When I was a kid, every Christmas a box would arrive from my grandparents. It was full of a holiday assortment of mostly disappointment. Pink, sparkly sweatshirts with unicorns on them. Fluffy, rainbow colored hand-knitted scarfs. Four packs of waxy crayons of undetermined color alongside flimsy, poorly printed coloring books.
But in this box was also a yearly miracle. It was laid in a recycled Whitman’s sampler box that was secured with tape and mummified with Saran Wrap. I swear to god when my mother opened this box a light emitted from its depths like Marcellus Wallace’s treasure was buried in its depths. You’ve always wondered what was in that suitcase, haven’t you?
Well, I know.
It was Brown Roll Candy.
A mystical substance created by my usually kitchen incompetent grandmother. It was a golden color and tasted like sunshine. Not quite fudge, more than caramel. We could get about five rolls of it.
And at least three (usually four) of those rolls would be coated in walnuts.
I’m allergic to walnuts.
(As a side note here, my grandmother also never learned to spell my name, so the fact that she sent me manna from heaven and then rolled it in death is hardly out of character for her.)
I had a dream that when I grew up and had my own kitchen, I would make my own brown roll candy. And I wouldn’t put walnuts on ANY of it. I also would make it whenever I wanted, not only at the holidays. It would be sweet, sweet freedom.
A little history of brown roll candy. It is a family recipe, passed around on yellowing 3 X 5 index cards. Except for the time my grandmother allowed the Bement Register (the small town in Illinois where my mother grew up’s paper) to print the recipe, causing a family scandal worthy of a William Faulkner novel.
A little history of my grandmother and I. We aren’t close. I think the last time we had a full conversation was when she referred to the clerk who waited on her as “black, but attractive.” I didn’t cotton to that real well.
So, I never got around to asking her for the recipe.
My mother is more adverse to kitchens than her mother was, so I always sort of assumed that she didn’t have the recipe. I thought it was lost to the ages.
But it was not. When I casually mentioned the lost brown roll candy during our holiday festivities. “I have the recipe,” she says.
What?! Find that sucker. Now. She did. It was a yellowed 3 x 5 index card, the recipe instructions were typed in red ink.
There were four ingredients and limited instructions, and the measurements are all in pounds and pints. But I was still thrilled.
Three days later I found myself in the kitchen with my ingredients and a huge five quart sauce pan. I’d done the conversions. I was ready, in mere hours I’d have my own non-lethal brown roll candy rolls in my own kitchen.
Two hours later I texted my mother: “brown roll candy really just seems like caramel. My whole childhood kind of seems like a lie.”
It was good caramel. But it was caramel.
I felt like Charlton Heston announcing my pain to the world “Brown roll candy is CARAMEL!!!”
I brooded. I ate caramel. I pouted. I mourned my lost youth.
And then I looked at the recipe again. My conversions had been off.
Chagrined, I admitted it to my mother. “I’m trying again. Wanna come out and help?”
She and my little sister joined me and my second round of ingredients, my candy thermometer and my sauce pan in my kitchen. We laughed, and giggled and told old family stories.
And the brown roll candy’s texture was much better.
Until it came time to pour it out and roll it. It was wrong. I knew it was wrong. My mother and sister tried to assure me it was fine. The texture was wrong. It was crumbly. Like my memories.
I would never find my lost childhood.
My mother assured me that her aunt always said “it took three tries, an act of god, and all the planets to align” in order for a batch of brown roll candy to succeed. Next time it would be perfect.
But I was giving up.
At 2 am, I realized: I had forgotten the corn syrup. It was all I could do to wait until a reasonable hour to try again.
I did it alone in the kitchen, I couldn’t bear to have a witness if it failed again.
This time the planets must have been in the correct places, because the brown roll candy came out exactly as I remember it. And there’s no walnuts.
And I was so happy. I have the recipe to pass along to my kid, even though she thought I was nuts when she found me in front of the sauce pan with pounds of a sugary substance for the third time in six days. It’s a strange bit of magic, possessing this piece of my ancestor’s knowledge. For surely the recipe was conceived before the Second World War when sugar would have been rationed. I would love to know what happened in a kitchen on a farm in Bement, Illinois that created the confection I now hold the knowledge of how to make.
Unfortunately, that memory is gone to the ages. But I can pass the knowledge on. And make new family memories along the way.