Clinical depression is as solemn and gloomy a condition as it gets in this world. I had once imagined it reduced the souls and flesh of ordinary people to mere skeletal remains of whom they once were. That they walked in zombie-like trances through dark hospital corridors, abandoned by society and family, mute except for sporadic wails and utterances of pain.
In 1974, before the pharmaceutical revolution, before Prozac and other anti depressives infiltrated and changed psychiatry and treatment — allowing patients to come out of clinical depression and back to functioning lives in a matter of weeks — the wards of mental hospitals were filled with patients like me, suffering from depression without any means of medical relief. All we had were old down-home recipes passed from generation to generation: contagious laughter, loud rock and folk music, community ping-pong games, late-night soul-searching groups that gathered in the lounges until the midnight curfew hours, and informal cocktail-less but still boisterous parties where intimate talk bloomed like wild flowers. Anyone who had a guitar or could find one was coaxed to play Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell, off key or on key, it didn’t matter. Freed from the oppression of outside pressures, childhood slowly came back to each of us. The ultimate healer and liberator from a present that was too painful and confusing, regression was a cherished, sought-after friend. Regression slowed and altered time, returned us to what was truly elementary, authentic and primal in our lives.
But there was also something else that helped rescue us from the abyss of despair. And that was ice cream. It trumped pizza and peanut butter, graham crackers and chocolate Hershey Kisses. It was stronger than Valium and late night numbing Johnny Carson shows. It was ambrosia, a sensational infusion of sweet oblivion, signaling that soon health and well-being would return.
Oh, for a sundae at Peppermint Patty’s! Patients saved their pennies, behaved to the utmost of what was called “appropriate,” and followed even the most meaningless of hospital rules to get outside passes to Peppermint Patty’s, a New York ice cream parlor on First Avenue. An ice cream sundae brought childhood to their palettes and all the comforts and freedoms of being a child again, innocence and hope: new beginnings. To eat ice cream was to remember a vital undamaged self and recapture its buoyancy.
This butterscotch sauce recipe comes from the Schrafft’s chain of restaurants in New York City. Famous for catering to women, Schraffts’ spacious, elegant dining rooms situated in the respectable shopping areas of Manhattan allowed high class ladies to lunch and drink. In an interview in The New York Times in 2004, the owner’s great-grandson, Frank M. Shattuck said of the chain’s clientele: “Everyone wore hats and handmade suits. And if you were a lady, it was safe to sit at the soda fountain and drink gin from a teacup.” A dainty, ladylike sandwich — often, a chopped egg sandwich with the crusts cut off — was a common lunch choice for Schrafft’s patrons. Then the meal would be followed by this famous ice cream sundae, and often butterscotch cookies.
For those dark turbulent, unbearable states of depression — so frightening, so overtaking, so deeply steeped in sadness and hopelessness — I remember my Aunt Dorothy once told me, if all else fails, make yourself an old-time Schrafft’s sundae. I think it still works.