Mouth Watering Memories of My Childhood Treats

I have lived in Houston all of my adult life and rarely visit my hometown of Philadelphia now that I don’t have any family remaining there. I do spend a lot of time at my beach condo home in Margate, New Jersey, (southern coastal part of the state) AKA the place that I call my Happy Place and that I have written several about in several blogs. The food there is similar if not identical to the foods I remember from my childhood. It is only an hour’s drive from Philadelphia, this part of New Jersey, so of course it has the Philadelphia food and other types of Philadelphia influence. (The town also is the summer place of preference for my entire high school and neighborhood where I grew up so that is fun too and I can catch up with old friends there.)

This is about food though, and i have to say that I look forward to going to New Jersey and gorging on foods not found in Houston. Now I bet you think I am going to talk about cheesesteaks or hoagies, and I could do that but that would be a whole topic for another day. This is about the sweet treats of my youth, unique to our geographic location.

Virtually none of the snack or sweet delicacies I remember so well from my childhood are available where I live and so I have described many of these things for my long term friends here who never heard of or tasted the foods I loved. They would surely be able to sample most of them with a visit to Philadelphia, but since I like to revisit my days of youth and reminisce, here are my food memories. When I think of these, I also summon the taste memory as well. (Does this type of reminiscing contain calories?)

Without further ado, here they are with photos.

  1. Philly soft pretzels with black sediment on the bottom. Now that soft pretzels have gone national with chains like Auntie Annie’s, people elsewhere from Philly know what a soft pretzel is, but they don’t understand what a Philly soft pretzel is because all other soft pretzels are missing an important element. This element is a black sticky or gooey substance stuck on the bottom of the pretzels baked in the old, old Philadelphia soft pretzel ovens. Over time, the goop just built up in the ovens’ bottoms, and beautifully baked plump pretzels would come out of the ovens and have the black sediment left behind on the bottom. It was black and it tasted like a burnt tar and had a slight gasoline smell; yet biting into a heavenly pretzel with some mustard on it was reward enough to overlook the slight bite of that black sediment taste that came along with it from the bottom. You could buy these delights from vendors who hawked them on the busy intersections and outside of entertainment venues. They were a nickel from the Water Ice Truck that came to my regular playground and came in long rows that the vendor broke apart. On many a summer day it was an entire meal. Biting into one of these was a doughy piece of heaven with the softest and chewiest consistency. I recently had a debate on FB about eating the knot (or the center) first or last, or as part of eating and enjoying the overall pretzel. That got everyone very excited just thinking about the extra plump and extra doughy center knot of the pretzel. I feel the same way – excited when I think about the taste that I took for granted for so many years while growing up in Philly. I must add that very few pretzels have the black goo on them nowadays. They probably have laws about gasoline smells on food products now.
  1. Water Ice. Since I already mentioned it above, I must explain that everywhere besides Philly, these things are called Italian Ices. Now that the Rita’s Italian Ice chain has gone national, people are aware that this treat is soft, not the hard variety as they have sold Italian Ices in the freezer section of the supermarket. These water ices I grew up loving, were made by Italian immigrants, and there were just a few standard flavors when I grew up – Cherry, Chocolate, and Lemon. It was not a perfect summer day unless your lips were stained red from Cherry Water Ice. Later on vanilla, root beer, and even rainbow water ice appeared. (Now there is every flavor imaginable.) The treat was sold in trucks that frequented schools and playgrounds and parks, and it was a perfect and refreshing snack on a hot summer day of playing. The consistency is a bit like a slushie but much firmer. It is fruity like sorbet, but made of water and fruit and ice and sugar. It melted quickly and you had to eat fast or you would have soup at the bottom of the white paper cone they were sold in. The occurrence of having colored and sticky hands from the drips off the sides was frequent among all the kids in the neighborhood in the summer months. Remnants were those sticky hands and dyed red lips . Nowhere except in Philly will you hear these treats called Water Ice. (pronounced with a Philadelphia accent Wudder Ice) Nothing was better on a summer day than a chocolate cherry (combination) water ice and a soft pretzel. Now do not ask me why a redundant name like “water ice” (both made up of same thing) would have come about, but it is very flavorful and tastes nothing like water. Here are some modern versions below.

Sticky Buns. I must tell you about Sticky Buns. They probably contain more sugar than any five to ten other cakes on the market, and they are not sold in Houston at all. This is a matter of great dismay for me because I have to wait for my visits to NJ in the summer to get my Sticky Bun fix. In Houston, when I have tried to describe it, people think I am talking about a cinnamon bun or a sweet bun, but no, the Sticky Bun has about a million more molecules of sugar than either of those other sweet cakes. Here in Houston, they do cinnamon buns with a white icing and do not understand that something like that could NEVER take the place of a sticky bun. I remember as a child, going to local bakeries where you would order the sticky buns in sets of six. Sometimes they were still warm and as you pried one apart from the group of six, a sugary and syrupy molasses-type substance would stretch out and snap back into the cake. We always ordered them with raisins that covered the entire top. The raisins on top were not plain raisins but candied from being part of the sugary goo on the sticky bun. (Although the interior ones were just baked plump plain raisins.) Many people prefer them with nuts as pictured. The interior of the bun was, like a cinnamon bun, spiraled cake of cinnamon. It is the exterior where the big difference comes in. I often thought that if I spent more time in NJ that I would have a high sugar count just due to consuming these goods while I am there.

