Mertie’s Mondays: My Grandpa ate fisheyes

Mertie’s Monday this week finds us contemplating peanut butter at dinner and fisheye pudding.

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[Note from Serene:  Both out of selfishness (I love Chris’s posts) and out of altruism (so do my readers; in fact, Chris’s posting days are our highest-traffic days unless we’re on the Reddit front page), I have asked Chris Hansen if he’d be willing to do a weekly post on his Mom Food. In honor of his mother Mertie, we’ve even given his posts their own category:  Mertie’s Mondays! Enjoy; I know I will.]

Fisheye pudding ready to eat
Fisheye pudding ready to eat

My Mom’s father was born in Vermont, in the Northeast Kingdom, in 1904. That meant he had a frugal attitude toward life, and some very odd tastes in food. We used to laugh a bit at what he liked, but, you know, looking back I really would enjoy some of those dishes again.

My grandma was an Acadian from Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, who came to New England as domestic help around the end of the First World War. This was a common path into the US for Acadian French people, along with fishing for the men. Her background in cooking tended toward rappie pie (an Acadian delicacy that I have never cooked but might try in the future) and lots of fish, but she learned quickly how to cook for a Vermonter.

When grandpa sat down to the table he presided. We all knew that he had earned the money to buy the food we were eating. He usually asked my grandma “Bring the jar of peanut butter, Jeanne!” and she’d bring out a small jar of Skippy Creamy and a spoon. He’d take a spoonful and put it on the side of his plate, no matter what it was we were eating, and during the meal he’d have a little peanut butter in between bites of whatever delight my grandma had cooked. I have never heard of anyone else doing that kind of thing—readers, have you?

Another one of grandpa’s little eccentric delicacies was popcorn in milk. Grandma would pop a bowl of popcorn, and scoop up a little bit in a bowl for grandpa before she salted and buttered the rest of it. Grandpa would pour milk over the popcorn, add a bit of sugar, and eat it like cereal. I don’t have any urge to try this myself, but I can see him eating this in my mind’s eye right now.

Our greatest delight was grandma’s tapioca pudding. Of course, with the great big pearls of tapioca peeking out of each individual serving, we called it “Fisheye pudding” but it was one of my grandpa’s favourite desserts. I haven’t made any for years, but tonight I decided I’d soak some tapioca and make pudding tomorrow.

There are two kinds of tapioca pudding: one is baked, the other is not. My grandma baked hers, but the baked tapioca pudding recipes I’ve come across are kind of fiddly, requiring a double boiler. I haven’t got one of those, so I tried the other kind of recipe, which only requires boiling.

I put 1/2 cup of pearl tapioca into a bowl with water and soaked it overnight.

Tapioca starting to soak
Pearls soaking

The next day was very busy for me, so I didn’t start cooking until nearly 10 pm. Here’s what the tapioca looked like after 21 hours of soaking.

Tapioca after a 21-hour soak
Tapioca after a 21-hour soak

Now here are the ingredients. Best to get all your ducks in a row as the recipe (as written) seems to call for four hands at one point. If you get your helper to beat the eggs then you’ll be okay.

1/2 cup small pearl tapioca. Make sure it’s not “instant tapioca”. Asian groceries often have it; otherwise, look in your supermarket’s baking section.
3 cups milk (the recipe I have calls for whole milk, but I used 2% and it came out just fine)
1/4 tsp. salt
3 eggs
1/2 cup sugar or Splenda
1/2 tsp. vanilla

Combine soaked tapioca, milk, and salt in 1-1/2 qt. pan on medium-high heat. Stir until boiling. Turn down the heat to lowest possible level and simmer 5 minutes, uncovered, adding sugar/Splenda gradually.

I find that the best method for stirring any liquid where milk is being heated is to stir constantly in a figure-8 pattern, scraping any semi-liquid material coating the sides every few circuits of the pot. The figure-8 ensures that the milk-mixture does not burn on the bottom of the pot.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, while you’re stirring, get a helper to beat the eggs in a separate bowl. Once the eggs are well-beaten, take a ladle-full or two of the hot tapioca mixture and slowly add it to the beaten egg. This is to ensure that you don’t end up with scrambled eggs and milky tapioca.

Once the eggs are brought up to speed by the tapioca mixture, add them to the tapioca pot along with the vanilla and turn the heat back up to medium-high. Continue to stir in a figure-8 pattern until it’s boiling again, and turn the heat back down and stir until the mixture thickens to a light syrup consistency.

