Howard was a singular figure: a gay man in a tiny mid-North Dakotan town in the middle decades of the previous century. Courtenay had just under 300 in-town residents according to the 1940 census (trend: declining). It had lady elders running the Presbyterian church (first and foremost, my grandma), a general store, and plenty of orderly, hard-working, meat-eating farmers. Courtenay had its own grain elevator. It had various misfits and outsiders, most of whom my grandma befriended; some she even took into her home as boarders. What Courtenay didn’t have: a mate for Howard.
Howard, you see, was the misfittiest of the misfits. He was the only gay man in Courtenay and – we believe – for miles around. He did excellent work at the store. In his spare time, he perfected various housewifely arts: knitting, crochet, sewing, candy-making. Still no mate was forthcoming. It goes without saying that my grandma befriended him warmly. (Today she’d make a fine fag hag.) I was the greedy beneficiary of this, because he was still stitching up snazzy Barbie clothes circa 1970.
Howard didn’t get such a sweet deal. He lived an unpartnered life, alone (except for a few friends like my grandma) and I suspect celibate, until late in his days, when he went into retirement and moved to the next largest town, Jamestown. There, he met another like-minded and like-oriented gentlemen. Together they enjoyed their golden years.
Whenever I think of the joy Howard found in his final years, I don’t know whether to smile or weep.
His cream candy just might make you do both. It’s simple to make, though it takes some time and patience while you’re cooking it.
- 2 cups evaporated milk
- 3 cups sugar
- 1 stick butter
- pinch of salt
- 1 teaspoon vanilla – be generous
Using a very heavy pot, melt the butter, sugar, and 1 cup of the evaporated milk until it reaches a boil. I needed to go pretty close to high heat to get the process started. Once you’re boiling, set a timer for 10 minutes and turn down the heat. You want to keep the candy at a boil for 10 minutes. If your heat source is too strong, you’ll see chunks of caramel begin to form at the bottom of the pot. That’s a signal to dial back the heat. (I saw enough of those chunks that I started frantically bailing them while stirring vigorously with my other hand.)
If you don’t already have a candy thermometer, an hour ago would be a good time to have bought one. If your candy is at a boil and you’re lacking a thermometer, corral a lover, roommate, or random wino on the street to buy you one.
When your ten minutes are up, add the second cup of evaporated milk, then go back to your stirring. You are aiming to hit a sweet space just above “soft ball” stage but still below “hard ball.” This will take a while – for me, perhaps 20 minutes? Once you think you’ve got the right temperature, remove the pot from heat. Let it cool for three minutes or so – not much longer or the candy will have reverted to solid. Beat it with a mixer on high, adding the vanilla and salt. Then smear into a pre-buttered dish. I used an 8 1/2 by 11 inch pyrex pan, but I don’t think this is critical. At this point, Howard’s candy will behave a bit like fudge. Let cool in the pan at room temp, cut, and serve! (If the pieces are super-sticky, you probably didn’t cook it long or hard enough. Expose them to air overnight.)
Serve to anyone who appreciate a good sugar confection with no nutritional value – unless you consider a good backstory to be healthy for the soul. Howard left this earth over a quarter century ago. If there’s an afterlife worth living, it surely includes his candy.
(I thought about trying to illustrate this post, but frankly, the candy is beige, and I’ve got nothing purty to decorate them.)