In Denison, in the 1930’s Mother started making candy for the Christmas boxes early in December. It was a project she loved and to which she gave all her energy for the next two weeks. Her specialty was fondant, sweet and creamy, colored and variously flavored. Her preliminary efforts lay in getting the toppings for the candy prepared: blanched almonds, perfect walnut halves, small squares of citron and some candied cherries. Bob, Sonny and I watched her slipping the skins from blanched almonds and knew what lay ahead.
“Mom, will you wait till after supper to cook the fondant?” we’d ask, knowing the drama of the process and not wanting to miss it while we were in school.
“Well, maybe I can put it off till then,” she’d say, a calculating look in her eyes. “You know we have to let it ripen for a week. I’ll have to figure out my time schedule.”
She always let us watch. Part of the fun when the sugar and water mixture came to a boil in the big kettle was seeing the carefully measured cream of tartar gently tapped into the mixture with the resultant foaming up of the pan’s contents, almost to the top, then back again. Then, the patient waiting and watching as the mix boiled and Mother poured small drops into a cup of cold water, gently stirring with her finger to see if the drops formed a soft ball. “A little longer,” she’d say, and finally, “I think its just right!”
We’d stand a little aside, as she lifted the kettle and gently poured the hot liquid onto a marble slab, where it was allowed to cool. Then with a flat-sided wooden spoon, she would begin working the mass, turning it into itself over and over like kneading bread dough, until it became opaque and creamy and she was satisfied with its texture.
“All right. Now I’ll put it away until we’re ready to color and shape it”, she’d say as she dumped the fondant into a large bowl and covered it with a plate. I knew the timing for the next step would coincide with Dad’s arrival home the following weekend. In the meantime, Mother had put all the carefully prepared toppings into their separate containers and gotten out the supply of boxes in which we would carefully place the candies so they could be wrapped and shipped to far away members of the family in time for Christmas.
By Saturday evening, each of us, Dad included, sat at the kitchen table with a different colored and flavored—pink for peppermint, green for pistachio and so on—wax paper covered roll of fondant on a plate in front of him. We each cut off small sections of the candy, rolled it between our palms and put the balls on a sheet of wax paper near each place. Then came the fun; selecting a proper topping to squish down atop the center of each ball of candy to flatten and decorate it. Here were all of Mother’s carefully prepared garnishes, the nuts, candied fruit, and pieces of citron. Our motions became automatic, with an occasional comment as to technique.
“Sonny, you’re putting the almonds on crooked. They’re supposed to be in the middle! Bobby, stop licking your fingers—it’s not sanitary!”
Dad would clear his throat and begin reminiscences about his week away from home calling on customers. He’d tell us about the heavy snowfall in Nebraska or a joke someone told him. Or maybe he’d start a long story about his Uncle Bill in Winner, South Dakota. Uncle Bill, a widower, was raising four boys and a daughter and they managed to get into more scrapes than any family I’d ever heard of. Years later, Dad was to gather all those stories into a biography of Uncle Bill and sell it to the American Magazine. Uncle Bill himself would be interviewed on a popular radio show called We the People. The story ended up in a high school literature textbook as an example of well-written biography. But all that was in the future, about which we knew nothing. Mother had heard many of the tales before but she always laughed as though it were the first time.
On those cold, snowy December nights we sat cozily in the kitchen, warmed by the wood range, and assembled hundred of fondant candies, packing them carefully into layers in the cardboard boxes saved throughout the year. The boxes, wrapped in red or green tissue paper, then in sturdy brown paper, were sent off to all our relatives: Uncle Jim in Houston, where Grandma spent her winter months, Uncle Alan in Chicago, Grandma Sturges in Sioux City, Aunt Marjorie in Philadelphia. Sometimes Mother made Divinity candy too, or a batch of fudge to fill out the boxes. One year she experimented with dipping the fondant in chocolate. My favorite combination was the sticky Medjool dates from California stuffed with pistachio flavored fondant
Other holiday treats were dark fruitcakes filled with candied cherries, nuts, citron and candied pineapple; plum puddings made with suet, citron and dark raisins, steamed in a greased coffee can and served with vanilla flavored hard sauce for Christmas dinner. Mincemeat too was a favorite and not the store bought variety of today, but the real thing made with chopped cooked meat and all the other flavorful and cholesterol-filled ingredients handed down from our English forebears. I don’t make any of these things today, in our health conscious world, but I did when my children were small and burning up every calorie I put into them.
The food preparation that my own children loved to take part in usually centered around harvest fruits. Canning apricots and garlic dill pickles were two favorites. I remembered the careful placing of apricots in jars when I worked in the Del Monte cannery in the summer of 1942, and quickly realized the value of small fingers and hands for this task. Jimmy, Cathy and Joan took great pleasure in competing for the best layering of the golden halves, while Judy and I cut the ripe fruit from a neighbor’s tree into halves, working fast so as to keep up with their nimble fingers.
The children loved making dill pickles too and there was a lot of noisy competition to see who could do the most jars. We’d set up an assembly line at the kitchen table, with glass Mason jars in a row, sliced cucumbers in a big bowl and stalks of fresh dill leaning against the wall or on the table. There were garlic cloves too, and bay leaves. One year we put up twenty-five quarts of dill pickles, and managed to eat them all before the next year’s cucumbers were ripe for pickling. My version became so popular that I unashamedly named them for myself, and will close this chapter with the recipe.
JULIANA’S GARLIC DILLS
Four pounds pickling cucumbers, 4-5 inches long.
Six tablespoons salt
1 1/2 tablespoons mustard seed
3 cups white vinegar
3 cups water
Garlic cloves, peeled
Packaged Dill seed, if fresh dill not available.
6 bay leaves
Wash cucumbers. Combine salt, mustard seed, vinegar and water. Heat to boiling. Pack cucumbers into sterilized jars (Not necessary if using hot water bath method). Add a clove of garlic to each jar and if using fresh dill, stuff as much of it as possible into jar. Fill with boiling vinegar solution. Add 2 T. dill seed and one bay leaf to each jar. Seal jars and process in hot water bath for ten minutes. Makes six pints (or maybe quarts--I don’t remember).