February 7, 2011
We were all glad to hear from the Punxsutawney groundhog last week that spring would come soon. It’s been a long winter, and colleagues around the office have been trading survival tips around the proverbial water cooler for how to cope when the power goes out. And that’s when Laura’s name came up.
Little Laura was Laura Ingalls Wilder, born 144 years ago today. She was the pioneer girl who wore her hair in braids and went West with her family and lived through one of the worst winters on record in 1880 and 1881 in DeSmet, South Dakota, and later wrote about it in her popular children’s book “The Long Winter.” Born near the town of Pepin, Wisconsin, to Charles and Caroline Ingalls, Laura was the second child of five; her siblings were Mary, Caroline, Charles (who died as an infant) and Grace. The family’s adventures during moves from Wisconsin to Kansas to Minnesota to Iowa and finally to the Dakota territory became tales that have delighted generations of school children. Wilder’s eight books in the Little House series, published between 1932 and 1943, made her a pioneer in the field of children’s literature and formed the basis of a publishing empire, with several additional books published posthumously. The award-winning books, which have remained continuously in print, spawned not only the popular television series, which ran from 1974 to 1982 with Melissa Gilbert as Laura and Michael Landon as Pa, but also a host of spin-off products from cookbooks to calendars.
So when the power went out in the most recent storm, I began to pine for Laura’s Pa and Ma. Shivering in the cold trying to figure out if I could light the gas stove for heat and fumbling around for batteries and flashlights, I recalled the scenes in which Ma had to go out to the barn during the terrible blizzard, guided in the blinding snow by only a rope that Pa had tied between the buildings. Pa, meanwhile, was off wandering his way through the blizzard, trying to bring home supplies from the far-away town. What would we do, I wondered, to get through these cold hours, urban cowards that we are? I wished I could call on Ma and Pa Ingalls for tips.
The plucky spirit of little Laura was in my veins as I thought about tapping the trees for maple syrup, then boiling molasses and sugar, and pouring it over the snow. Laura and Mary made “circles and curlicues, and squiggledy things, and these hardened at once and were candy.”
Ma’s culinary talents ranged from salt-rising bread to Swedish crackers and baked beans with salt and pork and molasses. She made vinegar pies and dried apple pies and cookies one year for Christmas when they lived in the big woods of Wisconsin. In the fall, Pa would dig up the dusty potatoes from the ground and “pulling the long yellow carrots and the round, purpled-topped turnips, and they helped Ma cook the pumpkin for pumpkin pies.” And later for dinner, it was stewed pumpkin and a piece of bread, a delicacy that no fine restaurant would touch, but the reader of Laura’s descriptions is just wishing she could have a taste.
With no lights and no built-in double ovens, somehow the Ingalls family brought food to the table, and eating it, or anticipating eating it, became one recurring theme of these wonderful books. Here’s young Almanzo, the boy Laura would eventually marry, in “Farmer Boy”: “He looked at the big bowl of cranberry jelly and at the fluffy mountain of mashed potatoes with melting butter trickling down it. He looked at the heap of mashed turnips, and the golden baked squash, and the pale fried parsnips. He swallowed hard and tried not to look anymore.”
And readers never tired of the joy of having something tasty to eat when having little or nothing to eat was more often the case. A surprise dessert one evening the family shared comes from the book “By the Shores of Silver Lake.” Ma stepped into the pantry and came out with a little jar of peaches. “We’ll have a treat,” she said. Slowly, slowly they ate he smooth, cool peaches and the sweet golden juice and carefully licked their spoons.”
I can’t eat an orange without remembering the delight that Laura and Mary found when they tasted their first one. Laura didn’t know what to do with it and watched everyone as they peeled and ate it in sections. I think that single moment endeared that little girl to me forever.
We did have oranges in the fridge that night the power went out and a jar of peaches in the cupboard. I could have lit the stove to boil molasses and sugar to pour over the snow. But we turned on our transistor radio, circa 1970, and found that the power was humming at a local restaurant, so we went out to eat that night. But I found “Little House in the Big Woods” in my library and took it with me to read by candlelight at the table.
January 19, 2011
Every January, as sure as the wind blows cold, my two erstwhile friends show up. I call them Diet and Denial, and together we put the body back in shape.
