Friday, November 23, 2007

A Peanut Brittle Christmas

Thanksgiving is over; Black Friday has arrived. I wouldn't go anywhere near an actual store today, but back when I was a kid, the big "shopping for Christmas presents" day was enormously important to me.

Every year when I was a kid, my family made homemade peanut brittle that we sold to make Christmas money. It was a recipe passed down from my maternal grandmother. Mom was in charge of the operation and we kids helped make the peanut brittle, prepare the cans (we used coffee cans, which people would donate to us all year round. We'd wash and then paint them in Christmas colors), make labels, and do the deliveries. We hand delivered every pound, collected the money and put it in a little wooden box, as well as enter the amounts in our accounting ledger.

The business started small but grew every year. Everyone in town appeared to be hooked on our peanut brittle, and to be fair, it was worth getting hooked on. It was by far the best I've ever tasted and that's what our customers told us, too. Soon, they relied on us for Christmas gifts. It was a great gift for all those people you don't want to spend a ton of money on (it was very reasonably priced) but want to give a little something. According to our customers, lots of out-of-town friends and relatives received it, as well.

At a certain point, it became a bit overwhelming. We had so many orders we were cooking nonstop. The thing about making peanut brittle is that once you put the raw peanuts in the pan, you have to stir nonstop until it's done. So this wasn't like cookies, where you put them in the oven and don't interact until you take them out. This was hands-on work. One of our secrets was that we pulled the brittle to make it thin (you haven't tasted good peanut brittle until you've tasted the homemade, pulled stuff). This meant we weren't done after stirring. When it was ready to pour we had to time it exactly (not by a clock, but by instinct) to know when it was exactly right for pulling. It was still extremely hot and to avoid getting burned was quite the trick.

When we got to critical mass as far as orders went, we had to make a decision. Do we "go pro" (rent a factory and gear up for professional candy-making) or do we quit cold turkey. We decided to quit. My brothers and I all had jobs or were in college, so the old "make your Christmas money by selling peanut brittle" reason was gone. Mom was tired of the business, too. (Everyone who worked the business got an equal share of the profits. As kids, this allowed us to buy presents with money that we'd earned, so that we'd understand value and generosity. We were also required to give a portion to charity, to foster altruism.)

Our customers were devastated when we quit. They begged and cajoled and pleaded for peanut brittle, but Mom was adamant. It was no more. For years former customers would continue to ask for "just a pound or two" but Mom usually turned them down. If you do it for one, the word could get out and then we'd be inundated with calls.

Even to this day, Mom still gets asked. In fact, despite having been out of the business for decades, last Christmas I made a couple of batches for a former neighbor (and mother of my best friend growing up). Mom's will to resist had eroded enough to promise my services while home for the holiday. I hope she didn't tell anyone (and that no one back home reads my blog).

As much work as it was, it taught me a great deal when I was a kid. We never received a dime from our parents for Christmas shopping. When we went on our annual shopping trip (which was usually a week or so before Christmas because we had to get all the orders filled and paid for first), the money I spent was mine. I earned every cent of it. It made me really think about the gifts I bought. It also made giving every bit as important as receiving, even at a tender age. That's a lot of life lessons gleaned from making candy.

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