In the past few days of this strange year we are living in I’ve been thinking back to better days. The days we grew up, the days of Highway 81 and the many Christmas seasons we enjoyed.
There was never much money in those days but I don’t think any of us noticed. My mother was a thrifty woman and my dad was a hard working man so Christmas was always exciting, with the house smelling so warm and wonderful from the normal holiday baking and candy making. In October we would all go out to the old walnut tree at the back of our five acres and gather the fallen walnuts. That tree was our climbing and dreaming tree in summer months, perfect for getting away from noisy siblings and dreaming or reading books about places we had never seen and probably never would. But in October, after the first frost it dropped the walnuts that would be in our Christmas baking. Huge black walnuts that a lot of people have never tried. I will always love the taste but they were too strong for Steve, especially after he grew up and went out into the world of gourmets and other cultures.
But at that time we seldom had pecans, they aren’t as plentiful in this area as the black walnut. Each one wrapped in a bright green outer shell that had to be eliminated to get to the hard shell inside, we loaded them in grass sacks and toted them up to the driveway where they were dumped out in the traffic area . Driving the cars over them would release them from that outer shell without staining our hands brown. Lovely shade of brown but it was kinda permanent so we really did try to avoid it, at least most of the time. We were, after all, kids and those walnuts made great “balls” to lob at each other until mother came out and made us leave them behind.
Usually by mid November the outer shells were off the nuts and ground into the driveway and the nuts had dried out enough to begin bringing them inside and cracking them. We all took turns with the hammer and bricks used for opening the nuts, and this time we all ended up with walnut stained hands, but then came the good part — using the nut picker to extract those delicious pieces of walnut meat. Mother tried to watch us so we wouldn’t eat every piece we picked out but with six of us all busy at the same time we all had our moments to pop it in our mouth rather than add it to the bowl that slowly filled up while arms and hands cramped from the constant repetition.
After that they were stored in the freezer so they could be taken out all winter for baking. I guess most of us lost one of our baby teeth trying to bite into a frozen walnut. In mid December the candy making and cookie baking began in earnest. Our favorite candy, and still to this day my favorite, was the caramel candy from a recipe mother got from a neighbor and made only at Christmas. It calls for real cream and real butter — no substitution at all on these, and cooked until a bit dropped in cold water was just the right consistency. Too soft and it had to be eaten with a spoon, not that any of us minded that at all, too hard and you needed a hammer and chisel to cut it apart. That still made a good piece of candy that just took longer to eat, from a grownup point of view that’s not a bad thing either.. It lasted longer that way. Mom seldom had a bad batch though, much to our disappointment. Each batch made about five pounds of candy, poured into 15 X 12 inch baking sheets to cool. She always cut them, using the pecans she bought just for the caramels on top of each candy! And then came the cutting, also done by mom in our younger days and pulling off just the right amount of waxed paper to wrap each individual and presumably on her part placed in containers to be wrapped as gifts to the Sisters who taught us. The sisters all looked forward to having one of us in their class because those caramels were the one gift they deeply appreciated.
A couple of days ago I received a package from my daughter in the mail. I knew by the weight that I would really love this one, and when I opened the package and took out the cannister of caramels I knew I was right. Still made the old way except for the milking of the cow and churning the butter, they are rich and creamy, not to mention fattening! Back on Hwy. 81 I never had to worry about calories but time changes everything. Now each bite adds fifty pounds. So my caramels are residing in the freezer so they will last longer and my grandson is now learning the fine art of caramel making! The fourth generation to use this eighty year old recipe and turn out the best candy ever.
Maybe tomorrow I’ll tell you about the divinity!
8 thoughts on “Christmas on Highway 81”
My mother never made caramels but Divinity is another matter entirely! In fact the next door neighbor and the lady across the street would come over and it was an assembly line! There would be pink and green and white. I wanted to help but was always shooed away so I’d perch on a chair just outside the kitchen door and watch the process. Maybe I should give it a try…
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You definitely should try them. I made it for years and thamy favorites. I tried some from a store once but it just isn’t the same as the homemade version. Just don’t beat the egg whites too long. That has to be stopped before you dry them out and make them taste like the ones from the store! Fudge was another of our Christmas candies, and at times taffy. We had taffy pulls several times in winter.
I remember those times exactly as you tell them Angie. Except we were chomping at the bit for mama’s chocolate fudge with black walnuts all through it. I have never tasted fudge like that since mama left us. Merry Christmas Angie!
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Oh yeah! The fudge was always high on the list and I remember the fudge your mama made. I remember a lot of things she made. She was a terrific cook! Not to mention a sweet, wonderful lady. I miss her still.
Merry Christmas to you, Pat.
Angie, great stories and memories. Your parents remind me of my in-laws. She had to be very thrifty with five children and not much income. Gathering walnuts reminds me of the pecan tree in my grandmother’s yard. They shells were plentiful and hurt bare feet if you stepped on one.
The caramel sounds delightful. As for divinity, I am reminded of the old Stuckey’s stores that peppered the south, mainly on highway exits, which sold loads of it. Although unintended, when you referenced Highway 81, I thought of Bob Dylan’s song called “Highway 61” which is an interesting tune.
Best wishes over the holidays. Enjoy the caramel. Keith
Thanks, KEITH. I always ration the caramels. They put more weight on adults than on kids, so if I ate as many as I used to do I would be in a coma in no time at all!
I had forgotten Dylan’s song, but it was a good one.
Have you ever eaten black walnuts? They are very strong in flavor and most people don’t like them, but they have always been my favourites, but now I mix them with English walnuts to increase he amount. The English ones take on the flavor of the black and increase the volume. That old tree isn’t there anymore! Sad day when it blew down👼👼
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Angie, I don’t think I have. My wife said they had a Black Walnut tree on their property. She said the taste was too strong for her taste. Keith
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The black walnuts were too strong for one of my brothers also. He absolutely hated them. I guess I liked them partially because I grew up eating them, but also because it didn’t require a lot of them to flavor anything at all. After I realized that a cupful of black ones added to a quart of the others would provide crunch and give the flavor i wanted life got a lot easier.