Seasons by the Sea: White Bread and Sherbet

WASP soul food
A recent spread of tea sandwiches, dip, and melba toast at the Garden Club of East Hampton’s plant sale found its color in the table cloth. Durell Godfrey

Some call it preppy food. I call it WASP soul food. For those not familiar with this acronym, it stands for white Anglo-Saxon Protestant. As an Irish Catholic with a good dose of Norwegian from my grandmother’s side, I am clearly not a member of this tribe. But many of my schoolmates and lifelong friends certainly are. As a result of this, I have become extremely familiar with WASP “cuisine.”

How can you identify this WASP soul food? It tends to be white. We’re talking white bread, probably Arnold or Pepperidge Farm, certainly not a fresh French baguette! Mayonnaise plays a huge role in WASP “cooking,” or more accurately, the preparing or assembling of meals. 

This must be clarified, as there are a lot of canned, frozen, bottled, and boxed foods that go into these meals. Crabmeat, shrimp, lobster, and any mild white fish such as sole or flounder are preferred over the more exotic, like skate or scungilli. The lettuce is iceberg, potatoes are a vegetable, and chicken in a cream sauce is a go-to dish for more formal occasions. Onions and garlic are only acceptable in powdered form, if at all. Sorbets are still sherbet, dressings are bottled, and pasta is noodles. Campbell’s cream-of-anything soup is considered a mother sauce. A proper WASP hostess will never be caught without Triscuits, Wheat Thins, or Milano cookies in her pantry.

At cocktail parties you will find a whole wheel of unripe Brie with Carr’s Table Water Crackers, pigs in blankets, and so-and-so’s famous dip, inevitably laden with cream cheese, sour cream, aaaand mayo. The bar will be fully stocked with hard liquor and mediocre wine, for while WASPs do like to drink, they are frugal. A sugary pink punch may also make an appearance.

This tribe does not care for exotic, spicy, or foreign food. In my research I have come to the conclusion that this food is the kind that a toddler would approve of: soft and pale with no color or crunch. Kale is a four letter word.

When my mother and father were on the back nine of life, they spent their winters near Palm Beach, WASP central! They had a friend named Hutch who wore pink and pinky rings and loved show tunes. His wife didn’t seem to mind; she doted on her corgis and her rose garden. When I went to visit, Hutch treated us to dinner at a country club that was having a New Orleans theme night. Visions of Cajun and Creole specialties like barbecued shrimp dripping with buttery Worcestershire sauce and Tabasco, sherry-loaded she-crab soup, and sucking the heads off of boiled crawfish danced through my head. Do I even have to tell you it was a bland affair, more suited to a rest home, with creamed and canned shrimp, nary a roux with the Holy Trinity of peppers, onions, and celery in sight. They probably had beignets though, because that is a nice, soft, white fried dough blob. I was crestfallen.

There are, however, many delicious WASP-y foods that I love. As a matter of fact, if I may brag, I believe I have mastered the tea sandwich. And there is always a somewhat large jar of Hellman’s mayo in my fridge. Cake mixes have their rightful place, especially when dolled up with lemon Jello and apricot nectar for the yellow cake, chocolate chips and sour cream for the devil’s food cake mix. I have also adopted the safe and delicious cheat dessert (from the excellent food writer Julia Reed) of lemon sorbet and Bordeaux cookies.

Do you have friends who you suspect are WASPs or wannabes? Here are some helpful hints to identify them. The gents have nicknames from prep school or go by a shortened version of their last name, which will inevitably have a Roman numeral II or III after it. (See the aforementioned Hutch.) The wives have pretty names like Clarissa, Georgina, and Miranda, but these are shortened to Bitsy or Bunny. Their children and dogs (purebred Labradors and retrievers only, please!) are named after presidents, activities, and herbs, like Jefferson, Tyler, Quincy, Hunter, and Basil.

Through my entire four years of college I had a preppy boyfriend; he looked like Troy Donahue, I kid you not. On our first visit to meet his family at their farm outside Princeton, N.J., he kept telling me what a wonderful cook his mother was. She “made” lamb chops, baked potatoes, and frozen spinach mixed with Philadelphia cream cheese with chives. To my mind this wasn’t so much cooking as it was spending money on expensive meat and putting salt and pepper on it. The creamed spinach, however, was a splendid shortcut that I have been using ever since.

I came from a home where my mother cooked inexpensive but absolutely wonderful stews and casseroles, and she always made her own vinaigrette. Meals were revered in our household, and while we did eat the occasional fish stick or cheap cut of eye round, there were plenty of fresh vegetables, real orange juice at breakfast, and no junk food whatsoever. Thank you, Mother!

If you are yearning to make something along the lines of typical WASP food (which I wouldn’t recommend as part of a balanced diet), look no further than your nearest Junior League cookbook. These are filled with cream of mushroom soup casseroles, noodles with more creamy stuff, and more crab and artichoke dips than you will ever need. There will be no exotica like a Thai green papaya salad (horrors!) or a spicy curry from Myanmar. Shortcuts, canned goods, and powders rule, fish sauce and kimchi are anathema.

Now put on your Jack Rogers sandals and sensibly modest Indian-cotton caftan, and let’s get cooking, er, I mean, assembling.

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