By Maggie Kast
My mother taught me how to make fudge. In the days before home air conditioning in swampy Washington D.C., we thought nothing of cooking in summer. Life was hot, we knew that. For relief we would go to the movies or skate indoors on cool ice. One August Saturday, Ma and I mixed sugar, milk and chocolate so bitter she warned me against sneaking a taste. Fudge was my favorite, but I was fraught with fear that the watery mixture would never transform into pieces of candy. Ma didn’t worry. If fudge failed to harden she’d put it on ice cream, where cooling strands of the sauce would become a chewy contrast to the ice cream’s smooth cold.
We set the pot on the stove, hoping for sharp-cornered, shape-holding squares, then put water and ice in a glass in the fridge. After a while, we spooned drops of syrup into the water. Our syrup unfinished, it dispersed in the water, sad waste. This is the time-honored test. When drizzled in a glass of ice water, drops of syrup should hold their shape and have the texture of a firm candy ball. We washed out the glass and filled it again. Ma was patient and cool while I watched the slow bubbles rise, steam reddening my face. Sugar is charming to people all over the earth. Molecular biologists studying taste have found that sugar is sensed by intestines and pancreas, stomach, liver and kidney as well as by the tongue. Some claim this served evolution. Our primate ancestors, roaming the canopy, survived and thrived by eating the sweetest tree fruit. Food scientist Harold McGee, speaking of mother’s milk, calls sweetness, “the taste of the energy that fuels all life.”
In music, sugar as often as not means sex. “I’ll take you to the candy shop/ Boy, one taste of what I got,” sings Fifty Cent’s Olivia in “Candy Shop.” Sex can be thrilling and comforting, eraser of doubt and despair, invitation to cross over a border and join with the other. Desire, like appetite, can be an expression of love or a drug for forgetting, a means of connection, control or coercion. Whether helpful or harmful, sugar and sex are undying appetites shared by most people, no matter how much they differ in other ways.
As addictive as sugar or sex, much music that moves me is built on a sequence of notes. With the tongue-tickling name of diatonic Phrygian tetra chord, it consists of three descending whole notes followed by a half: A, G, F, E on a keyboard. Harmonized, it’s called the Andalusian Cadence. It’s found in music of every genre and style, from Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” to “Carol of the Bells.” Listen to it in the bass line of James Brown’s “Hit the Road, Jack,” repeated over and over. Like sugar and sex, it adapts itself to all kinds of uses. Thus lovers of rock and roll find themselves in bed with those who like classical, and folk music lies down with jazz. Take a listen to some of composer David Garland’s fifty examples excerpted and explained on his radio program, “Spinning on Air.” After you hear the cadence, you want it again, and again, and again. I rejoiced to discover this shared lust for a sound.
Food was the music of love in the home of my childhood and transmitted warmth that my mother couldn’t otherwise show. As I made fudge with Ma, finally drops of syrup spooned into the ice water glass would sink but keep their shape. Gathered together by small, sticky fingers, they formed a solid ball. Ma took the pan off the stove. Then I waited, as long as the night before Christmas. The fudge had to cool to just above warm, like a bath or a drink for a child. Next we took turns, beating and swirling the sticky stuff. We watched the shine fade, the return of the syrup to solid. Never, it seemed, but the syrup slowly grew thicker, our arms tired, sweat wetting our shirts. Just when doubt exhausted my patience, the syrup began to look flat, seized up, and slumped like lava descending a mountain. Ma gave one last stir and then scraped it into the pan I had greased. The candy that stuck to the pot had also turned hard and I was allowed to scrape and taste it. The grainy texture compounded the mouth-filling rush of sweet and the soft-edged comfort of chocolate. Faith in my mother confirmed, I cut it, still warm, into squares and served it to family and friends.
They ate it with pleasure.
Maggie Kast grew up with eggnog on Christmas morning and clambakes on the beach in summer. She learned to cook from Fannie Farmer and Julia Child, while marriage broadened her horizons to include Tafelspitz and Salburger Nockerln. She has an M.F.A. in writing from Vermont College and is the author of The Crack between the Worlds: a dancer’s memoir of loss, faith and family, published by Wipf and Stock. Her essays have appeared in America, Image and Writer’s Chronicle. A novel is forthcoming from Fomite Press.