Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Caramel Pie Story

This is the definitive version of The Caramel Pie Story, a tale that has been spreading throughout north Mississippi (and beyond) for at least 35 years. It is time to get it online before the variant versions take hold and are accepted as truth.

People have told this story so many times that some Mississippians now claim to have been there when they weren’t. Combine those folks with the number of people who claim that they saw the aftermath and, well, there’s not room for that many people on an ocean liner.

The story involves a caramel pie, my family, the LaMastus family (neighbors), a remodeled kitchen, and some ducks.

Don’t forget about the ducks.

It was wintertime on our farm in North Mississippi, sometime in the early 1970’s.  I was probably 14 or so. Amy and Jill, my sisters, would have been 11 and 9. My little brother Steven was 7.

On the morning of The Caramel Pie Incident, my father went duck hunting with Ed LaMastus. The plan was for the hunters to be back by early afternoon (with ducks) so they would have time to clean the ducks, clean themselves, and get over to the LaMastus’ house in time for Arlas LaMastus to cook the ducks for supper that night.

In the meantime, Mama was in her (newly remodeled) kitchen, cooking a caramel pie.

Here’s the recipe:

Peel off the labels off of three cans of Eagle Brand Condensed Milk.
Submerge the three cans in a large pot of boiling water for 3 hours. Add additional water every 30 minutes to ensure that the cans remain completely covered.
After 3 hours, carefully remove the cans from the pot and place in the refrigerator until they are cool to the touch. Don’t open the cans until you are 100% sure that the caramel is at least down to room temperature.
Open the cans and spoon the contents into a pie crust.

The condensed milk will have turned into a delicious, gloppy caramel substance. Cover the caramel with whipped cream, and you’re finished.  Go here for a variant version that involves a crock pot, but takes 8 hours. 

If you want to make a healthy version, put some banana slices on top of it.

That’s all there is to it, and those things are great.

That takes care of the preliminaries. So….

1) Mama was boiling some cans for a caramel pie.
2) Daddy was duck hunting with Ed LaMastus.
3) Don’t forget about the ducks, which have not yet arrived on the scene.

By most accounts, we were all good kids. But sometimes we would leave a mess in the (newly remodeled) kitchen. Sometimes we would leave new clothing or toys outside. Occasionally we would bring our dogs or cats into the house and they would get into the groceries. On one occasion we let a female cat in the house, a cat who had kittens all over Mama’s wedding dress, the dress that was being carefully saved for Amy’s and Jill’s weddings. Mama looked at the spectacular amount of kittens and afterbirth, shrugged it off, and wondered if one wedding dress was enough to make that many kittens legitimate.

In the time leading up to The Caramel Pie Event, Mama had been on a Responsibility Rampage.
Her battle cry was “Y’ALL HAVE GOT TO ACCEPT SOME RESPONSIBILITY!”  If we didn’t clean up our rooms, we heard “Y’ALL HAVE GOT TO ACCEPT SOME RESPONSIBILITY!”  If we left the refrigerator door open (in the newly remodeled kitchen) – “Y’ALL HAVE GOT TO ACCEPT SOME RESPONSIBILITY!” We started doing our best, but I think our parents were ready for a break from their irresponsible kids.

Duck hunters are usually back home early, perhaps because Mississippi ducks have done most of their flying by noon. But on the day of this duck hunt, 6:00 p.m. came and went without the hunters returning home. This was long before everyone had cell phones, and no one could get in touch with the two patriarchs. Someone had drowned, someone had been shot, or the duck hunters weren’t having much luck and were staying on the pond out of sheer pride and hard-headedness. Sometime around 4:00, Mama and Arlas LaMastus switched over to plan “B” and agreed to cook some of the many diverse animals that were already in the LaMastus freezer.

Finally, around 6:30, Daddy’s pickup pulled into the driveway. He had gotten five or six ducks, and he looked like he’d spent the day stranded on Mount Everest.

(My father, Donald Gene Patterson, was one of the greatest men I’ve ever known, and it was an honor to grow up in his house. He has left behind some big shoes that I’ll never be able to fill. But the man could not go duck hunting without getting water in his waders. I’m a horrible role model, but at least I can stay dry on a duck hunt. Daddy could’ve worn waders into The Gobi Desert and come back soaked to his armpits.)

For the benefit of the Brits reading this epic, these are waders, compliments of The Mossy Oak Company, or West Point, Mississippi:

Since we had a yard full of ravenous dogs and stray cats, Daddy dropped the ducks off inside the house, where they waited at the far end of the (newly remodeled) kitchen hallway, like biological weapons of mass destruction. (The Caramel Pie story requires more foreshadowing than the complete works of Charles Dickens.  I apologize.)

Mama was already irritated beyond rational speech, since the plan was for Daddy and Ed to be back in time to clean the ducks, cook the ducks, etc., etc., etc. I halfway expected her to say “YOU AND ED HAVE GOT TO ACCEPT SOME RESPONSIBILITY!”

