Except for Christmas, candy was scarce, scarce on our Eastern Oregon ranch.
True. we had fine desserts for every dinner and supper, although on Mother’s busiest days she sometimes settled for applesauce. Mostly her desserts were such delights as chocolate meringue pie, Boston cream pie or eggless, milkless, butterless cake. For special occasions, such as Monument’s Fourth of July picnic, she made her angel food cake.
Our one grocery store’s scant candy offerings consisted of candy bars such as Mars, Three Musketeers and Hershey’s. If we had pocket money, which we usually did not, we could buy a chance on the punch board. We’d punch out the little piece of paper from the board and hope that on it was the winning number for a box of candy — seldom was that the case.
With candy in short supply, my sister and I often became hungry for sweets. We then hoped Mother would let us make a batch of fudge, and she seldom said no. Whereupon we mixed up sugar, cocoa and milk, and hoped the fire was still burning in the cookstove so we didn’t have to build a fire.
The fudge we made was bare bones: no nuts, no marshmallows, no candied cherries. Not in the slightest did it resemble an “Honest Chocolate.” It bore no likeness to Twila’s English Toffee. It assuredly was not See’s. But to us candy-hungry kids, nothing could have been better.
When it had cooked to the soft-ball stage and then was beaten until of the proper thickness, it was poured onto the buttered plate. We then had our first reward: we licked the pan in which some scant samplings were left. This prize usually was preceded by squabbling as to which of us kids had this prize the last time we made fudge.
Then came the interminable wait for the fudge to harden to eating consistency. Usually we sneaked little spoonfuls from around the edge while the center was still soft and squishy. Every bite was memorable fare.
Although we preferred fudge for the eating, making taffy was more fun. When kids came to see us, we had taffy pulls that were a delight. Cooking time for the taffy was critical and supervised a bit by Mother to make sure it was just to the hard-ball stage. The hot syrup was then poured onto buttered plates — one for each taffy puller — and always each taffy puller was reminded by Mother to thoroughly wash hands before starting.
If one of us kids failed to do so, as the taffy pull got underway, that was evident by the color of the taffy. Sometimes the finished product looked almost chocolaty.
After the hot syrup was poured onto the plates, it then had to cool sufficiently for handling.
If we kids became impatient, Mother, with a spatula, turned back the edges to speed cooling. Then, with buttered hands, using tips of fingers and thumbs, we pulled the taffy back and forth, and with each pull folded the candy back into the center, repeating again and again. Magically, the amber syrup began to look almost like white marble — if hand washing had been thorough. Pulling continued until the candy became too firm to any longer pull. Sometimes, we twisted the taffy into a rope, and the taffy was then cut into bite-sized pieces with buttered scissors.
You don’t hear much about kids having taffy pulls these days. That is a shame.
But confectioners and commercial candy makers are doing their best to make up for it. Today, candy lovers can sate their hunger with more than 2,000 varieties. My favorite candy recipe book has hundreds of recipes — such as Gingered Sausage Candy (made of raisins, prunes, almonds, figs, orange and lemon peel — with sugar only for coating). Recipes for historic candies are available, such as Oklahoma Brown Candy. It originated in the Sooner State and consisted of caramelized sugar and pecans. Our grandmothers were said to have made “Sauerkraut” candy. It was a favorite in pre-World War I days, and was carried by many grocery stores throughout the Midwest, sold from a barrel. After the war, it dropped from the scene.
I, for one, hope candy will live forever — as it has from time immemorial. The Egyptians referred to candy in their writings and drew pictures of it, such as honey shaped in little mounds. In the days of the Romans, only the rich could afford candy. In colonial days, kids gobbled up, as candy, maple sugar from the sap of maples.
Use of sugar was not widespread in Europe until well after the Crusades, and even then remained in the hands of the apothecaries. “Larousse Gastronomique” notes that during the 15th century, the crystallized fruits of Auvergne “enjoyed a well-deserved reputation, as well as the sugared almonds flavored with amber or musk.”
And with the discovery of sugar beet juice and the advance of mechanical equipment, sweet making was off and running.
Although these days we are cautioned about consuming excess quantities, such as plates of fudge, my encyclopedia (perhaps outdated) advises: “A sensible amount of candy helps make a person strong and peppy.”
I shall keep that reference at the ready.
Richard Byrd took a goodly supply of candy along on his trek to the North Pole as a source of “quick energy.” Soldiers received chocolate bars as part of their World War II rations.
Nowadays, machines produce fancy wrapped candies, such as little kisses that look like Mount Hood. Machines turn out chocolate-covered cherries. Machines make decorative swirls and whorls atop chocolates — in some cases identifying the flavor so we will know what to expect when we bite into that morsel.
But I doubt that any machine-made candy will ever taste better than the fudge we made on our wood-burning stove, squabbling over rights to lick the pan, sampling it by the spoonful while it was still warm, soft and squishy — and the eating was oh-so-good.
Elaine Rohse can be reached at email@example.com.