Saturday, January 11, 2014

Making Divinity

Making Divinity—A Illinois Holiday Memory (from Poets & Writer’s “The Time is Now” prompt:

Once Thanksgiving passed, my mom would start checking the weather reports on a daily basis.  She wasn’t worried about snowfall or frigid temperatures.  She was watching for the humidity levels, because, only when the humidity was low, could she make her Mistletoe Mart Divinity. 

Our church, First United Methodist in Elgin, had an annual event that women of the church contributed to with their baked goods and craft products.  Although mom was a very able sewer (she made delicate clothes for our Ginny, Jill and Shirley Temple dolls), she really glowed when she baked.  Not an enthusiastic meal cook, she put her love and attention into cookies (butterscotch blondies, Grandmother’s sugar cookies, ginger snaps, toffee squares), cakes (upside down pineapple, spice cake with caramel icing) and the occasional summer pie (rhubarb).  But divinity was her specialty and when she prepared for it and produced it, my sister and I learned to stay out of her way, yet be close at hand to help her quickly spoon out the delights and clean the beaters.

She would drop the spoonfuls on waxed paper, pressing alternate pecan halves or jarred cherries into the centers.  Sometimes she would make a batch with pecan pieces swirled inside the dollops of egg white, Karo and granulated sugar syrup.  I don’t recall my Grandmother Dice making this candy, so perhaps Mom inherited it from her grandmother.  In any case, she would make several batches of the candy for the church, storing them in metal tins after they had set.

Dad would help her bring the tins early to the church basement and, for as long as I could remember, the pieces were sold out to the other church women before the Mart opened to the community.  Mom would return from the event with empty tins and a full heart, all ready to start to work—again, as soon as the weather would permit—on holiday batches for her family and neighbors.

As Mom aged, it wasn’t until her mid-eighties that she would “move over” and begin to teach me how to make divinity.  The year before she died, we made it in her tiny assisted-living kitchen, and I had to choke back tears as we pushed the hardening texture around the milk-glass bowl.

For the first two years after she died, I did make—or try to make her recipe.  The first year, it took me three attempts and it wasn’t due to the weather.  Living in the desert, low humidity is almost a given.  No, it was the accuracy of the syrup’s temperature that did me in.  The second year, I again had multiple attempts and, unlike the first year of my succession, I could not get the weight of the dollops correct, even with my husband’s patient assistance.  And I found I no longer experienced joy in the process.  It felt more like a duty and one that I was not fulfilling very well.  So, I have let go of that tradition (for now), and felt happiness this holiday in making my version of Mom’s toffee squares.  They remain my son’s favorite holiday cookie and really, that’s what Mom’s legacy is about: making a recipe with joy and love, whipping those feelings into the batter, and passing it on to another generation.  The key ingredients are not in the recipe, or even the hands; they are in the heart. (Note: this is close to, but not exactly, my mom’s recipe—that’s a family secret for nowJ).




Kate's Aunt Carolyne said...

Anita, I love this description of your mother's heart-filled cooking and your attempt to follow her. For me it is my mother's pie crust (I can't begin to replicate it) and her pickled peaches, which I will try one day. Your story touched my heart. Thank you. xoxo

Anita Fonte said...

Thank you for your sweet comment