  1. Custard. I know when most humans outside of Philadelphia and New Jersey think of custard, they think of Flan, or baked custard. That is not what I am talking about. Custard while growing up was a soft-serve ice-cream product that was served from a machine in a swirl. It has to have the exact right ingredients for the ice cream to be called “custard” and when you look it up, it has to do with the amount of air and egg in the product. You can look this up on the Internet if you want to read the ingredients. I know it was weird that we went around saying Custard instead of ice-cream, but it was a Philly-New Jersey thing that most would not understand. The soft-serve (never called soft-serve as explained above) could be chocolate, vanilla, or a swirl of both when I was growing up and I preferred it with “Jimmies” on top. “Jimmies” for those outside of Philadelphia, are Sprinkles. I chose either rainbow jimmies or chocolate ones to top my cone of chocolate custard. Anywhere I go in New Jersey, I can easily find this treat. It is NOT the Dairy Queen or any ice milk type of soft serve, so stop trying to imagine it until you give it a try. I found out in adulthood that mid-westerners also eat custard ice cream, but they do not serve it soft from a machine, but rather from tubs like normal ice cream. There are now “custard” places in Houston and we even had a Kohr Brothers Custard place for a while until it folded, but nowhere is it like the custard of my childhood except in Philadelphia and southern New Jersey. Yet here I must shout out good news, there is now a Mister Softee truck in Houston and it sells soft serve custard swirled to perfection. There is only one truck and good luck finding it but I am thrilled to introduce “my Custard” to friends. Mister Softee was a frequently seen east coast ice cream truck that always served swirled soft serve custard. And don’t even try to argue with anyone from that area about whether they are sprinkles or jimmies. You will lose that argument.
My beautiful daughter Elissa and her bestie Morgan eating Custard with jimmies
Introducing my friends in Houston in January to Mister Softee!!
  1. Rice Pudding. Now I am going to explain a bit about the rice pudding of my youth, because try as I might, I have NEVER again had it the exact right consistency and flavor and texture as my youth, and especially not with the plump raisins that were all through it. Before I begin though, I must share this clip with my readers – one of the funniest bits of television in a long time – is where the British comedy, Friday Night Dinner, featured a dreaded rice pudding dessert. Here it is if you want a big laugh. Whether you love or hate Rice Pudding, you will laugh out loud at that scene. Since I moved away from Philly as a young adult, the restaurant chain that sold this delicacy that meant the world to me in my youth, had folded, and now I cannot ever get rice pudding this perfect way ever again. The restaurant chain was called Horn and Hardart, and was a cafeteria type of restaurant. In those days, dessert was a given, and those tiny dishes of rice pudding were the thing of my dreams. I mostly went there with my grandparents because that was the majority of patrons’ ages at places like it. I would rush through my dinner to get to my reward. The pudding was always chilled perfectly, and milky but not runny, smooth as silk, and tasty without too much sugar. The plump sweet raisins just added a bit of sweetness where it was needed. Yum, just thinking about this treat brings it all back for me. No matter how many times I have made this dish, or ordered it, or store bought it (Kozy Shack makes it), it will never ever compare to the perfection of this treat of my youth. Note that there are recipes online for the Horn and Hardart Rice Pudding recipe, but I have never tried to re-create this. I may someday though.

Ok, now writing all that made me VERY hungry so I will end this nostalgic journey until the next one. Let me know what you remember.

9 comments

  • All the above are special in addition my all time favorite was “hot apple pie with VANILLA SAUCE” another local specialty copied but unmatched. Chocolate soda (not egg cream) another.

  • You bring back such sweet memories. Thank you. Soft pretzels here in Southern California can’t come near to philly ones.
    Miss that stuff but not enough to move back. We live in heaven. Lol.

  • My Mom would make Rice Pudding in a bar pot ( nine kids) than would fold two boxes of Vanilla Jello pudding which would rise to the top like a custard. Yummy

  • Kathleen Duffy

    Oh the memories! When I go ‘home’ all of them, and others, are on my list. Yes I could taste every memory. Thank you from someone who is very homesick because I can not ‘go home’ due to Covid until travel is back .

    • Thanks for reading! I reminisce about our special area of the world all the time because I too miss it. I am sorry you can’t get back there. I plan to go for summer.

  • Thanks for this walk down calorie lane! I took have sought high and low the exact bite of those soft pretzels and soft sweetness of that water ice. In vain. Even when I was in New York two summers ago, there was nothing like it to be found. I’m told it isn’t easy to find in Philadelphia anymore either.
    However, there’s a joint in Anaheim, CA, not far from Disneyland, that makes it. It’s called Joe’s Italian Ice! And guess what? They serve it with soft-serve custard, if you want it that way!
    I never had the sticky buns or rice pudding. Those are news to me.

    • We actually found a place in Austin (3 hours away) that has a Philly guy who makes his own ices called Jim Jim’s Water Ice, with the correct Water Ice name, amazing treats there. We just don’t get to Austin enough to indulge regularly.

  • Roberta Levine

    This brought back such great memories of my childhood favorites too. Memories of going swimming at Max Meyers Pool and afterword getting a cherry water ice and a soft pretzel with mustard…best part of the day! And the custard with jimmies on the boardwalk-nothing better!!!!

    • Same memory – after Max Myers! So hungry after swimming. And I agree, the custard on the boardwalk is amazing. Where I live, they do not understand the custard is ice cream concept!

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