Shut off the heat and pour the mixture into a baking bowl, cover, and refrigerate. I refrigerated it overnight, but you may like it fresh from the pot, so it’s horses for courses, as they say here.

The next day there was a bit of condensation around the pudding, so I carefully held the baking bowl and poured out the condensation. It won’t hurt the pudding to leave it in, and if you’re nervous about losing the pudding you slaved over for an hour then don’t worry about it.

Here’s what it looked like after being in the refrigerator overnight.

Pudding in the bowl
Pudding in the bowl

And finally, in a serving bowl with whipped cream, ready to eat.

Fisheye pudding ready to eat
Fisheye pudding ready to eat

You’ll find that the pudding is quite dense and relatively smooth. The fisheyes are apparent but not overwhelming.

Making homemade pudding like this is so much better than making it out of a box. I have no alternative, as that kind of pudding isn’t sold in the UK, as far as I’m aware. I suppose I should figure out how to make butterscotch pudding (one of my family faves) from scratch, as it’ll never appear on my supermarket’s shelves.

My grandma would be proud, I hope.

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Author: Chris Hansen

Expat American living in London, now a British citizen as well. I was originally from Marblehead, Massachusetts, and that's where my mom raised me, so my momfood comes from New England.

11 thoughts on “Mertie’s Mondays: My Grandpa ate fisheyes”

  1. I was completely grossed out at first, BUT this might be something my kids would enjoy. I’m looking to head toward homemade pudding anyway…

    1. I used one extra egg in the recipe (my bad…) and it came out quite firm and not creamy, like the tapioca pudding in the can. If you want creamy, take out an egg. Some research on the internet might turn up a creamier recipe.

      I may do Coffee Jello next…another one of my grandfather’s favourites. Very New England, and never actually manufactured by General Foods.

      I’m also going to research regular puddings like butterscotch to see whether they can be made at home.

      1. All wonderful ideas. And someone I know was just talking about making butterscotch pudding. If I remember who (may have been Carin), I’ll point you to their recipe.

  2. Okay. You got me. At first when you were talking about your grandfather’s peculiar tastes I believed it was REAL fisheye pudding. (By the way – he did have very peculiar tastes! Ones that make fun memories.)

    Then after it became tapioca I warmed up to the idea and my memories of this pudding too. Only I think I’ll stick with eating mine out of a can. It is kind of fiddly, isn’t it?

  3. I’ve never had tapioca. Looks interesting, but I have to add… I’m so not a cook. My husband can whip up something with nothing in the pantry. He used to work in the restaurant industry, so it’s second nature to him. Me? I’m lucky if I can boil water. I’ll have to browse around your blog and see what other recipes you have that I might try.

    LOVED the stories of your grandfather.

    1. Thank you. He was a great grandfather, a very talented woodworker, carpenter, electrician, and plumber. He built his own house (still standing) and worked as a turbine tester for a large industrial company. He was the Chief Turbine Tester for most of the US Navy ships built during World War II.

      Cooking is kind of like chemistry except much more fun (IMHO). The most important thing about cooking is a willingness to experiment with new ingredients and methods. Moms years ago, when times were tough, had to improvise (“Now what have we got in the fridge today?”) and had to have a practical knowledge of what might work together. Keep reading the Momfood Project, and you may find that some of the recipes look interesting and within your capabilities. The meatloaf recipe I posted last week is pretty easy, actually. Do you like meatloaf?

    2. Hey, Aleta,

      I’m going to be starting a new feature with you in mind in a week or two: Momfood Basics, with easy recipes, step-by-step cooking techniques, and ideas on how to become better at guessing what will work and what won’t. In the meantime, I love these videos, and you may, too (I don’t have anything to do with them; I just like them):

      ChefToddMohr (He really believes that you don’t need written recipes to learn to cook well, and I agree with him. I haven’t watched all his videos, but the ones I’ve seen have been very commonsensical.

  4. It was so interesting reading about your family and their interesting eating habits. I’ve actually heard of putting popcorn in milk before although i can’t say as though I’ve ever done it myself.

    I have always always wanted to try and make tapioca from scratch. Yours looks so good! It’s really great to meet you! I’m excited we’re in the same tribe at SITS and I look forward to getting to know you better!

    1. So great to meet you, too, Julie! Can’t wait to get going on the tribe. I love Chris’s pudding, too. I used to make it for my sister, who is a big fan of tapioca. Not sure why I never make it for myself, but now Chris has inspired me. :-)

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