Thoroughly Modern Tapioca

My sister Cindy was a beauty, and a tremendous baton twirler as well, but for a county-level Miss Mississippi preliminary, my mother (a formidable woman who loved her children) decided that Cindy should forego twirling—which Mom considered trashy—and dance to the title tune from Thoroughly Modern Millie instead.

Cindy practiced her heart out, wore a really cute pink flapper outfit with a white feather and a ruby garter belt, but she placed first runner-up to a girl who belted out “Stand By Your Man” with such fury that the windows of the Calhoun City school gym rattled. The new Miss Calhoun County–who didn’t even make top 20 at finals–also attended MSU; Cindy was enrolled at Ole Miss. Mom, in a high dudgeon, observed quite audibly that three of the five judges were State alums.

Cindy gave up competitions, but after hours of watching her rehearse, I ended up memorizing the soundtrack to Thoroughly Modern Millie, including a tune called “The Tapioca”. For the past thirty years (or so) this song was the closest I ever got to actually eating tapioca, but recently I’ve had a bee in my bonnet over it, and nothing else would do except for me to cook me some tapioca and eat it.

Call it mental floss.

Tapioca isn’t something you typically find in Southern supermarkets; the only place I could find it was at Mr. Chen’s, my favorite shopping destination. I can get anything from Mr. Chen.

Even frogs.

Nobody cooks tapioca exactly the same way. Everybody soaks the “pearls”, but for different lengths of time; everybody uses milk for cooking, but everybody uses a different kind of milk; everybody uses eggs, but some use yolks only, some use whipped whites, some use whole eggs, and I read at least two recipes that used all three and called it Colchester pudding.

The only thing everyone agreed on was that the pudding needed to be cooked at an even, high heat, but not boiled. I soaked a cup of large pearls in two cups of water overnight. In the morning they looked very much like cottage cheese. I put the drained tapioca in a slow cooker on high with four cups whole milk and one cup whole cream (you could of course use five cups half-and-half, but I just didn’t have any on hand).

After two hours of occasional stirring, the tapioca had thickened considerably, so I beat a whole egg with three egg yolks, tempered it into the mixture by adding the hot tapioca to the eggs bit by bit until it could be added without curdling, stirred in a half cup of sugar and a teaspoon of vanilla, and let it sit on low heat for a little while. I sweetened to taste  and added two teaspoons vanilla.

One Reply to “Thoroughly Modern Tapioca”

  1. As a kid, I dreaded the stuff whenever our mother made it. Excuse my French but it looked like vomit. But children, by nature, have such unsophisticated palates. Over the years, I grew to love tapioca, always remember so very fondly the tapioca served up by a Nashua, New Hampshire restaurant, The Modern. And whenever I see tapioca on a menu, I will order it over more posh fare. I do still cringe whenever someone suggests I order the bubble teas with tapioca pearls throughout the beverage. Just doesn’t seem natural, and the sensation of having them travel up through the straw into your mouth is, for me, so startling. I love your story of your sister’s “Thoroughly Modern Millie” dance! One of my favorite musicals. “Jazz Baby” is also a divine song from that picture!

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