By Paula Marcoux. Photos By Mike Race.
My mother’s cooking rarely reflected her 100% Quebecois ancestry. Aside from humoring my dad and his brother with the occasional raisin pie, and despite the fact that she was technically just as French-Canadian as they were, she gravitated much more to the Continental Cookbook cuisines of Julia Child, Pierre Franey, and Craig Claiborne. But throughout my childhood, sometime toward the start of each December, she would lead my sisters and me, and any other kids who happened to be around, in an afternoon of taffy-pulling. That’s what she called it to us—taffy—but when she and her little brother Fran were first initiated into the ritual by their mother back in the 1940s, they knew it as la tire (pronounced teer), meaning literally “the pulling.”
I was inducted into this “big girl” activity around age eight, which would make my sister Louise six, just old enough to comprehend and heed the fierce maternal warnings about the terrible burns suffered by other less attentive and obedient girls who failed to sufficiently respect the pot of raging hot lava at the core of the mystical taffy process. Mom having completed solemn advance preparations, including the precision measurement of ingredients and the laying out and buttering of specialized equipment, Lou and I were permitted to view the stovetop action from a safe perch. What we observed was a seeming eternity of simmering, punctuated by our mother occasionally deploying the candy thermometer, or quenching searing drops of magma in a custard cup of cold water, or both. As she alternated between squinting at the mercury and prodding amber lumps of goop, we learned that she was assaying the compound for certain alchemical characteristics denoting “the hard ball stage.” At that critical moment, the pure molten danger must be whisked off the burner and, culminating the charm, the “lump of butter the size of a walnut” carefully stirred in. Mom instructed us to stand back as she poured the shining golden stream into a pan to cool and told us to go away for another endless half-hour of waiting.
At last, it was our turn. Mom dumped out the still-pretty hot golden goo and cut off some chunks. We scrubbed and buttered our hands front and back and between our fingers. And we gingerly touched the lustrous blob to test the temperature. Mom, who always claimed to have “asbestos fingers,” jumped right in and showed the way to stretch and double, stretch and double—and that there was no shame in quickly putting it down if it proved to be still too hot. Fascinatingly, as even we novices worked it, the taffy changed in color and texture, growing paler and harder to pull, and feeling almost alive. When Mom judged our work sufficient, she took each hank of transubstantiated candy-matter and twisted it into a perfect blond rope, and snipped it right up into little golden tablets, using her fearsome kitchen shears that I had seen on many occasions reduce whole chickens to fricassee parts.
Finally, the unending tedium of twisting each of the ten jillion pieces, one by one, in little wax paper squares, a job that could only be accomplished if we wrappers consumed a steady stream of taffy bits. As we savored the unique buttery sweet-tart flavor, we marveled at the awesome powers of Mom, who showed us that science and magic could be used to create fun and beauty. From her we also learned the modest habit of choosing as snacks those taffies we deemed most unsightly or irregular, not fit to be gazed upon by others. Because, although this treat was never off -limits for us, the main point was to share. Every visit paid to family and friends in the ensuing holidays, we brought a little tin of taffy along, and the recipients seemed delighted, despite my parents’ oft-repeated warnings about pulling fillings out (which I do remember happening at least once, but I think it was my father who did it).
As someone who flunked religion, but loved volcanoes, learning in the kitchen, and visiting people, and who looked forward to the day when I too would take the measurements, make the judgments, and develop asbestos fingers, I experienced this ritual as a seasonal high point. Many decades later, I realize that I have never met anyone else who was treated to an annual family taffy pull, nor have I ever tasted anything exactly like the resulting sweet. According to my mother’s notes the recipe came from her grandmother; but was it just a family tradition, or did we inherit it as part of the larger culture of French Canada? A little poking turned up a surprising result. Yes, la tire was indeed a Quebecois treat, but no, it was not the Christmas candy we took it for—rather it was associated with the feast of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, on November 25th. Sounds like it was a jolly time in Old Canada: besides pulling taffy, Quebecers marked the holiday with round dances, singing, and wearing funny hats if you were a single woman over 25. As kids, we never heard about any of this stuff.
My mother has been gone four years, but her brother Francois, living in Canada himself for many decades now, granted me an interview on the topic of la tire. He remembers that once Mom had learned the techniques from my grandmother, she indeed became a full-on taffy-instigator, dragging him into helping her with the pulling and wrapping well into their teenage years. The whole Saint Catherine thing didn’t ring a bell with him, but when asked if there were any particular time they made taffy, he instantly responded “around American Thanksgiving,” i.e., around November 25th. Bingo, the Feast of Saint Catherine.
So that seems to settle the direct origin of our family tradition, but then, there is the larger question: how on earth did a vernacular 19th-century North American molasses-based confection come to memorialize the early fourth-century imprisonment, torture, and execution of the partially or totally apocryphal, but reputedly brilliant, Roman-Egyptian woman known today as Saint Catherine? As a food historian, I can’t help but wonder about the mechanism, the unlikely chain of events, that could have attached this candy to that saint. And, no, Catherine of Alexandria wasn’t tortured by boiling in hot syrup or stretching on the rack—and that colorful an association might have been too morbid even for my ancestors. I’m even quicker to disqualify the various “histories” for the tradition floated in the 20th-century Canadian press, turning as they do on familiar racist or sexist fantasies that underpin so many absurd notions of North America’s mythic past. So for now, I’m happy letting that mystery abide.
But did our family’s losing the contextual thread of this food tradition make it any less meaningful for us? When I write about other people’s families I tend to assume that the answer must be yes. But now I wonder if Mom, who was educated in a convent boarding school, for heaven’s sake, where the doings of martyrs and saints were daily bread and butter—I wonder if she didn’t wisely edit out the saintly bits when she passed the taffy-tradition on to us, her super-skeptical children, who had never even swallowed Santa Claus. Honestly, I think if we had been compelled to contemplate the martyrdom of Saint Catherine as we pulled taffy, that, as a parcel of budding atheists, we would have scoffed and rebelled, candy reward or no. It fills me with joy and gratitude to think that Mom may have committed this little sin of omission in order to pass on something truly important, knowing that sometimes it’s best just to let the sweetness of the pure food experience speak for itself.
Click here to continue reading and get the recipe.
Paula Marcoux urges every reader to cook something special from deep childhood this holiday season—especially if it requires protracted phone negotiations and multigenerational zoom conferencing to arrive at the recipe.