Cooking is a skill, yes, but a skill that can be learned and a skill that can be faked. Learning to cook is like wading through the shallow end–you float around getting your bearings and there’s no real danger. Yes, you could slip, hit your head and burn something, but on the whole you’re safe. Candies, however, oh candies are the high dive over a cup of water.
Candies separate the girls playing Betty Crocker from the real women. More than natural birth, high cheek bones or a green thumb, it is candy making that truly makes a woman. She who can make butterscotch can hold her head up high and feel secure in her womanhood.
“Did you know that Fa Mu Mulan went into battle while she was 8 months pregnant?”
“Yeah, but could she make fudge?”
Candy making involves meteorology, chemistry, molten sugar and melted spoons. Candies are hard core. There is a feel, a rhythm and a finesse to making candy; knowing what it means for a pecan to become “glossy” and knowing with it’s gloss is glossy enough and getting it out before it looses it’s gloss. Knowing the difference between a soft ball and a hard ball, light brown sugar and dark brown sugar. Not to mention the socio-familial pressure.
In my parents home, there is a jar. It is 1.5 feet tall, made of clear glass and shaped like a pear. Yes, a pear. This pear glass jar is an heirloom given to my father by his great-grandmother ( for the sake of the blog, we shall call her Sainted Grandma Link ). This jar has held many a cookie and treat over the generations, but it’s sole purpose now is to hold the perfect, 2 inch in diameter, creamy, light brown sugar pralines my mother makes only a few blessed times a year during Bergeron Pecan season. The occasional exception is made for Russian Rocks, subsequently also made with Bergeron Pecans. My dad is generous enough to allow us poor underlings to share in his praline joy, but don’t let him catch your hand in the cookie jar too often.
Pralines, like the elusive red gravy, cannot be learned, only taught;they are not made, they are born. From an early age, my mom would call us in the kitchen for those little life lessons which when learned would insure us success in going off to college. Supposedly, Sainted Grandma Link and my mother can make pralines single handed, but you wouldn’t know it by the military-type maneuvers we were taught. Because of it’s time sensitive nature, need for precise temperature and je ne sais pas, praline making is on the same high-stress, multi-person level with Pecan Pie (maybe more on this later). Before any pot is heated or any sugar poured out, the stage must be set. The ingredients must all be pre-measured and laid in position–sugars and butter by the stove and vanilla and pecans on the counter by a pot holder. The space must be cleared–remove all obstacles between stove and counter and cover counter with wax paper. Once the process begins, it must be finished in the time allotted or all will be for naught. Then and only then, do you turn on the stove.
I had been living on my own for a year and a half before I mustered up the courage to try my own batch of pralines. Before I left home, my mother had mentored me and batch by batch slowly she let go of my hand until I could sail on my own. After many crystallized batches, and even more runny ones, I was finally able to make a good, well rounded batch of pralines in my mother’s kitchen. But, this would be different. This would be on my own stove, in my own pot with my own spoons without my mother right there beside me. This was it. This was my moment. I was about to begin what would make or break a tradition for my children to come. This, more than any previous achievement in my life would make me…a woman.
I only had to call my mom once.
Clearly, I had psyched myself out. Maybe a tad too much. I had gone to the store two times for three different types of sugar,and in hindsight, I had confused the recipe for pralines with pecan pie. I think this story is best told in pictorial fashion.