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A Search for the Origins of Grandmother's Caramels

Every January, as sure as the wind blows cold, my two erstwhile friends show up. I call them Diet and Denial, and together we put the body back in shape.They have their work cut out for them because for as long as I can remember, December is the month when my people have made and eaten the caramels...

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Every January, as sure as the wind blows cold, my two erstwhile friends show up. I call them Diet and Denial, and together we put the body back in shape.

They have their work cut out for them because for as long as I can remember, December is the month when my people have made and eaten the caramels. We thought nothing of the extra heft we were acquiring over the holidays as we gobbled up the smooth confections that my grandmother Margie Mathews made, and that her mother made before her. My mother wasn't much of a caramel maker. She lacked the patience to stir and stir over a warm flame until the sugar and cream came to just the right consistency. So at an early age, I took up the candy-making mantle. To this day, I work off of a recipe that my 8-year-old self carefully copied from my grandmother's tattered hand-written page.

My mother's family hails from the hardscrabble hills of Western Pennsylvania. Our forebears are a mix of Scotch-Irish and German and, some say, a little of the native people that my ancestors displaced. They lived in shacks until they had money to build stout houses. They either farmed or worked in the steel mills. At my grandparents' farm, just outside of the small township of Dayton, the caramels were made in a cauldron on a gas stove atop a dangerous oven with hot sides. Kids got a smack if they got too close. The kitchen was huge. The nearby pantry was as big as my own kitchen. Extra chairs for visitors or for the hired farmhands rimmed the walls of the spacious room. A big, yellow aluminum table was the focal point of this warm and friendly old farm kitchen. It was there that Grandma would turn out the hot syrup into huge trays. And then with the muscle of a farm wife, she'd scissor the caramel into pieces the size of large plums and wrap them in wax paper. You could read a whole book chapter in the time it took to finish a savory chunk of caramel; slowly sucking it until the last of its buttery, sweet flavor melted away.

Now, I had it in my mind that this candy-making tradition in my family was something that the Scotch-Irish carried over when they came from Ulster as immigrants to the United States between 1710 and 1775. I presumed that the traditional British hard toffees were somehow ancestor to the soft American caramel. So one day while relaxing before a roaring hearth, I turned to my trusty old pal, Ms. Google, to see if I could anchor this notion somewhere in the annals of history. Surprisingly, the caramel has an elusive past. After obsessively researching it (working my new iPad until it had to be recharged), I concluded that caramel dates to a moment in time when either an American, Arab or French chef boiled some sugar and cream to just the right temperature and said, "Eureka!"

Many have tried to trace its history. In 1923, the indomitable Tribune Cook Book editor Caroline S. Maddox, who wrote under the pen name Jane Eddington (her name is often accompanied by the phrase "economical housekeeping"), pairs the candy with an equally elusive Viscount Caramel. The Viscount apparently forgot to write his name down somewhere where a search engine could pick it up. But in the far distant corners of the Internet, Viscount Caramel is credited with having discovered the "seventh degree of cooking sugar." Obviously, the Kevin Bacon of his time.

Jane, the economical housekeeper, helps out with a little etiology of the word. The mel in carmel, she says, comes from "from mellis, meaning honey, from which originated our English word mellifluous."And, indeed, that is frequently a word that comes to mind when sucking on one of my grandma's caramels.

Other online e-know-it-all sources credit Arabs with caramel discovery, dating that event to as early as 1000 A.D. (I think all unreliable dates should default to the year 1000; it just has a legitimate ring to it.) The Arab word is "Kurat al milh," which supposedly means "sweet ball of salt."

Anyway, Jane reported on some amazing French chefs who sculpt caramel "up into books, fans, furniture. . .and a triumphal gateway made of it with the four horses and a chariot on the top." Well I can assure you, this was not my grandma's caramel.

One tangible connection is Pennsylvania candy man Milton Hershey. Turns out the venerable old chocolate maker got his start in caramel. In 1886, he opened the Lancaster Caramel Company. Apparently, early Americans had a pretty fine sweet tooth. By the mid-1800s, there were nearly 400 American candy manufacturers producing hard candies. But Hershey was the first one to add cream to the boiled sugar mix and make some caramels. Others, like the Baltimore company Goetze and the Chicago firm Brachs, eventually sold caramels.

But not on a par with Grandma's.

Satisfaction came eventually in a Google-book search. There on page 171, in a book by one Mark F. Sohn, called Appalachian Home Cooking, in a chapter entitled "Sweet Endings," was just the history that I sought:
During the Christmas season, many mountaineers serve homemade candy: chocolate, vanilla, peanut butter, cream, and caramel. Making candy is a common practice, and frequently it brings different generations together. Grown women make candy with their mothers while young children go to their grandmothers. . . . Usually, the older cook teaches the young one.
And there, right there, on the iPad screen, I'd found it. The origin of grandma's caramels.

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About Beth Py-Lieberman
Beth Py-Lieberman

Beth Py-Lieberman is the museums editor, covering exhibitions, events and happenings at the Smithsonian Institution. She has been a member of the Smithsonian team for more than two decades.

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