A story about pudding: it’ll calm you down, too

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The Abood Law firm, in the early days, was located in the heart of downtown Lansing, Michigan on Allegan Street. In the summers as a teenager, I worked there doing all sorts of odd jobs, running documents around and filing down in the lower level. That was really just the sideline to the real work at hand, which was finding reasons to leave the office to go around the corner to Washington Square for sugar and salt at The Peanut Shop and lunch at Dimitri’s. Of all the times my father called me to his office, he was most often summonsing me to run a very special errand. I’d stand in the doorway of his office, and even if he was on the phone he would look up and draw me closer by signaling with his finger to come over here, to the side of his massive desk. Which I promptly did. He opened the drawer and pointed to a nearly empty, long, narrow white paper bag. I understood immediately: go get gumdrops. Or jellybeans. A few nuts would be good too. Implicit in this directive was the understanding that lunch would be had along the way.

While I was out at the peanut shop, I’d realize just how hungry I was. The irresistible scent of roasting nuts and popcorn was the shop’s greatest marketing tool, wafting out the door and infusing Washington Square with hunger and desire. I knew the nuts and candy would be no match for what I needed, which was a serious lunch. Easy, right across the street was Dimitri’s, a Greek diner of sorts specializing in chili dogs, French fries, Greek salads, and the sleeper of the line-up…creamy rice pudding. Dimitri himself was always behind the counter welcoming everyone with his charming Greek accent, ready to make your hot dog exactly to your specifications. His wife was at the other end of the cafeteria-style counter ringing customers up. As I passed by the rice pudding with my chili dog and fries on the tray in front of me, I would try to have some small measure of restraint at least for the pudding, knowing that my afternoon would consist of bags of chewy red licorice and gumdrops in between my Xeroxing assignments (or rather, the Xeroxing took place between my candy-eating assignments).

Dimitri never let our lunches in his restaurant end without visiting our booth for a quick hello. I felt like a kind of celebrity or something talking to the cook at my table, and this was when chef celebrity was just a glimmer in our culinary mind’s eye. That Dimitri often came to our booth with a cup of his rice pudding in hand made the moment an even bigger thrill. You shouldn’t have, I protested! But I’m so glad you did! His rice pudding went down easy, and reminded me of my mother’s ultra-creamy rice pudding, which she makes with raisins or dried apricots, scents with vanilla or orange blossom water, and loves to eat warm with a big spoon right from the pan. Dimitri always had such a tranquil smile, and such an easy way about him, that I figure he must have eaten his daily share of rice pudding to help keep him in such a state. He was going to need all of the calm rice pudding could muster in the coming years as he faced cancer, and closed down the restaurant on Washington Square. But as families like ours tend to do, across town his son reopened and keeps the tradition alive.

Back in those days the sweets for the afternoon at “work” could not, would not, end with the rice pudding. I still went after my licorice and Dad’s gumdrops, heading home no doubt with a crazed sugar high by the end of the day. Now that I’m all grows up, when I need something to both assuage my sweet tooth and calm me down—real comfort food—it’s roz bi haleeb, Lebanese rice pudding that satisfies. This version is enriched with egg and whole milk; many Lebanese recipes leave out the egg and use cornstarch on its own as a thickener. I have made it both ways and always come back to my mom’s recipe for its remarkable creaminess, so that’s the one I’m sharing with you today. You will like the calm every spoonful brings to your spirit.

Rice pudding has its tradition in many cultures. Old fashioned rice pudding is a southern favorite, and a dessert beloved among our Greek cousins and throughout the Middle East and Mediterranean. My mother loved rice pudding with all her heart! And so she made Lebanese rice pudding often. It was a comfort to her and reminded her very much of her own mother. Now my sister Peggy and I love our rice pudding and make it as much for its creamy, aromatic lusciousness as we do for remembering eating Lebanese rice pudding with Mom.

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