At Christmas, my Grandma Vivian made candy. Her food is the stuff of family legend, especially her bread, but for me, the candy was the high point. It’s a tradition I’ve tried to keep up in her absence: peanut brittle, fudge, and divinity.
I think I use the same recipe for peanut brittle that she did–from the red-and-white checkered Better Homes and Gardens book–and it’s always a hit. Ditto the fudge, except my dad always wants me to make it grainy, like she did (technically, an error on her part, but the sense of taste resides in both the tongue and the heart). My divinity, however. Well. After several years of making piles of fluffy white sugar bombs, my dad sat me down. It’s not you, it’s me. That sort of thing. It turns out, though they revere her as the cook of all cooks, no one ever really liked the divinity. (Any relatives who might be reading this, feel free to contradict me.) They ate it to be polite, and because it was there. Me, I enjoyed it. It was simple and sweet and I loved the texture. Could it have had more flavor? Absolutely. But did my family want me to keep on making it?
So I cut the divinity from the rotation, but it’s always nagged at me–why didn’t anybody like it? It was tradition. I should be able to make it wonderful (and I know I make it correctly–that’s not the issue here). But for years, I put it on the back burner. Well, not any more.
This year, I’m making divinity. I’m making it with crystallized ginger, dried currants, and orange zest (as soon as I tasted it, I said, Where have you been all my life?). I’m making it with maple, cinnamon, and bacon (yeah–you read that right). If I had the time, I’d make it with peppermint, with mint and dark chocolate chunks, with orange and rosemary, pistachios and dried strawberries, cinnamon and nutmeg and walnuts–every remotely festive flavor combination I might dream up.
Maybe this means it’s not really divinity. After all, my recipe calls for a half cup of chopped candied fruit or nuts. That’s the tradition. My Grandma either did walnuts or she left it plain. I’ve heard it’s a southern thing though Grandma was from Illinois. Being from California, currently living in Washington, I have no cultural reference outside the trays of white candy my Grandma would set out at Christmastime, flavored slightly by the air of coffee and cigarette smoke in her kitchen. But, whatever tradition it comes from, it’s my tradition now. I’m going to make it a great one.
Would Grandma have liked my new flavors? I haven’t a clue. That bothers me, really– not knowing. I’d hate to think I’d insulted her, or that I’d been disrespectful. I’ve come to the conclusion, listening to stories, that she and I were a lot alike, but though she lived nearby or even in our house for most of my life, we didn’t have much of a relationship. We danced around each other, both a little shy, I think, never knowing what to say. She died many years before I became interested in food and cooking, and I never spent any time with her in the kitchen. Sometimes I think about her when I’m cooking, and what she’d think of the spice I’m adding, or the way I chop my onions, or my technique when I’m kneading the bread. And I miss her. And I miss that I don’t miss her enough.