Editor's note: This column originally appeared in the Hope Star-Journal newspaper.



It is hard to figure out exactly when Americans began losing what has been called "the Protestant work ethic" and began sculpting a belief system based on entitlement.

In my own life experience, I trace it back to the invention of Jell-o Instant Pudding. That was roughly 1953.

Before that, my mother had made pudding the conventional, time-consuming way - the way her mother had made it: milk, heavy cream, sugar, corn starch, egg yokes, vanilla extract. This was all carefully cooked in a saucepan over low heat with constant stirring.

The cooking process took about 30 minutes, if Mom happened to have all the ingredients, which she usually didn't. Half the time she would get the heat too high or fail to stir adequately, causing the would-be pudding to stick to the pan and brown lumps to rise to the surface.

When that happened, the pudding went into the trash instead of the refrigerator and we all ate a can of fruit cocktail (a nasty concoction that tasted like cardboard soaked in syrup).

Once, Mom got angry enough at a pudding failure that she threw the whole mess - pan and all - over the back fence into a cornfield. Usually, however, she was philosophical about it all; God did not intend for humanity always to have perfect pudding.

Occasional bad pudding built good character. Waiting for a long time to taste a creamy delight promoted patience. Then seeing a batch of this manna from heaven thrown over the fence taught us to cope with grief. Eating the fruit cocktail helped us gain appreciation for the times when the pudding survived the cooking.

Had Mom not returned from Clouse's Grocery with a box of Jell-o Instant Pudding one fateful day, I suspect the world would not be in the mess it is in today.

She opened the little box, poured the contents into a bowl of milk, stirred it a couple of times, and poured a perfect pudding into serving dishes. In five minutes it was ready to eat.

My two sisters and I looked at each other with the sort of wonder Neil Armstrong would someday feel as his boot stepped off the lunar module ladder and touched the moon.

We all ate dessert in silence, spoons clicking against our bowls until the faded rose pattern below the pudding came into view.

The new instant pudding didn't taste quite as good as the old 30-minute variety, but it was more predictable. Dessert would never again be a gamble at our house. Mediocrity had become the price of guaranteed, instant availability.

I also noticed, as time went on and instant pudding became the norm, that I didn't care as much for pudding as I once had. It was hard to build up much of a pudding lust in five minutes. And knowing the pudding would always be available without fail, just sort of lowered its value.

Mostly I missed the drama of it all; the thrill of wondering whether we would eat it or toss it into the cornfield. And instant pudding offered no lessons to build character.

The idea of it was seductive, instant gratification - like the allure of loading up your MasterCard on a Caribbean cruise. The reality of it was harsh - like ten years of payments at 24 percent interest.

"Something that isn't worth working for, isn't worth having," Mom always told us in the pre-Jell-o Instant Pudding days.

If she had been able to see what instant pudding would one day do to our world, she would have put up with the scorched pans and the fruit cocktail.