The power of food to evoke memories


Homemade chocolate sauce over vanilla ice cream, a family tradition

It’s gotten warm around here in New England–it’s still spring but many days have felt a lot like summer. And of course, warm days naturally lead to thoughts of ice cream.

Ice cream was a regular treat for me and my family as I was growing up in south Florida. After church Sunday evenings we’d pull into the drive-through “Farm Stores” a small kiosk-like shop made only for driving through–no parking available. The small cement building had glass doors on the side, and the attendant was always ready to take our order when we pulled up. I don’t recall ever buying anything other than ice cream–one gallon of vanilla, and one pint, chosen from all the special flavors which were posted in a list right where we could see them. There was always a debate about which flavor we would choose.

Vanilla ice cream is wonderful, but really begs for something, anything to be added as a topping. These days we often add fruit–strawberries, blackberries, blueberries. But when I was growing up, the “go-to” topping was our homemade hot chocolate sauce.

Our cousin Ed shared the recipe with us, telling us he’d learned the recipe from our mutual grandmother. It soon became a family favorite. Years later when visiting my cousin’s mother, Aunt Betty, she shared the original recipe with me. There was a faint resemblance to what we do now, but the original recipe was much more complicated.

My parents always cooked up the ingredients in a small saucepan on top of the stove under medium heat–a square of unsweetened baking chocolate, 1 cup of white sugar, 1/3 stick of better and 1/4 cup of milk. We impatiently watched, stirred the sauce with a wooden spoon and hoped it came out right. Any leftover chocolate remained in the pan and was stuck in the fridge, ready for reheating with a few drops of water added to help soften the sauce. But with each reheating the chocolate became harder–almost unmanageable (we risked breaking teeth a few times!) but still delicious.

A few years ago my brother was visiting friends in Alaska with his family and called me. Did I have the chocolate sauce recipe? They wanted to share it with their friends and could not recall the exact proportions. I ended up including the recipe in our Dad’s memoir, and a copy of Dad’s memoir sits with my recipe books. The memoir is beginning to look like a beloved recipe book should–smudges, and a few stains mark the page that holds the directions.


The modern adaptation of an old family recipe–using the microwave promises consistent sauce, as long as you remember all the ingredients!

Last night I found myself ready for some ice cream, and there were no berries to be found in the house. What to do? Pull out my 8 cup glass measuring cup, of course. You see, a number of years ago I figured out that the microwave cooked up a much more consistent sauce, with no unmelted grains of sugar, never rock hard, and always tasty, so I will never go back to cooking up the sauce on the stovetop. One of the biggest challenges to using the microwave is keeping the power low enough so it doesn’t boil all over–such a terrible waste of good chocolate sauce!

Of course, the other challenge is to remember all the ingredients. One night I brought all the ingredients but one for chocolate sauce  to our friends, Bob and Rose’s house. I planned to get milk from them to add to the sauce after we finished dinner. But as can happen, I was distracted and forgot to ask for the needed milk. Within a minute of placing the measuring cup with ingredients into the microwave, we smelled something very akin to carbon. Alas, milk really is essential to avoid turning all that butter, sugar and chocolate into a carbonized mess. It was a lesson I have not forgotten…

The perfect sauce hardens on contact with the cold vanilla ice cream. Almost every time these days my chocolate sauce comes out pretty perfect. And each time I recreate this sauce, it takes me back, for just a moment, to a childhood that allowed for special treats. To a family that rejoiced in a recipe, and has continued to pass the recipe down, however altered, from one generation to the next.

Homemade chocolate sauce on vanilla ice cream is one among a small list of “comfort foods” that quickly bring back positive memories of my childhood. Let me know what comfort foods you have, and why. I’d love to hear about them!

Marjorie Turner Hollman

Marjorie Turner Hollman is a writer who loves the outdoors, and is the author of Easy Walks in Massachusetts, 2nd editionMore Easy Walks in Massachusetts, 2nd editionEasy Walks and Paddles in the Ten Mile River Watershed, and Finding Easy Walks Wherever You Are. Her memoir, the backstory of Easy Walks, is My Liturgy of Easy Walks: Reclaiming hope in a world turned upside down.


Filed under Blog Posts-Personal Histories

2 responses to “The power of food to evoke memories

  1. Brigham’s Mocha Chip ice cream! Fudge sauce on peppermint stick would do it too. Neither my mother nor either of my grandmothers were cooks, and I pretty much taught myself to cook (and bake bread) as an adult. My two favorite food memories from childhood are things I never make for myself: spoon bread (from the southern side of my mother’s family), and Yorkshire pudding (from the New England WASPs). But when I think about them, my mouth waters.

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