Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Making Candy Can Change Your Life (and other lessons)

Much to the family's dismay, the holidays have been slipping further down the list of my priorities lately. Each year, it seems to be a little less magical, a little more work, and a lot less fun. That's not for lack of magic and fun, as my family and friends are experts at celebrating everything, just a reflection of my own general state. I was scrolling through the facebook posts with a bah humbug face on earlier and came across something that shook loose a good holiday memory for me...

I've probably eaten a good ton of old-fashioned fudge over the winters of my lifetime. It's a favorite of all the McCoys, and each year it was tradition to make batches of it together, sometime around the new year. The family fudge-making extravaganza was a sensitive recipe, equal parts collective memory, special equipment and unique talents, all cooked to the right temperature. Let me explain... you see, there is no family recipe to make old-fashioned fudge. It hasn't been a closely guarded secret for a hundred McCoy years, actually anyone with a Fannie Farmer cookbook has access to the same measures and words that go into our fudge. What makes it different for us is the history that has honed our technique, each piece of candy - its own work of group sculpture.

Sugar has some very distinctive properties. It behaves like a liquid when it is heated, and at varying points on the thermometer, becomes a semisolid, then a solid... anyone who has made candy before can tell you that a watched pot may not boil, but it will certainly cook into a crystallized candy mess if you turn away too long. You must stir properly to ensure that the tiny sugar crystals align and march into a shape that you want. Cook too fast, and you get grainy messes, too slow and your candy is a sloppy gloop. I spent 22 winters of my life unsuccessfully trying to make divinity candy, a southern candy like fudge, with my grandmother, a recipe we finally got right, and then never cooked again for superstition's sake. The next-to-last batch was the hardest belly laugh I've ever had, culminating in an 'I Love Lucy' moment where I poured [over]cooked candy into room temperature whipped egg whites, which instantly hardened the syrup and shot it in a 360-degree splatter pattern around the kitchen. All over me and Grandma, even up under the cabinets... into the den where the boys watched football, we could still find pieces of cracked syrup and white fluff, hard evidence of our arrogance. It was as if Jackson Pollack had painted the house with my failure.

You see, sugar is a constant, while humans are fickle. Cook sugar to 238 degrees, you have a fudge consistency, 295 - something that will break your teeth, like butterscotch. Stand in front of it while it cooks on Saturday, and you'll act totally different when you try to cook the same thing on Tuesday. We think because we do something a hundred times that it should come easily to us, when the truth is, even with a still target, one that cooks the same for any person who attempts it, normal humans still mess up. We still cover the kitchen in our mistakes. The same can be said for trying to reach perfection. She and I tried every year to make divinity, some failures more spectacular than others, and just finally barely found the mark.

This brings to mind two distinct properties of humanity, and my well-tuned family in particular...
  1. Success is a group effort that must be learned and taught. My family made fudge well, long before I was born. I was ushered into an environment where everyone had a job, they knew the intricacies of that task, and executed it flawlessly each time. The reason the fudge is [almost] always good is that I'm good at precise measurements and have the patience to cook to the right temperature slowly, mom is a master planner and organizes the background materials, and my Dad and brother beat the fudge senseless as it cools to the exact moment where it needs the most important step - for us all to walk away and have faith in our efforts. All of this is done with reverence for the process, not the end result, and this is key;
  2. The choices you make after a failure are the most important to get right. After the last divinity disaster, I felt like I'd been whipped another year by the same mundane task... if Little Debbie can make something, as an accomplished cook AND with the help of a master, I should be able to eke out some candy, right? What happened that day was something I often think of... in the face of failure, covered in candy and egg white, after 22 years of failing the same goal, my grandmother looked at me with the same face I now see in the mirror each morning, paused, took a deep breath: and laughed hysterically. She'd just been at this a lot longer than me. Long enough to disconnect her success from her success at cooking/making/doing something. Some things you can't learn in school. I could have attempted divinity candy in some lab at school, sure.. but I couldn't learn a lesson like that unless I felt my way through it. She was delightful in the face of adversion, and with one laugh, taught me that the end result will never be as valuable as the process... Having teachers like that around me all the time made me who I am. I was fortunate enough to lots of people willing to cover themselves in candy to help me learn.
I suppose the holidays should really be about lessons of 'family specialness'. Without any other time of the year smothered in as much decadence, we never would have made our annual fudge crusade. I'm thankful for traditions like that, even if they aren't paramount to my happiness this very second. I hope that the spirit of tenacity and humility that my grandmother laughed with that silly day inform my character now, especially because I'm responsible for teaching others and sharing what I know. I know is that laughing at yourself is much sweeter than any candy... and better for you. I hope I never shortchange myself of opportunities to laugh at myself, which means I keep attempting to make ridiculous candy or whatever [insert any goal here] until I'm too tired or too good at it to be funny.

Speaking of family, Bart and I are embarking on our own little adventure this year, and I'll hopefully be writing about it each day of the trip. I'm excited to spend the holidays in a different way, more to come... until then, enjoy the laughs of the season.

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