Oh, Fudge: Life Lessons From Mom’s Kitchen

With Mother’s Day upon us, there’s a good chance that you’ve been thinking about all that your mother (or grandmother or whomever has or had that role in your life) did for you. As my own mother will soon be celebrating her 95th birthday (and still lives on her own at our family home), I find myself ever grateful to still have her in my life…and to have those kind of good genes in my corner. I also count myself lucky to have learned a lot of things from her, including a few good life lessons that came to me by way of the kitchen. Making fudge, to be exact. Maybe you have a similar tale of life lessons acquired in the kitchen?

Mother's Day Fruit Bouquet
If you want to do something special and nutritious for Mom this year, a fruit bouquet is a great project for kids to help with.

Lesson #1: It’s okay to fail…in fact, it’s expected.

The fudge that precipitated all this learning was homemade fudge of course, and I’m not talking about the easy kind of fudge where you melt chocolate chips and stir in marshmallow fluff, etc. Oh no, I’m talking real, old-fashioned cooked fudge made from cocoa and requiring a candy thermometer (we didn’t have one) or skill at discerning proper candy temperature via a dollop of sugar mixture in a cup of cold water. Being all of 12 years old or so, I had no such skill yet, and my mother never hovered over me in the kitchen, so I plunged into the process on my own, armed with a cookbook and my trusty sweet tooth to guide me. I bet you can guess what happened. Yep, I overcooked the fudge. After waiting for it to harden (which it did remarkably quickly!) I tried some of it…hard as a rock. Crumbly, in fact.

My father still offered to eat some of it because he was like that—never minded consuming cookies with burned edges, either. However, I knew that the fudge had been a big fail and I was so sad about it. Not only did I find it inedible, but I felt guilty about wasting the ingredients. I told my mother about it. She wasn’t surprised. Apparently, it’s not easy to make cooked fudge (probably why most modern recipes for fudge look nothing like the old-fashioned recipes)—who knew? Well I did, at that point. Basically, she knew I’d screw it up but she said nothing to warn me, didn’t help me or check on the progress. She just sat back and let me fail…and then learn on my own. I was so relieved that she wasn’t upset, and it made me feel a LOT better to know that according to her, homemade fudge just wasn’t that easy to make—for anyone.

Lesson #2: Try again.

Good old Mom, she wasn’t upset about the wasted fudge ingredients at all, despite the fact that being from a family with eight children, we were always conscious about not wasting food or money. I figured my fudge-making days were done, but no, she simply said “Well, if you have more ingredients, just make it again.” Just start over, try it again, don’t give up. I was game, so I checked the supplies (had plenty of cocoa and sugar still), and started the second batch of fudge. Figuring I now knew what my mistake was, I went through the process including the testing of the candy mixture in the cup of cold water (okay “soft ball stage,” I know what you should look like now!). I had done it this time, I was sure, and fudge would soon be mine. Again I waited for the fudge to harden. And I waited. And waited. And refrigerated it to help it along. And of course, it didn’t harden. I had essentially just made chocolate frosting. It was tasty, but it wasn’t fudge.

Again, my helpful dad swooped in to “help out” by eating a spoonful of the second batch of failed fudge. And again I went to my mother to tell her what happened. She chuckled and came to look at the dish of chocolate frosting that I was trying to will into turning into fudge. At least this was edible, so I saved it in the fridge and tried again. “Try again,” she said. By now I was over it, frankly, and wanted to give up, but she wouldn’t let me. This time she helped me a bit. We used up the remaining ingredients so this batch needed to work. And with her help at the “soft ball stage,” I finally produced my first batch of homemade fudge. Sweet, sweet success!

Lesson #3: Things get messier before they get cleaner.

You might have learned this lesson a different way, by cleaning out your closet or under your bed when you were a kid. I learned this in the kitchen. After three batches of fudge, the kitchen was a disaster. My mother was unfazed. She isn’t known for being a big housekeeper anyway (“Just turn down the lights and have good food and nobody will notice your house is dusty”), so instead of throwing a fit about it, or yelling or sighing pointedly, she just let me clean it up all at the end, by myself. Now, of course, I know better than to let things get too out of hand before restoring order, and have taught my own children the “clean as you go” method. I also know that, in the throes of culinary creation, the kitchen will get messier before it gets cleaner and that’s okay. Kids need to learn to cook and worrying about messes doesn’t help them get there. Messes can be cleaned.

I’ll never forget that epic day of making fudge, and all it taught me. Thanks, Mom, for allowing me to make mistakes, learn from them, and still retain a love for both fudge and cooking in general.