Sweet memories of uncle, candy | News, Sports, Jobs

A photo of the grave site of Hall G. Van Vlack.

My grandmother Mildred Van Black Bradigan was of an old Dutch family which crept west from the Hudson River Valley in the late 18th century. We know that a Van Vlack fought in the Revolutionary War, which seems fitting since many of our ancestral line have served in the military. It is said that women in our family have a knack for giving birth 18 to 25 years before a war.

Grandma Mildred’s great-grandfather was probably a latter-born son of that Revolutionary War stock who struck out for what riches he could find in the Holland Land Grant of 1800, locked out of some big Hudson River Valley estate by primogeniture; only a modest inheritance with which to buy a patch of land and set himself up as an old-school patroon. He live off the rents in as high a style as he could afford.

Only once that I recall did I meet anyone from my grandmother’s family: my great-uncle Hall Van Vlack. He was late into his 70s at that point, a widower spending the weekends at his retreat di lui, a low-ceilinged red-shingled cabin near Silver Creek, the trout stream we frequented, verging on the no-mans-land of the Conewango Amish country.

I was 3 years old, we were on a Sunday drive, my proud Kentucky-born mother brought him a tin of her Kentucky pull taffy – a buttery dream of a confection that she massaged into beauty on top of her marble slab, stretched and pulled , pulled and stretched until it reached a certain consistency, then sliced ​​one inch by one inch with frozen scissors. Finally it was stacked and layered with circles of waxed paper in recycled candy tins. Those nuggets would dissolve in your mouth with a hint of maple and caramel. Poof, as soon as they hit your tongue. It was her offering of her; her version of frankincense or myrrh for such a distinguished host. Except much more delicious. These are among my earliest memories.

He seemed ancient, but for a 3-year-old that could be 35 or 105. He was friendly, slim, clean-shaven, dare I say avuncular, sitting in the cabin he had tricked out with shelves and shelves of books, and mounted artifacts from a life of travel and romance.

He was a retired orthopedic surgeon, which used to be called a sawbones, because of its accuracy in description. Until the advent of antibiotics in the 1940s, there was little recourse to amputation for a wounded limb.

Uncle Hall had earned some measure of renown for his exploits in World War I, setting up tent hospitals as close to the front as possible – the second battle of the Marne, Belleau Wood, pushing the Germans toward exhaustion and internal collapse with the Doughboys’ relentless resiliency and numbers. You can imagine heaps of severed limbs out behind the tent, no difference only in scale from the Civil War. Uncle Hall rose through the ranks to become a major, which was pretty good for a country doctor who never had a moment of thinking himself as a proper soldier in the military; he was a medical man through and through.

He had spent the previous decade wandering about Mesopotamia with his wife, serving as a doctor for the pashas and janissaries of the Ottoman Empire. In fact, when the war broke out, he was reportedly traded back across enemy lines in 1916. First, though, the Turks tried to press him into service. Maybe he hid among the early Arab resistance that Thomas Lawrence (“Of Arabia”) was trying to fan into a conflagration. You can’t help but wonder what the world would have been like had Lawrence of Arabia been able to convince his superiors to keep their promises di lui. Much of the strife in the Middle East has its origins in the betrayal of 1916’s secret Sykes-Picot agreement between the British and French.

My main fascination in that visit was a gnarled twisted chunk of wood with what looked like a small cannon strapped on with brass rings. It was an old camel gun, or at least the remnants of it. Camel guns were among the first firearms, used by the Mameluks, who conquered the ancient Nile empire in the 1200s, and not likely through their advanced use of gunpowder but superior cavalry. The gun barrels were packed with a primitive gunpowder made by extracting the saltpeter from urine, mixed with a top-secret blend of charcoal and sulfur. Then it was pressed through a sieve and dried, what was then called “Corned,” for the consistency of the pellets it formed The camel riders would carry bags of gravel to pack on top of the gunpowder in the barrels. Then they would bump the touchhole with a smoldering length of hemp. It was a lot of flash and not much bang. It was more meant to sow close-range chaos then death; probably less fearsome a weapon than a lance or pike except for its noise and novelty.

Certainly they had their proof-of-concept, at least for half a millennia and more until Napoleon easily dispatched the Mamelukes and their esoteric technologies. I wonder how our modern marvels like iPhones and drones will stand up to the test of half a thousand years?

Funny how memory works. I can remember Uncle Hall’s lecture – or at least the texture of it – better than I can what I had yesterday for lunch. He chatted back and forth with my parents while I was hungering to ask him about those artifacts; the stories that connected them across time and his involvement in the great wars.

