MAMA’S CANDY APPLES
Last Halloween, our grandchildren visited their great Aunt Beth’s house to trick or treat. Beth follows a tradition started by our mother. She makes candy apples for the costumed little ones who come to her door seeking treats.
The bright red candy apple was an entirely new experience for our grandchildren. After a time of intense licking, they were a sugar-coated sight. Cheeks and lips were crimson, chins and hands were sticky. In their first encounter with a candy apple they never did get down to the fruit beneath the candy coating.
When I was a boy, back in the days before the Grinch stole Halloween, October 31 was one of the most anticipated evenings of the year. All Hallow’s Eve was second only to Christmas Eve when excitement, for kids, permeated the night air. No sooner had the sun gone down, than costumed kids of every age flooded the streets of the neighborhood, knocking on doors and shouting “Trick-or-treat!”
Parents escorting their children stood a few yards away, guardian angels watching over small gremlins and goblins. The trick-or-treaters carried plastic jack-o-lanterns or paper bags to collect their bounty.
My friend Rusty always dressed as a pirate, carrying a large pillowcase to stash his booty. He stuffed a second pillowcase into his pocket, just in case the first one reached capacity. Rusty’s Halloween range was far greater than mine. He worked his neighborhood of Ben Avon before dark and then came to my street about the time I walked out of my house dressed as a hobo.
We ventured from one house to the next collecting treats. Rusty carried a spray can of whipping cream as he made his rounds. If the treat he received at a home was particularly generous, Rusty marked the driveway with a whipped cream star. A full-sized candy bar – Hershey, Snickers, Milky Way, or Three Musketeers – merited a star.
I learned a lot from Rusty. His advice was to avoid large groups. Two beggars at a time were enough for any home. Five or six together usually got smaller gifts.
Occasionally, we would have meetings with other trick-or-treaters to discuss which houses gave out the best goodies. Rusty was like a crafty angler, concealing his best fishing hole. He never told about the houses with the whipped cream star. On the other hand, he gathered as much information as he could.
Sometimes Rusty would trade treats with other consultants. He always came out on the better end of the deal. I saw him trade three packs of Juicy Fruit Chewing Gum for a Hershey Chocolate Almond bar and a pack of Topps Baseball cards. The pack had both a Mickey Mantle and a Willie Mays card inside.
One dark night, at one of the roadside conferences, an unlikely clown revealed that “a guy on the other side of Duncan Park Lake giving away silver dollars.”
After the meeting broke up, Rusty said, “Let’s go!”
I knew he meant we were going to the other side of the lake, but the trip was beyond my range and would have taken me long past my curfew. We headed back toward my house.
Rusty stopped at a driveway with a whipped cream star. He took off his pirate’s eye patch, removed the bandana from his head, walked to the door, and collected a second Three Musketeers bar from the same house. He added a second whipped cream star to mark the driveway.
“I’ll see you later,” he said as he left for the other side of Duncan Park Lake, and I continued toward my home.
My mother knew how to throw a party. She believed every holiday deserved to be celebrated to the fullest. St. Valentine and St. Patrick got almost as much attention as St. Nicholas.
Halloween was one of her favorite occasions. Orange pumpkins adorned the front porch. Inside our home glowing jack-o-lanterns and gossamer ghosts were everywhere.
Mama’s contribution to trick-or-treaters was a candy apple, the treat everybody wanted most of all. Mama dipped apples, each fitted with a short sharpened stick, into a hot candy coating. If you have ever burned your hands with a hot glue gun, you know how dipping a candy apple feels.
Every Halloween, Mama made hundreds. Children came trick-or-treating at our house from all over town.
Mama bought apples by the case at Community Cash grocery store. The family took turns at a pencil sharpener putting points on the dowel rods Dad had cut at the lumberyard. The apples were washed and the sticks inserted before Mama cooked the candy. She made many batches, hundreds of candy apples, every Halloween.
My sister Beth, now the queen of candy apples in our family, was willing to share Mama’s recipe, which makes 12-24 candy apples. She said the technique for making the treat can be tricky.
2 cups sugar
1 package cinnamon drops (Mama stockpiled these.)
1 tablespoon red food coloring
1 cup water
1 teaspoon vinegar
Cook all ingredients to 265 degrees – somewhere between soft and hard crack stage – on a candy thermometer.
Place on a marble slab greased with real butter.
Wrap in plastic bags when cool.
Several years ago, I conducted a funeral service for a man who grew up in our neighborhood. Following the funeral, the brother of the deceased fondly told me of coming to our house on Halloween. He said that Mama always invited the children into her kitchen so that she could see their costumes.
“We would get a candy apple, go home, change disguises, and come back for another.” Then he made a confession. “One year, my brother and I came trick-or-treating at your house four times. We got four candy apples!” Then he added, “Your mother knew. She called us by name and said, ‘You boys have been here four times. I think that’s enough this year.’”
“What made you think you could get away with that?” I asked.
He grinned, “There were four whipped cream stars by your driveway.”