It was purely accidental that I stumbled upon the news. No. Not accidental. It was fate. As I perused the weekly online circular from Publix, an image caught my eye. Assuming I had seen it incorrectly, I zoomed in to double check. Could it be? It was.
The Viennetta had returned. Frantically, I looked at my phone and confirmed the date, to make sure I had not fallen, unawares, into a wormhole or rift in the space-time continuum, then turned my attention back to the screen, staring longingly at the advertisement, and speaking the word aloud: “Viennetta.”
As a small-town child whose head was filled with ideas of a grandiose future (no doubt fueled by the countless episodes of “Dynasty” and “Knots Landing” played on my family’s enormous, wood-encased, floor model behemoth of a Magnavox television with its two giant knobs,) the Viennetta seemed to symbolize a kind of luxury that had eluded me since my unremarkable birth.
It was the 1980s. I was living in a log house in the tiniest town imaginable, where a single caution light was the only guiding force for traffic through the sparsely populated burg. The town’s name was Cowpens, the type of name that caused folks to do a double-take when you proclaimed your provenance to them.
Over the years, I have become familiar with the glassy-eyed stare that such a name elicits from those who hear it, as they try to determine whether such a comically-named place exists, or if I’m just pulling their leg.
As a native of Cowpens, I can confirm it is very real, very small, and very rural. The log house I grew up in was situated on a dirt road dotted with only a handful of modest houses, duplexes, and mobile homes, all situated on lots resplendent with red Carolina clay and pine trees that would shed mercilessly into our swimming pool every summer.
At the top of the road sat Bogan’s Auto Parts, Barry Wright’s Race Cars, and a small trailer that housed a clothing and jewelry shop run by some of our neighbors.
I would eagerly walk up the dusty road to the Fashion Hut, as it was called, every few weeks to see what new arrivals could separate me from my money. Another trailer housed a salon and a very early version of a tanning bed, which I’m certain was responsible for untold physical damage to those who dared utilize it.
I’m pretty sure I recall Mama going into that glowing coffin a time or two and emerging with a tan and a fully toasted grilled cheese sandwich.
And while it was an idyllic place to grow up, picking blackberries, catching minnows in the “crick,” and spending long days exploring the woods, it was about as luxurious as the 1984 primer-gray Ford Granada with burgundy naugahyde interior that my Daddy drove.
In an event revealing my provincial nature as a child, I remember being perplexed at a friend’s house when I wanted water but couldn’t find their dipper gourd. (Since my family had and used one, I assumed everyone did.) I don’t know who was more confused, me or my friend’s parents who had doubtless never been dipper-shamed before, nevermind by a sassy little blonde slip of a girl.
Now, to be fair, we weren’t quite as fully-entrenched in some “Little House on the Prairie” time warp as it may sound. No, I just had quirky parents with their own aesthetic, which seemed to be “Cracker Barrel Chic.” I suspect my Daddy was behind some of the more unique design elements of the home, like the ancient scythe and other farm implements which hung over and around our wood stove.
Daddy was always conveniently handling one of them any time a suitor would arrive to pick me up for a date. Being asked “What are your intentions with my daughter?” by a man fondling a bladed farm tool was, I imagine, a powerful motivator to those poor boys to maintain a respectful distance from the deranged man’s daughter, and I cannot remember a single instance of a boy bringing me home late. Second dates were a rarity.
But something happened within the confines of that unassuming rural environment and small country cabin. I discovered glamour. And I was every ad-man’s dream back in the day, an easily-dazzled consumer with $5 per week allowance burning a hole in her pocket, and an attention span perfectly suited to 2-minute pitches (and little else.)
At some point, after I had been sufficiently saturated with ads reflecting the luxe consumerism of the 80s, I formulated a plan, which was as follows:
- Obtain position as head Solid Gold Dancer (nevermind the fact that the extent of my dance training was nagging my way into the position of Team Captain of the Cowpens Elementary Dance Team; reality had no place in my childhood ambitions.
- Marry Bo Duke. Objective #1 would have, I assumed, placed me squarely in his path at some swanky Hollywood party, and I was confident our romance was a foregone conclusion.
- Honeymoon on the Love Boat, where Charo would delight us with her hip-shaking antics as we cruised to Fantasy Island, at which point Tattoo and Mr. Roarke would fulfill every fantasy we threw their way.
- Eat Viennetta twice a day. In the morning, with General Foods International Coffees (though I will confess to having something of an existential crisis about whether Café Vienna or Suisse Mocha would be the most suitable pairing) and in the evenings with Riunite, “pure and natural wine.”
The Riunite ads had what was, at the time, the most infectious jingle on television and I loved to sing it aloud. This led to some embarrassment for my poor mama when she visited the Community Cash grocery store, pushing her young daughter in a buggy as the little tow-headed tyke sang “Riunite on ice! Riunite so nice! Riunite, Riuniteeeee!” at the top of her lungs. I still remember her “I am so sorry, I promise I do not give cheap wine to my 5-year old, please don’t call DSS” expression as we shopped.
Lest you become overly sympathetic to my mama’s plight, however, I should inform you that it was she who routinely dashed my Viennetta dreams. “Too expensive” was her stock reply, but I knew she was just secretly resentful of my worldliness at such a young age, and determined to thwart my plans to cruise international waters with Bo Duke.
So I would watch in dismay and barely-repressed animosity when the commercial would air, and instruct me on the proper care and handling of the dairy dessert.