Daddy got out of his waders and coveralls, inspected himself for new frostbite, and then stomped into the back of the house to clean up. You know how badly it hurts to get into hot water when you’ve been extremely cold? I can still remember the sound of Daddy screaming in the shower.

They finally left for the LaMastus house, (going through the kitchen and stepping over the ducks as they departed through the side door) and leaving three children and an invalid grandmother in my care. We spent the next couple of hours in the back of the house watching TV with my grandmother.

A couple of hours later my sister Amy was walking toward the front of the house and heard the first explosion in the kitchen.

Fortunately for Amy, she assumed that Steven and I were fighting and she didn’t bother investigating immediately. Otherwise, she would’ve had an Augustus Gloop moment.

But then she heard two more explosions. She opened the kitchen door to investigate.

You know that scene in “The Wizard of Oz” where everything goes from black and white into color? Or the first time Harry Potter walks through the column at gate 9 ¾ to Hogwarts? Or those C.S. Lewis kids who are messing around inside the wardrobe and come out the other side into Narnia?

That’s the experience Amy had when she opened the door to the kitchen. She walked into another world.

Mama had forgotten about the cans of caramel. All of the water had boiled away hours earlier. The cans had started swelling and swelling, turning red hot. At one point you coulda penetrated their lids with a hat pin.

Finally, all of the cans had given up and exploded underneath the cooktop.

But they didn’t remain under the cooktop. When each can finally ripped open at the vertical seam, it went spinning around the kitchen at about 5,000 RPM’s because of all the pressurized caramel glop releasing itself into the stratosphere. (Or it would’ve gone into the stratosphere, but our kitchen ceiling was in the way.)

Each can probably made 30 or 40 laps whirling around the kitchen floor, spraying tiny rivulets of hot, sweet, sticky, caramelized goodness all over the wallpaper, the ceiling, the appliances and everything else.

Imagine if vandals attacked your house with a thousand cans of Nestle® Silly String.

Imagine if "action-painter" Jackson Pollock had gone through a “brown” period.

Imagine yourself as a child, seeing the greatest thing EVER.

Amy took a look at the thousands of strands of caramel, each one slowly being overcome by gravity, and marveled for a few seconds, much like the first European to see Niagara Falls, or the first astronaut to see the curve of the earth. Even as a child, she knew. She knew. This was something people would talk about for centuries.

And. It. Was. Not. Our. Fault ! ! !

If you read a lot of crime novels, you know that there’s enough blood in a human body to paint a small apartment. Mystery novelists are fond of that statistic, for some reason. On a smaller scale, in case you’re wondering, there’s enough caramel in 3 cans of Eagle Brand to paint a large kitchen.

Amy sprinted to the back of the house. “Y’ALL COME LOOK IN THE KITCHEN. Y’ALL AREN’T GONNA BELIEVE THIS ! ! !”

We pulled ourselves away from The Brady Bunch and ran into the kitchen. Once we figured out what had happened, we were absolutely delighted. We ran our fingers through the caramel on the refrigerator and ate delicious fingerloads of the stuff. We wrote our names in the wallpaper. I think we took Steven’s shirt off of him and rolled him around the floor.

Some of the new kitchen cabinet doors were open, and the stuff had gotten into the plates and cups. The cabinet doors that were closed had caramel rivulets running down their glass fronts. The vent-a-hood over the cooktop was dripping enough chocolaty stalactites to send Willie Wonka into insulin shock. I don’t know why I remember this little detail, but we had a Skillet Clock like this one….

….mounted over the stove and a tiny little drop fell off the minute hand and fell into Steven’s hair.

We briefly debated letting the dogs and cats in, partly so they could help us lick the walls, and partly because we knew we’d be telling this story for decades and Border Collies and cats would add some flavor to the tale. But we couldn’t do that because they would’ve also eaten….

The ducks.

Don’t forget about the ducks.

After about 15 or 20 minutes of licking caramel off of the walls, the floors, and each other, we decided that it would be a good idea to call our parents.

Amy got to the phone first and called the LaMastus house. “You remember those cans that were boil….”


“It’s too late,” Amy said, without betraying the extent of the fury that the Eagle Brand Company of Orville, Ohio had unleashed in our kitchen. “The kitchen is a mess.” Amy and Mama went on to calmly exchange some girl talk about how it could be cleaned up the next morning, a Monday, when we would be in school and not in the way.  But, in later tellings of this story, Mama admits that she halfway thought we were playing a trick on her because of the "responsibility" rants we'd been enduring.  She thought we had noticed the red-hot bulging cans of Eagle Brand on the cooktop, turned off the heat, and played a joke on her with the phone call.

(Amy went on to get a Masters and then a Doctorate in Rhetoric and Composition, a field that requires one to cite information in a straightforward manner with no appeals to emotion or verbal trickery. She displayed this ability even as a child.  I, on the other hand, grew up to pound political rants into a computer at odd hours of the night, with the stated goal of attracting as much attention as possible.  That explains the next phone call nicely, I think.)


That did it. The parents decided to come home.

We started calling our friends and describing the carnage, not realizing that we would be calling them again in 20 minutes to describe the final outrage that would be inflicted on our defenseless kitchen….

