It was faint at first then as I trained my ear, a rhythmic slap-slap-slap sound filled the spaces within the noise of the festival. Was someone chopping wood? Curious, I moved quickly towards the direction of the sound. That’s when I spotted her.
Standing in front of a board that was hung about arms’ length above her head, she was wrapping a brown, sticky mixture around a nail that protruded some 6 inches from the board. Each time she folded the mixture over the nail, she slapped it against the board — that was the sound that had caught my attention. I inched closer and watched, fascination spreading over my face. What was she doing?
The crowd around her stall grew larger as more people were drawn to her stall. Using smart phones and digital cameras, they recorded her movements as she stretched, slapped and wrapped the mixture for several more minutes. When she stopped, it had turned from brown to beige. A whiff of peppermint floated through the air as she added a few drops to the mixture and continued to stretch and fold until it glistened. Finally, she took it off the nail and added a few dollops of red that produced vibrant swirls as she stretched and twisted the mixture. Cutting off small pieces, she shaped them into canes and laid them on a small table.
My excitement at seeing the Peppermint Candy Lady, as I started to call her, turned to pride. I had no idea that peppermint candy was ever made from scratch, let alone here in Jamaica. In a country that is often quick to embrace the new, I was thrilled to see someone who was carrying on the tradition.These are the kinds of experiences that, for me, make travel rewarding.
I was to learn something else that night: peppermint candy making was an art that my paternal grandmother had practiced. I never knew my grandmother and as I watched the Peppermint Candy Lady, I imagined, for a moment, that I was watching her.
After she finished and everyone had walked away, I approached. We didn’t get to talk long as Fay, that’s her name, had to set up her booth for the independence celebration that would begin the following day in Kingston. I wanted to watch her again and promised I’d meet her at the festival. I arrived just as she began setting up and we talked as I captured these photos of her at work.
Fay Thomas, 52, learned to make peppermint candy by hand from her great grandmother. She was 13 or 14 when her great grandmother brought her into the business saying she was getting older and needed her learn and eventually take over.
Back then, her grandmother used to turn 12 lbs. of sugar — boiled in two pots — into candy. Now, Fay does 6 lbs. and mostly displays her art at fairs and festivals. It’s a laborious process that she carries on for the love of it; it’s not enough for her to make a living at.
It’s All in the Fingers
The key to making peppermint candy rests in the fingers. Only by manipulating the mixture by hand that you know whether it’s at the right consistency. And that, as can be imagined, takes years to master.
To make the candy, Fay boils the sugar and water down to a syrup then strains it to remove anything extraneous, like rice grains, that sometimes get into sugar. To test whether the syrup is ready, she drops it into water. If shouldn’t be brittle.
Once the syrupy base is ready, she spreads it to cool on a special marble stone that has been washed with lime – everything gets washed in lime prior to use. The stone is the same one her great-grandmother used. While on the stone, Fay deftly scrapes the edges of the base and folds them towards the center so that it doesn’t flow over the edge. Working quickly and with her bare hands to sense when the mixture has reached the right texture, she gathers it into a ball then drapes, slaps, twists, pulls and turns it over the nail until it is a long, shimmery ribbon.
Asked which of her children she thought would succeed her, Fay said it would more than likely be her son, a chef, as her daughter doesn’t like handling the hot mixture. That could explain, at least in part, why there are so few people making peppermint candy from scratch these days.