Tales from my Past
By Myra Vanderpool Gormley
I’ve always enjoyed cooking — as far back as I can remember. It was a skill that was admired greatly in our family and early-on I decided I would succeed as a cook. I watched my mother, aunts and grandmothers and often was allowed to stir and sift ingredients and be their helpers when I was too young to be trusted alone near the old wood cook stoves and early gas ones.
One of my aunts was acclaimed far and wide as a superb cook. Holiday get-togethers were her county fairs, when she’d arrive with her latest masterpiece and we’d oohh and ahh and then devour it. I wanted to be as good a cook as my Aunt Thelma, and I think it pleased her that I did. She did not have any children and was delighted to teach me culinary tips.
By the time I was 12 I was a pretty fair cook — I could make biscuits, gravy that was not lumpy, pie crusts that were flaky, and cook sunny-side eggs that met my dad’s approval.
My first year of Home Ec (as they called it then) was taken in the seventh grade and I was bored because I already knew how to make everything we were being taught. Except I discovered a world of cooking tools that we did not have at home — measuring cups, spoons and thermometers. My family all cooked by eye and taste — a pinch of this, a dab of that and a squirt of whatever. My mother didn’t own any measuring tools other than an old flour sifter. She used a coffee cup and flatware spoons to measure with. The lack of measuring tools might have accounted for my difficulty in learning to make fudge.
When my older sister went off to college when I was 12, I moved up the ladder to take her place in the kitchen and help mother. Having much younger twin brothers to experiment on made it easy. They loved food — especially cookies, cakes, pies and candy. They’d eat almost anything. Somehow they survived the years of my fudge-making failures — and thank goodness, for that. It was the only dessert I couldn’t seem to master.
Sometimes my fudge looked like Mississippi Mud frosting, sometimes it would crumble like blue cheese; other times it would be so hard that even the family dog would turn up his nose.
The only recipe we had was the one on the cocoa can that called for cocoa, sugar, salt, evaporated milk, butter, water, vanilla and lots of walnuts. Evidently the secret to making fudge was cooking the mixture until it reached a temperature of 232 degrees on a candy thermometer. Of course, we didn’t have a candy thermometer, so I used the “soft-ball stage” method, For example, at 235° F; the syrup (of fudge) is at the “soft-ball” stage. That means that when you drop a bit of it into cold water to cool it down, it will form a soft ball. But, I never mastered this step.
The fudge recipe called for three cups of sugar — something mother would remind me was an expensive item and not to “waste it” and, of course, walnuts were not cheap either. But my father loved fudge and so did the twins, so I kept trying — and failing. Occasionlly I’d get it right, but never on a consistent basis.
Years later, after I was married and owned measuring cups and spoons, Kraft came out with its marshmallow crème and the Fantasy Fudge recipe that never failed. For years I would make fudge at Christmastime to share with the family. Dad and my brothers would rave about it and tell again the stories about my early attempts (especially the failures) in making fudge and we’d all laugh at the memories.
I didn’t realize until a few years ago what a family legend my fudge had become until I heard my baby brother telling his grandkids about my early fudge-making days.
“Why, sometimes Uncle Jim and I would eat sis’s fudge with a spoon or we’d have to get a straw to drink it. Other times we’d feed it to the dog and sometimes we’d make fudge balls to hurl out of our backyard fort and knock out the enemy,” John said.
What an ungrateful brother. Wait until I tell his grandchildren about the time I took him and Jim on the Mad Mouse coaster ride and scared them out of their wits or about the Halloween when we went to the haunted house in Seattle and John wet his pants when a ghoul raised up out of the coffin!