Sunday, January 27, 2019
Appalachian Christmas candy with unique ingredients
My column for the Charleston Gazette-Mail:
’Twas the night before an Appalachian Christmas, when all through the house, not a creature was stirring — not even an opossum. The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, in hopes that the Mothman would soon be there. With potato candy.
Or something like that.
Making candy in the mountains is a traditional holiday activity, and some favorites found in cookbooks include black walnut fudge, molasses taffy and potato candy. That’s right — candy made from potatoes.
Potato candy came to the region around the turn of the century, reportedly from Germany, according to the website of True Treats Candy in Harpers Ferry. The recipe arrived with immigrants — possibly memorized instead of written — and consisted of two main ingredients: potatoes and powdered sugar. It later took on the addition of peanut butter, which swirls through the middle like a jelly roll.
“The potato candy soon became popular among the Irish of Appalachia, who were unable to afford more expensive candy, such as chocolates. Potatoes were readily available, the candy was easy to make, and it tasted great,” according to the website.
True to Appalachian culture, cooks during the depression era were resourceful with inexpensive ingredients. Potatoes, which are resilient and could withstand harsh growing conditions, were cheap and could serve as a solid base for many dishes — including desserts.
The addition of peanut butter came during this time, which was another product made with a hearty crop. Potato candy is particularly prominent in Pennsylvania Dutch areas, with many claiming that is where it originated. Wherever its origins, potato candy has been passed down through generations and rightfully claims the centerpiece at many holiday dessert tables in Appalachia.
And it is easy to see why: The dessert simply uses the starch for texture, and the flavors that shine are the sweet sugar and nutty peanut butter, which supplies a lovely contrast. Simplistic in nature, the dessert is a perfectly easy snack and looks beautiful on a cookie tray.
Most of all, I like the backstory on its creation — relying on resourcefulness and innovation to create a pleasant dessert. Many of these same qualities are what I appreciate in Appalachians as a whole. Food often reflects who we are as a group of people, and this one is no exception. At the root, it’s straightforward, humble and creative — that’s my kind dessert. And people.