The Best Peanut Butter Fudge in the Whole ‘Verse*
“I think the steel workers’ strike is over!” I whispered to my little brother, Dusty. “Mom’s fixing peanut butter fudge!”
Dusty’s confusion irritated me. “What’s a strike?”
I rolled my eyes, I thought, Okay, he’s only five years old, but still… So, I poked him with my elbow, “You know. The steel mill strike. It’s finally over! Mom and Dad will have money again.”
Dusty pondered my revelation, “I think I remember when Daddy used to go to work every day.” He frowned, thinking demanded energy for my little brother. “He carried a lunch bucket. Then, he didn’t go to the mill for money for a long time, huh?”
At a mature seven years old, I couldn’t believe Dusty had not seen and experienced all the things we learned to do without. We wore hand-me-down clothes. We had gone bare foot much longer than usual this summer. We wore shoes on Sundays, but my white Mary Janes cramped my toes: I’d outgrown them. I knew better than to say anything. Mom’s mouth would have made that straight, angry line with, and Dad would have slammed out of the house. His truck’s elderly engine would grind into gear and off he’d go looking for someone needed coal hauled, or hay shifted, or logs chopped. He’d come home tired and sad, but usually with some money.
How could Dusty not realize the wonderful trips to the A&P Grocery store had ceased altogether? Sometimes, the garden didn’t provide enough, or the farm critters slacked on their jobs meaning not enough eggs of milk. Sometimes the farm just couldn’t make soap powder or sugar and Grammy made a trip to the Company Store connected with the deep pit mine Pap toiled in.
So, we never when hungry; we had life’s the essentials, but no special treats for what seemed an eternity. As the United Steel Workers of America went on an all out strike against the mill owners, men like dad had to show solidarity. He often said that strike ruined the American steel in the United States. History proved him right. But back then, I had no idea what the reasons for the strike might have been. I only knew I missed things. We never got to pick up a comic book for three cents when we went to Lewis’s little shop. Mom made Ralston’s Store, the other place that offered spices or penny candy, off limits. I overheard Mom tell Gram, “I will not set up an account with him. He’s chargin’ interest to run an account. Things is bad enough without gettin’ in debt to that old miser.”
I remembered those lean months. We went to the auction on Saturday nights at Silo, Ohio. Dad bought mixed boxes for a nickel and fixed the toys so we had gifts on Christmas mornings. We had no Sunday drives, no stops at the ice cream shop for a root beer float, and maybe worst of all, none of Mom’s peanut butter fudge: our reality didn’t mean we went hungry, we just had no treats to speak of except Grammy’s apple dumplings and Mom’s tubs of popcorn. So as I looked at Dusty’s big blue eyes, at his scalped haircut and third-hand bib overalls, I understood his confusion. He probably didn’t remember the times before the strike very clearly.
I remembered. I remembered and I knew if I had a choice between a new dress to celebrate the resolution of the strike and a batch of Mom’s peanut butter fudge, I’d go for the fudge.
That day, I knew the strike had ended as we peeked into the kitchen to see Mom deftly pour the honey-brown, fragrant liquid onto evenly buttered cookie sheets. She put the hot pan in which she’d brought a magical, mysterious, mixture of ingredients to just the right stage for the candy off to the side. Mom carefully made swirls on the tops of the hardening fudge, and without even turning, she asked, “Who wants to lick the spoon?”
I had to give Dusty credit: he might have been clueless about the meaning of the strike, but when a wooden spoon smeared with peanut butter fudge appeared, his brain worked double time. When Mom saw my disappointment, she grabbed a clean spoon and ran it along the inside of the fudge pan. “Here, Twany. See how this tastes.”
I don’t recall having an actual piece of fudge that day, but I still shudder in delight when I remember that first taste, how good, how perfect, how smooth every taste was. I licked the spoon Mom gave me and knew I’d never taste anything so good again.
White refined sugar, brown sugar, peanut butter, vanilla flavoring, tinned milk: these ingredients had to come from the grocery store. They cost money. So, the only times we had Mom’s Amazing Peanut Butter Fudge came on special occasions. The end of the Steel Strike qualified as “special.”
I have a December birthday. I had watched the kids in my first grade class bring beautifully iced cup cakes to share with the class on their birthdays. I had no idea how I could match that. Since I rode the bus to school, transporting thirty cupcakes without mishap posed a big problem. Yet, I wanted to have a few special moments for my birthday, too. I couldn’t figure out a solution. Mom noticed my preoccupation, “Okay, Tawny, what’s wrong?”
“Well, next Monday is my birthday,” I began.
“I remember something about that,” Mom said.
I didn’t understand her irony; it sailed right over my blond curls. “Well, everyone brings cupcakes for the class usually.” I couldn’t say much more. In my throes of inadequacy, I knew Mom couldn’t drive me to school since Dad worked daylight shift and needed the truck. My granddad needed his big Hudson to get him to his job at the mine. No cupcakes for anyone! I thought.
“Does it have to be cupcakes?” Mom asked.