Uncle Hall returned from his Near East and European adventures to set up a shingle in Jamestown. He lived a quiet but meaningful life, serving as president of the Rotary Club of Jamestown. Since the Rotary Club is near and dear to my heart, I feel as though I am following in his footsteps di lui as a former club president myself, though of course I have had nowhere near as distinguished a career.

During World War II, he was pressed back into service at the ripe old age of nearly 60 to do what he did in World War I, and only a hundred or so miles from those old familiar fronts. He must have felt like it was a terrible, tragic Groundhog Day. After D-Day, the front moved east and to the north, as Eisenhower pressed his advantage until he met the dread winter of 1944 at the Battle of the Bulge.

I was very proud of the fact, during the television heyday of “MASH,” that I had a relative who was instrumental in organizing and implementing those far-forward field hospitals, the precursor to the mobile Army surgical hospitals.

Now, for the recipe…

My mom would buy two big bags of sugar, which as far I can translate through the mists of time was like 10 pounds; she only made the taffy once a year, usually around the holidays, so she made the most of it, and batch-cooked a year’s worth of gifts for fancy uncles, teachers, milk men and butchers.

She’d bring two-and-a-half cups of water to boil in a 16-quart stockpot, add a tablespoon of salt, then dump in the sugar in a big whoosh. Then lei let it boil for five or six minutes until the sugar crystals were fully dissolved. You’d know it was ready when the boiling sugar-lava no longer tried to cling to the sides of the pot.

Her candy thermometer was a precise instrument. She’s carefully insert it into the boil while slowly adding a two (or three?) Cups of the finest Holstein cream, fattened on clover and alfalfa hay. The trick was to add it slowly without reducing the boil. Let it, in fact, boil up. And don’t freak out, it will soon settle back down. Resist the urge to stir. Let it reach 260 degrees on the nose. There’s a marking on a candy thermometer, “Hard ball,” which as a baseball player I loved. Of course I could hardly wait until that magic moment. An alternative is to drop a blob into cold water. If it’s the right temperature, it will form… wait for it… a hard ball. When it does, get that pot off the stove!

That’s when you get ready for the fun part. In the old days, we had to scrub out and sanitize our bathtub. Sometime around 1966 or so, my dad, acceding to my mother’s importunements di lei, bought her a marble slab at least 3 feet long and 18 inches across. Mom would butter the surface thoroughly, then pour the candy onto the slab.

Add a few teaspoons of pure vanilla extract. Not the cheap kind. And then, for a Chautauqua variation, a few drizzles of maple syrup. Grade B if you have it. I think it’s called “Grade A: Amber Color & Rich Flavor” now. Then she’d turn the mass of it, turn it, always toward the middle, with a metal spatula. Always moving the candy toward the coolest part of the slab, aiming to cool down the mass of candy as fast as possible.

This is where the kids came in. After scrubbing our hands as meticulously as a surgeon, an orthopedic surgeon if you will, we would grab the ends of the taffy and pull and fold, pull and fold, pull and fold. It was exercise. Probably five minutes or more, which is a long time if you are pulling taffy or holding your breath. To ease the stickiness, she’d encourage us to dip our fingers into a butter crock, but lightly. Not too slick or the taffy would just get greasy.

That is when the alchemy would happen.

The taffy, at first a rich, burnished caramel brown, would become lighter and lighter, until it took on a satiny sheen. You’d know it was ready when you’d pull it and these corrugations would appear, these ridges. Then you would stretch it out into a long rope. Or if too unwieldy, break it into several lengths, then pull those into ropes.

The taffy is still kinda sticky (not greasy, unless you dipped your fingers into the butter crock too often) and very dense. It is a chewy, traditional taffy at this point. There’s still magic to happen. Be patient. Let it sit on the marble slab and cover it with a clean kitchen towel.

If everything has going according to plan, it will “Cream” overnight and turn into the most mouth-meltingly delicious confection imaginable.

That’s when you would take out your sharpest scissors from the freezer. Did I mention that you’d freeze the scissors beforehand? My bad. Cut it into one-inch squares and start stacking them into a candy tin, layering with waxed papers. I guarantee if you give it to your kid’s teacher, they will get at least one grade above what they earned, your postman will deliver packages to your door in the snowiest blizzard and the butcher will give you primest cuts. It is an investment in your happiness. Treat it as such.

Even your worldly great-uncle who has seen it all and done it all, stared down pashas and German generals and even Eisenhower himself, will be impressed.

Bret Bradigan is the editor and publisher of the Ojai Quarterly & Ojai Monthly in California. He also produces a weekly podcast, “Ojai: Talk of the Town.”

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