During the Christmas season my family bakes toffee. As I was growing up, I learned how to make it from my mother every year. I asked her about the act and meaning behind our families’ tradition.
My grandmother (my mother’s mother) brought the recipe to my mother about 10 years ago. As I suspected, she wouldn’t share the recipe with me because it is top-secret. The details she would share were that the recipe contained butter, sugar, almonds and chocolate. My grandmother received the recipe from a friend, who my mother decided should remain anonymous. This friend normally wouldn’t share her toffee recipe with anyone, but since she and my grandmother became such close friends, she eventually gave it to her. My grandmother brought it back to my mother and throughout the years, they tweaked it to make it their own. It is now the top-secret recipe that it is today.
In addition to being top-secret, the event of toffee making is highly ritualized. Some of the ritual is required for the recipe to be successful. For example, the mixture has to be stirred over the stove for 12 minutes, using a candy thermometer or, for more experienced toffee makers, watching the smoke rising from the pot to see when its done. Later, the mixture must be poured, smoothed down and covered with chocolate very quickly. However, some rituals during the process are not scientifically supported to be significant but are practiced due to the sacred, secret nature of the process. For eight years, my mother and grandmother used the same stove, the same pot and the same spoon to stir the toffee. Eventually the stove and spoon broke and the two were afraid that the recipe would no longer work. The toffee still turns out well, but they still use the same pot, with some speculation to making any more changes. My mother clearly defined a successful batch of toffee by its nice crunch and snap. If the toffee doesn’t snap right when its broken in half, the toffee wasn’t mixed for long enough or at high enough temperature so the sugar didn’t set right.
The activity of toffee-making has become a family tradition. My grandmother comes over a few times every December so she and her daughter can bake toffee together. At age eight, the kids (my siblings and I) were trusted to help with the process. The kids would be in charge of stirring the toffee consistently for 12 minutes; not the most exciting task, but it was a way to include younger kids in the process. Although she takes the toffee-making process itself very seriously, she commented on how enjoyable and laughter-filled it can be.
I asked my mother the importance of keeping the recipe a secret. Her logic is that it she wanted to keep it special; a special recipe makes a special gift. Our family hands out this toffee as gifts to friends and family. Because we are the only family who makes the toffee, it produces a demand and makes people appreciative. When people receive the toffee, they recognize that it is only around at Christmas time, and only from us.
Regarding the significance of only gifting toffee at Christmas time, my mother said that it gives friends and family an anticipation and expectation annually. It is a seasonal event, not only for the receiving end, but for the gifting end as well. My mother explained that she will make toffee apart from Christmas only for very special occasions. If a relative that we don’t see very often is coming into town at a time other Christmas, she will make toffee for them. When her sister came to California in November recently, she made toffee. However, she explained that it didn’t feel right without the Christmas music and Christmas aprons. The context of the performance of this folklore is important to her. As a joke, she also mentioned how unhealthy toffee is, so it’s best that it is only eaten once a year.
My mother mentioned that her great grandfather apparently made toffee and candies in Chicago. Although she didn’t have any emotional or personal connection to her great grandfather and his business, she draws a part of her identity from this family history of making toffee.