Not cupcakes? That seemed bizarre. The idea of none of my classmates helping me celebrate my birthday seemed worse. “If I can’t take cupcakes, what could I take, Mom?”
Mom’s dimples flashed as she grinned and whispered, “What about peanut butter fudge?”
I gasped. I loved Mom’s fudge. Family dinners and get-togethers featured that fudge. She managed to fit many chunks of fudge in a Tupperware container. I’d even dropped a container once, and the fudge survived just fine, without one piece crumbling.
“Would you do that? Would you make fudge for my class?” I know my voice conveyed hope, fear, and wonder.
“You come and watch. I’ll even let you stir.” I ran and gathered ingredients as Mom called her memorized list out. Then I dragged a chair up next to the big iron stove that Mom had stoked carefully.
“This is your initiation into the richest gift of the women in this family,” Mom explained as she poured cups of white sugar, firmly damped down cups of brown sugar dollops of Karo Syrup and tinned milk in the special pot. We stirred the mass of dense calories constantly so it wouldn’t burn. Once the mixture formed firm drops when dripped into the cold water standing ready in a shallow cup, Mom took the bubbling concoction from the stove and stirred in heaping spoonfuls of peanut butter, with a chunk of butter and a dollop of vanilla extract. Then she stirred the hot mixture until it began to shine, then the liquid began to harden. She poured it on to prepared buttered baking sheets. The wait began for it to harden and turn into candy I could pick up with my fingers.
That evening, standing by the stove, occasionally stirring just as Mom instructed, made me appreciate how Mom took very minimal food stuffs and created the rare treat that my classmates found fascinating.
She carefully layered the squares of fudge between sheets of waxed paper as she prepared the cooled fudge for me to transport. She also included several extra pieces, “You never know who might like a piece,” she explained.
Mom’s canny insight meant that teachers whose classes loomed in my future got a taste of the addictive, soft, decadently smooth masterpiece. How smart she was! Those teachers didn’t forget the fudge, or its source. Each year on my birthday, Mrs. Carpenter, Miss Gooch, Miss Marrow and Mrs. Sindlinger each waited for her piece of heaven. They took a moment to appreciate that Mom’s fudge happened to have a place in the school year. Unlike Dusty, I knew the significance of figuring out adult thinking.
Mom worked to perfect her recipe throughout the post-strike years. Every birthday, special holiday, and pot luck dinner gave her the scope to experiment with chunky peanut butter instead of smooth. She dropped chocolate chips on the still steaming lakes of buttery sugars and peanut butter, swirling the dark brown into the light shimmering tan, creating an early form of Reese’s Cups. She worked on that recipe diligently, and I served happily as her chief critic. Due to my fine palate, black walnuts appeared in only one batch. She took my word for it that the fudge didn’t need any other kind of nut to make it better. Mom took me shopping with her and we stood for ages debating Jiffy over Skippy; did we go with the tried and true or the cheaper store brands? No. We settled on Skippy.
Eventually, I left home. Mom and my female relatives all gave me copies of recipes done up nicely in a yellow, blue and white recipe box. I ran through them, thrilled to see Grammy’s “From Scratch Homemade Nichols’s Noodles” and Angel’s “Ambrosia Pie.” I realized, though, Mom had forgotten to put the fudge recipe in the box.
Mom actually blushed when I asked for the recipe. “I’ve never written it down. I just know when to put what in and when it feels right to pour.”
My jaw dropped and I felt bereft. I knew I could never reproduce my Gram’s pastry. She had such a light had with pie crusts, they flaked perfectly over the cherries, or apples, or mince meat. I accepted Gram’s unrivalled wondrous pastry, knowing my limits. But no fudge?
After one look at Aunt Wilma’s recipes, I knew I could never bake brownies anything like hers. She said she gave full disclosure of ingredients. It was dirty lie. Her niece, Joyce squealed on her. “I saw Aunt Wilma fixing the brownies last night, and she poured something in the bowl with the flour and cocoa. Then she drank right out of the bottle and hid it in the place where Uncle Joe keeps that yucky stuff he says is the only remedy for a lousy day.”
“Do you think Aunt Wilma drank that stuff because she was having a lousy day?” I asked.
She shrugged. I sometimes thought Joyce should have been named Sparrow for the miniscule size of her brain.
Thanks to Joyce, my brownies usually go first in any bake sale, pot luck or housewarming. The small shot of chocolate liquor makes amazing brownies. Thank you, darling and slightly dim Joyce! Sorry Aunt Wilma grounded you when you stayed with her next, but I hope the retro-guitar and the Elvis white pant suit I gave you helped occupy your time in the slammer called “house arrest.”
Aunt Willa’s homemade nut filled bars created a sensation when I took a plate to the Little League Mothers’ get together. I could have made a mint off all those gym-members and their yoga-minded bleached blonde friends. I didn’t, though. I have some family loyalty after all.
I didn’t think I’d ever make good peanut putter fudge, though. I used various recipes from numerous sources, but none ever tasted like Mom’s.
(Part 2 follows in a few days)
*Firefly fans, you get this!