They have their work cut out for them because for as long as I can remember, December is the month when my people have made and eaten the caramels. We thought nothing of the extra heft we were acquiring over the holidays as we gobbled up the smooth confections that my grandmother Margie Mathews made, and that her mother made before her. My mother wasn’t much of a caramel maker. She lacked the patience to stir and stir over a warm flame until the sugar and cream came to just the right consistency. So at an early age, I took up the candy-making mantle. To this day, I work off of a recipe that my 8-year-old self carefully copied from my grandmother’s tattered hand-written page.
My mother’s family hails from the hardscrabble hills of Western Pennsylvania. Our forebears are a mix of Scotch-Irish and German and, some say, a little of the native people that my ancestors displaced. They lived in shacks until they had money to build stout houses. They either farmed or worked in the steel mills. At my grandparents’ farm, just outside of the small township of Dayton, the caramels were made in a cauldron on a gas stove atop a dangerous oven with hot sides. Kids got a smack if they got too close. The kitchen was huge. The nearby pantry was as big as my own kitchen. Extra chairs for visitors or for the hired farmhands rimmed the walls of the spacious room. A big, yellow aluminum table was the focal point of this warm and friendly old farm kitchen. It was there that Grandma would turn out the hot syrup into huge trays. And then with the muscle of a farm wife, she’d scissor the caramel into pieces the size of large plums and wrap them in wax paper. You could read a whole book chapter in the time it took to finish a savory chunk of caramel; slowly sucking it until the last of its buttery, sweet flavor melted away.
Now, I had it in my mind that this candy-making tradition in my family was something that the Scotch-Irish carried over when they came from Ulster as immigrants to the United States between 1710 and 1775. I presumed that the traditional British hard toffees were somehow ancestor to the soft American caramel. So one day while relaxing before a roaring hearth, I turned to my trusty old pal, Ms. Google, to see if I could anchor this notion somewhere in the annals of history. Surprisingly, the caramel has an elusive past. After obsessively researching it (working my new iPad until it had to be recharged), I concluded that caramel dates to a moment in time when either an American, Arab or French chef boiled some sugar and cream to just the right temperature and said, “Eureka!”
Many have tried to trace its history. In 1923, the indomitable Tribune Cook Book editor Caroline S. Maddox, who wrote under the pen name Jane Eddington (her name is often accompanied by the phrase “economical housekeeping”), pairs the candy with an equally elusive Viscount Caramel. The Viscount apparently forgot to write his name down somewhere where a search engine could pick it up. But in the far distant corners of the Internet, Viscount Caramel is credited with having discovered the “seventh degree of cooking sugar.” Obviously, the Kevin Bacon of his time.
Jane, the economical housekeeper, helps out with a little etiology of the word. The mel in carmel, she says, comes from “from mellis, meaning honey, from which originated our English word mellifluous.”And, indeed, that is frequently a word that comes to mind when sucking on one of my grandma’s caramels.
Other online e-know-it-all sources credit Arabs with caramel discovery, dating that event to as early as 1000 A.D. (I think all unreliable dates should default to the year 1000; it just has a legitimate ring to it.) The Arab word is “Kurat al milh,” which supposedly means “sweet ball of salt.”
Anyway, Jane reported on some amazing French chefs who sculpt caramel “up into books, fans, furniture. . .and a triumphal gateway made of it with the four horses and a chariot on the top.” Well I can assure you, this was not my grandma’s caramel.
One tangible connection is Pennsylvania candy man Milton Hershey. Turns out the venerable old chocolate maker got his start in caramel. In 1886, he opened the Lancaster Caramel Company. Apparently, early Americans had a pretty fine sweet tooth. By the mid-1800s, there were nearly 400 American candy manufacturers producing hard candies. But Hershey was the first one to add cream to the boiled sugar mix and make some caramels. Others, like the Baltimore company Goetze and the Chicago firm Brachs, eventually sold caramels.
But not on a par with Grandma’s.
Satisfaction came eventually in a Google-book search. There on page 171, in a book by one Mark F. Sohn, called Appalachian Home Cooking, in a chapter entitled “Sweet Endings,” was just the history that I sought:
During the Christmas season, many mountaineers [aka My People] serve homemade candy: chocolate, vanilla, peanut butter, cream, and caramel. Making candy is a common practice, and frequently it brings different generations together. Grown women make candy with their mothers while young children go to their grandmothers. . . . Usually, the older cook teaches the young one.
And there, right there, on the iPad screen, I’d found it. The origin of grandma’s caramels.