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!