And that would be….the ducks.  They were dead.  My father had shot them.  But they would have their revenge. 

I haven’t been duck hunting in 25 years. Not because I don’t like going, and not because I don’t like to eat ducks. It’s because I hate cleaning them. Ducks have intestines that are the diameter of a pencil and 3 miles long, filled with everything that the bird has eaten for the last six years.

They also have millions of tiny little pin feathers that have to be pulled out by hand. After you’ve cleaned your first duck, your hands are a mess, and the feathers start sticking to everything. I’d rather field dress a Woolly Mammoth than clean another duck.

Some duck hunters claim that it’s easier to remove the pinfeathers if you freeze the duck first, and then let it thaw. For some reason, the feathers are easier to remove afterwards. (I used to think that was just an excuse to postpone cleaning ducks. Throw the critters in the freezer, forget about them, and then bury them in the backyard sometime in the Spring.) Whether you believe that’s a time-saver or not, the ducks had frozen solid in the back of Daddy’s pickup while he was driving home that afternoon.

When he put them inside our back door, they had thawed.

And when my parents opened the side door, thousands and thousands of tiny little pinfeathers had already released themselves from the ducks that grew them…

And the four Patterson children, with caramel all over their faces, hands, and hair, had posed themselves in a photographic tableaux in the kitchen hallway, looking like Victorian Sewer-sweeps, if there ever was such a thing, waiting to surprise our parents….

And when my father opened the door, a huge gust of Mississippi winter wind blew across the ducks, picking up those thousands and thousands of feathers….

And we saw a feathery cloud coming toward us, and there was absolutely nothing we could do about it….
Except watch the feathers stick to the caramel, the kitchen, and us...

And our joy was made complete.  (1 John, Chapter 1, Verse 4

The kitchen looked like it had been tarred and feathered. We all laughed until we cried.

The #1 priority for the cleanup plan the next day was to get us to school so we wouldn’t be stomping through the caramel and tracking it through the rest of the house. Everyone went to bed thinking it would happen.

We woke up the next morning with a foot of snow on the ground. School was cancelled.

Daddy got some paint scrapers, some 5-gallon buckets for us to sit on, and Amy and I started scraping the walls. We didn’t make much progress.

Then Daddy went to the farm shop and picked up “Son”, one of his employees.  Son Rogers was an older African-American guy, salt of the earth, taught me how to drive a tractor, first man to tell me about B.B. King, etc, etc, etc.   Daddy told Son that we had some cleanup to do at the house, and asked him to bring a scraper and a 5-gallon bucket to sit on. This was north Mississippi in the early 1970’s, and Son was of a generation that didn't question white people about their business or their personal lives. He just showed up with his scraper and bucket.

In the greatest display of willpower and suppressed curiosity I’ve ever seen, Son briefly looked at the caramel, the feathers, the two nasty looking white kids scraping the walls, and never said a word or asked what had happened.

He just sat down beside us and started scraping.

I'm copying my sisters, brother, and various LaMastus people on my Facebook link to this so they can vouch for the accuracy of this story.  I hope someone in Drew or Merigold Mississippi will forward this to the current owners of the house so they can put up a plaque or something. 


Cedric Katesby said...

That's as funny as hell.

A multi-stage "kodak moment".


Lori said...

Loved it! Hadn't heard this one until now!

Chris Howell said...

Having grown up in Merigold, MS, and having spent many hours at the Patterson house, I was very familiar with this story. I was 10 at the time it occurred, a year younger than Amy and a year older than Jill. But I have never heard this story in so much glorious detail! Thanks for the definitive version. It brought back great memories of childhood and time spent with your family.

JT said...


Having heard the Blownstar 2010 oral version, I was anxious to see it in blogprint.

If only there were pictures.

That Damn Libertarian said...

I think P.F. McManus will proudly pass the mantle or mammoth carcass or just let you wear his waders as long as you keep them dry.

kerrcarto said...

Loved it..I must have missed the Blownstar version, or did I...

TarrantLibertyGuy said...

(William Faulkner + David Sedaris)/(O.Henry X Ray Stevens) = The Caramel Pie Story.

This was just great! Hilarious... and to your David Sedaris comparison, you even have a sister named Amy!

The Whited Sepulchre said...

Ok, folks, Ed LaMastus just sent this to everyone on his email list.
As far as I'm concerned, that makes it the definitive, inerrant version.

Anonymous said...

Finally read it. I'm glad that we now have a version in print. I remember the caramel over every surface of the kitchen, and that we got new wallpaper after the incident. I think that you are right about never finding one of the cans. Do you remember that someone (probably Arlas LaMastus) painted the "found can", and stuck a few dried flowers in it?

I can't believe you found a picture of the skillet clock!

Georgia Ryle said...

I can just see Amy, Jill, Steven and you playing in that caramel. And, you are absolutely right. I bet Amy had the straightest face when she called Libby to tell her about her kitchen in a matter-of-fact way. I would love to have been there to see that when Libby and Donald walked in the door. We ALL could have rolled in the floor laughing. :-D

Georgia Ryle