Friday, November 8, 2013

Musings about our Thanksgiving Tradition

I have seventy five pounds of sugar in the back of my car. I’m not sure it will be enough. I also have four pounds of butter in the freezer. I know that’s not enough. I have started collecting other ingredients: powdered sugar, cocoa, glycerin, corn syrup, macadamia nuts, cashews, and other assorted items. I’ve got a new battery for the thermometer, and I finally found the electrical cord for the old electric skillet. I know I’m forgetting things, but I am certain that other members of my family are also collecting things we will need. The chocolate arrived in October, and we have a hundred pounds or more set aside.  My sister-in-law gets the peanut butter. My sister makes the toffee ahead of time.

We are about ready. It’s candy season, and this time of year, we are a family of chocolatiers.

This is a sacred tradition.

In about 1932, my grandmother, Carrie Guion, tried to make some candy with her friend, Grace. It wasn’t very pretty—all streaked grey, and mottled looking. So she set out to figure out why it hadn’t come out right, and landed a job as a candy dipper at a place that sold candy, nuts and bakery items. My dad said it was called “The Nut House,” and that it was aptly named. The guy that owned it was a bit of a jerk, but my Grandma could handle him. In due course, my grandmother learned why her first attempt had been less than stellar, and learned to make and hand dip creams, fudges and toffee.  At one point, she drafted my grandfather and my dad (who was eight or nine years old), and together they made 300 pounds of candy to sell before Christmas. It helped to pay the bills in a difficult economic time, but it was really, really hard work for three people. After that, and through the rest of our family history, candy is a way of saying thank you to people who have been part of our lives each year. So, naturally, it has become a Thanksgiving week tradition.

Each year, at my parent’s house, my family, my brother Keith and his family, and my sister Pam and her family gather the week of Thanksgiving to make candy. My brother David, and my sister Diana live too far away, so they make candy on their own. We have to make enough candy for each of these family units (including my Mom) to give as gifts, so we make a lot. We used to make about 200 pounds, but after my father died, we began to make candy for my mom's list as well.  Last year, we over did it and made about 270 pounds. This year, I’m guessing it will be closer to 230 pounds. We’ll make 21 or 22 different flavors—fudges, caramels, creams and toffee. I often experiment with new flavors, partly because it’s fun. Partly because it makes my brother sigh, loudly (I have to maintain my role as a smart alec little sister, after all). 

So, here’s the point:  I am deeply, profoundly blessed by this family tradition, and want to share that with you. We gather, as family, for a common project. I have never been Christmas shopping the day after Thanksgiving. That’s usually a really busy candy day. The television is not on, though there’s a lot of music (note: while we have a rule that there is no Christmas music until after Thanksgiving Dinner, this rule is often broken). Everyone has a part in this, and everyone is needed to make it happen. We cook the candy, work the candy on the marble slab, roll it, dip it, cup and box it, and then (for several hours) put it into gift boxes. Everyone is needed. Everyone is valued. And, on the way, there is conversation, laughter, catching up, and a lot of shared history. 

I don’t know if my grandmother had any idea when she took the job at the nut house that she would be starting something that would be so central to our family identity.  I don’t know that my father, as he and my grandfather recovered from that massive undertaking during the depression, thought that he would be making candy well into his eighties. I don’t know if my mother, as she put her hands in chocolate for the first time, learning how to dip from my grandmother, knew that she would teach dozens of people in that small town how to make candy. I do know that my brothers and sisters and their spouses have eagerly made it a priority each year. And I know that most of my nieces and nephews embrace this identity and tradition and are also excited for our gathering. They come from as far as Rhode Island and Maryland to be there, and their significant others and spouses are also part of the tradition. The youngest member of the family, my son, is part of the fourth generation of chocolatiers. He often shares his hope that the tradition will continue to a fifth generation. I’m pretty sure it will. 

I hope that your Thanksgiving is full of blessings, and that you will experience the fullness of love that I enjoy each year.

If you’d like to see a really good and rather silly video about our candy making that my nephew, Matthew, made for YouTube, check it out here (copy and paste this link in your browser):

UPDATE:  My brother (who keeps our notes each year), added up everything we made: This year topped out at 254 pounds. Nine fudges, seven creams, four caramels and toffee. I don't remember making better. 

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