choices.  (“Marcel Proust is a yenta,” I like it – is it too early for you to start reading Proust, I wonder?”)

Without question, I think the best part of growing up with my father (even borrowing  his habit of pecking a keyboard with too few fingers) was being overcome by his sense of wonder.  The commonplace ignited excitement  through his eyes. Elevator Muzak made him hum along;  cat’s cradle with pinkies was an art form. Dinner conversation toured amazing topics, and my friends always came back for more.  “Zoroastrianism, Mr. Gilbert?”

My lovely mother and my father together co-captained the seas of child-rearing with considerable grace.  This is the sort of accomplishment that doesn’t become clear until you have a child of your own turning pages in the back seat.

My father showed me how me to weigh the little things, the curious stuff that happens mid-way.  He still does so very well.  And now comes the time to tell my father that it truly was a great adventure and a privilege to share my childhood with George Gilbert just a few feet down the hall.