The ad involved a very grown-up looking gathering with soft music, where the Viennetta was clearly the honored guest of the occasion. I watched, eyes wide with anticipation and shameless gluttony, as the host sliced the luxurious loaf of pillowy goodness with a gleaming silver serving knife and gently placed it in, of all things, a champagne glass.
What unabashed decadence, and proof positive of Viennetta’s pedigree as The Fanciest Dessert Ever Available At Retail Grocery Chain Stores. I gasped audibly as the Philistine dinner guests initially rebuffed the offering, then conceded, only to be left scraping their dessert glasses with their fancy spoons in an effort to savor every last delicious bite.
The commercial climaxed with a shocking turn of events when those unappreciative heathens who had, just moments before, spurned the delicious Viennetta, suddenly all lunged for the last remaining slice. Then, in a cruel twist of fate that my young heart could hardly bear, the commercial ended! While other children’s sleep was tormented with fears of ghosts and predatory beasts, my insomnia was purely the result of not knowing the fate of that last slice of Viennetta. It haunts me to this day.
You can understand, then, my delight in discovering that the gastronomic white whale of my childhood had returned to supermarket shelves. Without bothering to notice I was wearing my “Disco Never Died” t-shirt, along with ancient Crocs, I dashed out the door and committed, frankly, more than a few egregious traffic violations as I hurried my way to the nearest Publix.
Brusquely pushing past the polite, bespectacled young man offering buggies (“A buggy? Dammit man, no time! There’s Viennetta to be had!” I could be heard saying,) I threw etiquette to the wind and immediately cut the wrong way THROUGH one of the checkout lines, like a frenetic blonde salmon swimming upstream, to reach the Frozen Foods section that harbored my heart’s desire.
Once in that frigid realm, I panicked momentarily when I couldn’t find the Viennetta amongst the ice cream treats and Pepperidge Farms cakes. As I feverishly plowed through the freezers, like some hillbilly Ponce de Leon hacking her way through the tropical jungle in search of the Fountain of Youth, I made eye contact with the lady stocking the freezer and silently dared her to say a single word. I have no doubt in my mind that if there had been a panic button accessible to her at that moment, she would have engaged it with great enthusiasm.
And then I saw it. My Viennetta. (Viennettta in buggy pic- At last, my Viennetta)
The box had changed, and the folks at Good Humor who had taken over the product from Breyer’s had made an unfortunate choice of font for the new package (it was not nearly as fancy as the flowing script of the old design,) but it was there. Cradling it in my trembling arms, I bolted to the self-check area, unwilling to allow any hands but mine to touch my precious prize.
Succumbing fully to my paranoia by this point, I hurried my way through the checkout process, hissing audibly at anyone who was foolish enough to come near. Remembering the cooler I kept in my car, I rushed the Viennetta through the parking lot and into the cool interior of the insulated container with the kind of urgency usually reserved for a liver traveling to a transplant patient. I don’t remember the trip home, so singular was my focus.
Back in my kitchen, I tucked the Viennetta snugly into the freezer, then began the preparations: out came great-aunt Gladys’ fancy white tablecloth, along with her Wedgewood “Patrician” china. I paused momentarily to reflect on the appropriateness of the name, as I loaded up a CD of Pablo Casals performing Bach’s Cello Suites, the fanciest music known to man.
A single white lily became a centerpiece, accompanied by lovely violet rose petals. Votive candles, and a set of souvenir spoons from Norway (the closest thing I had to fancy dessert spoons,) completed the tableau. And then it was time.
With great reverence and care, I removed my precious Viennetta from the freezer, and gingerly opened the box. Coaxing out the dark brown fluted plastic tray was a transcendent experience, and I lovingly placed it on the coordinating Wedgewood platter I had risked life and limb to extract from a top shelf. It seemed to emanate a subtle glow, as if luxury itself issued forth from its rectangular bounty. (Viennetta on table pic) – Only the best for my Viennetta
Using the best silverplate knife I could find, I sliced carefully in to the luxurious loaf of decadence, feeling the slight resistance of the delicate layers of chocolate hidden in the velvety ice cream. Plating my slice, which was neither so large as to be brutish, nor so small as to smack of indifference, on my plate, I sat down, crossed my ankles demurely, and placed a white linen napkin across my lap.
“Why, Bo” I purred to the empty seat across from me “of course I’ll marry you. Just let me notify the producers at Solid Gold, so I can schedule our honeymoon around filming.” Flashing a worldly smile, I clinked my imaginary wine glass full of Riunite to his, and spooned a modest mouthful of dessert from my plate.
That bite was everything I had built it up to be in my mind over the decades. Rich, silky, complex, sublime. I savored every spoonful, then reluctantly placed my Viennetta back in its box, and returned it to the freezer to be savored another day. Sitting back down at the table, I felt a wave of nostalgia-tinged satisfaction wash over me as I acknowledged that, every now and again, something we idealize from our childhood lives up fully to our most unrealistic youthful expectations.
I may never get to shake a tailfeather as a Solid Gold dancer, or launch myself into the General Lee feet-first so me and the Duke boys can escape Boss Hogg, but for a few brief moments, I was living my best 80s life. Robin Leach would have been proud.
About the Author: Shauna is an Upstate SC native and graduate of Converse College and ETSU. With a passion for both history and writing (and an advanced degree in Appalachian Studies that her parents SWORE she would never use,) she is excited to be able to share stories of the colorful people and places of the South. In her spare time, she enjoys archery, rollerblading, and looking for that next great story.