The Mystery of Aunt Bill's Brown Candy
We humans are in imperfect lot. Most days, nature or fate — if not both — remind us in some way. In publishing Aunt Susan’s iconic recipe for Aunt Bill’s Brown Candy, the cosmic tumblers unleashed a heaping helping of good intentions gone wrong.
I wrote that we’ve been publishing that recipe since 1932, following along with what’s been written by more foremothers of food editing. When several friends asked that I email them the original so they could, perhaps, make it side-by-side with the Molly Wizenberg version I published on Wednesday, I decided to email them more than the recipe. In a fit of good cheer, I decided to track down the original version as we have it in our archives and email the entire pdf so they could see how it appeared in 1932.
In doing so, I found that I’d been perpetrating a fraud passed down over decades relating to Aunt Bill’s Brown Candy. First off, I found the recipe published in 1931. But when I read the accompanying column, it became clear that this was not the first time Aunt Susan had published the recipe.
Our archives are great but searching them is tricky. You can narrow searches to decades but not specific years. Also, the archives are pdfs of microfilm, so you’re not doing actual text searching but searching images. That means if there’s a line-break mid word or if the image is a little distorted, the word will get missed in the search.
For example, I searched the 1920s and got a hit for Dec. 12 1929. But the reference was to clarify something about the recipe, which she’d published the week before on Dec. 7. (Aunt Susan didn’t just write on Wednesdays and she didn’t just write about food. She wrote daily, and took up fashion and advice). While the Dec. 7 publication didn’t show up on my search, I can pinpoint a specific paper. So, I paged through the Dec. 7 edition of The Oklahoman, which included an ad for the new and fashionable invention of the day sliced bread loaves, and found the recipe for Aunt Bill’s Brown Candy. Again, this publication was written in a way that made me feel like it wasn’t her first time to share it.
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