Linda Knight Seccaspina
Debunking the Stories my Grandmother Told Me – Volume 32
Linda Knight Seccaspina
Thanksgiving has always been a festive day for everyone I know and been celebrated in lots of different ways throughout the years. One of those was for young men to dress up as women in the 19th century and make fun of authority. It was a “masculine escape” from the family, an opportunity to break rules and be outlandish. Honestly, we could do with some of that old Thanksgiving cheekiness right about now.
According to my Grandmother, she remembers her cleaning lady’s brother coming to our door in Cowansville, Quebec, in the 1940s. The gentleman felt no pain sporting a wig and lipstick in a dress asking my Grandmother for treats. Grammy told me it was because of a French Canadian tradition called La Tire de la Ste-Catherine which is actually a way to celebrate pulled taffy. She said that it involved the whole family, feasting and drinking and making taffy in the kitchen, and men would get drunk and dress up and visit the neighbours for more drinks and treats.
Well I am here to debunk Mary Louise Deller Knight’s festive holiday tales, because she was wrong–or half wrong. She’s not alive to argue with me now, and I’m going to come clean with everything I learned this week. One thing for certain is that La Tire de Ste. Catherine was, and maybe still exists in some parts as French-Canadian tradition. But Mary got her dates all screwed up and she was a month and half too early. It was never on Thanksgiving Day! Who also knows if the spirited gentleman that came to her door was still celebrating the 19th century ways?
The founder of the Congregation of Notre Dame, Ste. Marguerite Bourgeoys, made these candies each year in November beginning in 1868. The 25th of November to be exact, in hopes to attract prestigious young students to her school. Not to be outdone by Ste. Marguerite, the local young maidens also began making them on the same day to find a young man interested enough in their cooking skills to marry. Ste. Marguerite Bourgeoys and the young maidens also celebrated the day to remind everyone about poor Catherine d’Alexandrie who was tortured and executed in the year 307.
Catherine refused to marry an Emperor who she was promised to because she claimed to be spiritually married to Christ. How stories about taffy and death got intertwined one will never know. But, if this is the story about pulled taffy, do you really want to know how salt water taffy was conceived. Wait, salt water taffy got its name after a big flood in Atlantic City in 1884, but with no religious context, hats, or death and– really, it all tastes the same.
So, as we sit, pants unbuttoned and droopy-lidded, around the flat screen television watching other people work off their calories, one could imagine an inkling of Thanksgiving past with Uncle Joe. He might be dressed up in one of Madonna’s wilder costumes 19th century-style and making obscene gestures in the general direction of a provincial capitol of his choice. I personally will not be insulting anyone. My family always celebrates Thanksgiving with a fast. The faster we eat, the more food we get.
La Tire de Ste. Catherine Taffy
1⁄2 cup molasses
1⁄2 cup corn syrup
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup white sugar
1⁄4 cup butter
1 tablespoon white vinegar
¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
⅛ teaspoon baking soda
Place the molasses, corn syrup, brown sugar, white sugar, vinegar, cream of tartar and half the butter in a pot.
Bring to a boil over low heat until the mixture registers 140° C (260° F).
Stir for 5 to 10 minutes. The mixture has to reach the “ball” stage, meaning it’s ready when you drop a little of it into a small bowl of cold water and it forms a ball.
Mix in the baking soda.
Pour into buttered dishes and let cool slightly until you can pick the taffy up without burning your hands.
Butter your hands well and begin pulling: pull, fold in half, and repeat the process until the taffy is pale golden, and almost white. If it sticks to your hands, put a little more butter on them.
Pull one last time and twist up tightly in small lengths. Cut into pieces with scissors.
Place on a buttered plate or wrap in waxed paper.