Whatever happened to butterscotch pudding? Why, when I was a boy, unbroken herds of butterscotch pudding blanketed the Great Plains as far as the eye could see. And today? Butterscotch pudding has vanished from the shelves of my grocery store.
Oh, you can get those little single-serve, ready-to-eat cups in butterscotch flavor. But you can’t get Jell-O butterscotch mix, those deck-of-cards-size boxes of just-add-milk powder. Only chocolate and vanilla and, sometimes, banana cream.
Kraft, the company that makes Jell-O, tells me that with so many different pudding and gelatin offerings — “well over 150,” a representative said, when you include cook-and-serve, sugar-free and ready-to-eat — no retailer can be expected to stock them all. Butterscotch pudding mix is plentiful online, the representative assured me.
But I don’t want to buy butterscotch pudding mix online, as if it were some illegal pharmaceutical purchased on the dark Web. I want to buy it in the open.
I can’t pinpoint when exactly butterscotch was jackhammered off the Mount Rushmore of pudding flavors. In the past few years, I think. And it’s not like I even eat butterscotch pudding that often. I don’t consume excessive amounts of any sort of pudding. I’m not a “pudding guy.”
I just think that a grocery store ought to carry butterscotch pudding mix just in case I find myself in a butterscotch mood, just as it should stock Band-Aids in case I cut my finger.
And, frankly, the erasure of butterscotch makes me feel old, as if I was a fossil pining for sarsaparilla, terrapin soup or syllabub. Have American tastes changed since I first broke the skin on a ramekin of butterscotch pudding? Are millennials just not into the old B-shizzle? I decided to consult some experts.
John Wright is a flavorist and author of the book “Flavor Creation.” He said that in the pantheon of flavors, butterscotch was never in the top 10. It was never a chocolate or a vanilla. And then as food chemists got better at replicating more exotic flavors, and U.S. palates became more adventurous, butterscotch had to compete with things like mango and passion fruit.
Said John: “Obviously, a lot of things have crept in, so it’s sharing a much broader palate of tastes now.”
John lives in Princeton, N.J., but he grew up outside of Liverpool, which is where he first encountered butterscotch.
“I remember the actual stuff in the U.K. from a long way back,” said John, 73. “That was from my childhood, for sure.”
Butterscotch is made by melting brown sugar and butter. (That’s how it got its name. “Scotch” probably refers to the way sheets of the cooled candy were scored to make them easier to break into chunks.) It differs from caramel, which is made with white sugar and less butter.
Sarah Lohman is a culinary historian and author of “Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine.” (Those flavors? Black pepper, vanilla, curry powder, chili powder, soy sauce, garlic, MSG and sriracha. You’ll have noticed butterscotch didn’t make the cut.)
Sarah is 37. She said she hasn’t had butterscotch since she was a child, delivered in the form of candies her grandfather always seemed to carry. She’s not a big pudding eater, either.
She thinks the role of butterscotch in the American dessert may have been supplanted by its close cousin, caramel. Caramel — and especially salted caramel — seems to be everywhere these days. Perhaps it has sucked all the oxygen from the room.
“Sometimes we edit when it comes to food flavors,” Sarah said. “If we have two or three things that are kind of about the same, we end up picking one.”
That makes sense, though I can’t say I’m happy about it.
Sarah said she got into her profession a dozen years ago after moving to New York City. (She recently moved back to her native Ohio.)
“There was a mining of the past for new ideas,” she said of the folks she encountered in New York. “People were curious about the origins and heritage of different foods.”
Sarah mentioned the recent embrace of shrubs, those refreshing vinegar-based drinks that were popular in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Shrubs have made a comeback among the foodie set. And come to think of it, the other day at the liquor store, I saw six-packs of mead by the cash register. Mead! Like Chaucer drank.
“Just because something is not popular doesn’t mean it isn’t good,” Sarah reassured me.
Old foods sometimes return in a new guise. It’s possible some hot young chef might rediscover butterscotch pudding. Maybe she’ll approach it ironically at first — can you believe people used to eat this! — but then she’ll come to appreciate it, putting her own stamp on this classic 20th-century flavor.
And if that happens, I’ll be there, spoon in hand.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.