Most stories try to grab a reader's attention with some sort of hook, or a twist, but in the case of Putnam Pantry on Route 1 in Danvers, the hook is the twist. Or the twist is the hook. Or the twisted hook is the twist... or the hook. Anyway, you get the idea.
For the last 55 years, one family of affectionate confectioners has satiated and ingratiated customers with a heady selection of delectable creams, jellies, nougats, crisps, chewies, patties, fudge, and hand-dipped chocolate cherries. (Few people realize that Galo Putnam Emerson, Putnam Pantry's original founder and 10th generation descendant of General Israel Putnam, was making candy and sweets for almost a decade before introducing Putnam Pantry's celebrated ice-cream smorgasbord.)
However, for a brief three-week period every December, Galo Emerson and company - including wife Jo-Ann and Jo-Ann's daughter Wendy Bryan - break out the peppermint flavoring and get ready to churn out candy canes by the dozen. And this year, for the first time ever, they invited their loyal customers to witness the magic.
The show takes place downstairs, in a series of rooms reminiscent of something Willy Wonka might have designed in Santa's workshop. First, sugar, water, and cream of tartar are combined in a large copper vat and heated to a blistering 317 degrees. Jo-Ann and Wendy chat amicably with customers as they filter in to observe the process, while Galo keeps a sharp eye on any youngsters getting too close to the prepping table or sizzling cauldron of syrup.
As the target temperature approaches, everyone springs into action. Gloves are donned and children are shooed away from the work area. Jo-Ann and Galo muscle the vat off the conical hearth and onto a cart, where they roll it over to the multi-ton marble counter. As the not-quite odorless liquid is poured onto the counter, the naturally cool marble surface wicks away the heat, resulting in a near perfect oval of glimmering amber glass once it finally comes to a stop (a pane o' cane, if you will).
"I wanna eat that right now!" announces Danvers resident Jordan Montero, age 6.
It's a good thing he doesn't though, because while the amorphous substance looks and behaves like refrigerated honey, it maintains a temperature of well over 200 degrees for many minutes to come, as Galo and Jo-Ann scoop and fold it from time to time with metal spatulas to cool it down. Soon a small hunk called the "onion skin" is cut off and given to Wendy, who will retire to the next room and hold it under a heater for a short time. Eventually this section will become the outer layer for the rest of the gooey mass, preventing it from sticking to gloves and workbenches during the final period of preparation.
Once the original plasticine lump has cooled sufficiently, Galo walks it over to the nearby taffy hook and begins to knead it over and over, a process that allows air to permeate its gooey layers while also whitening its still golden hues. Afterwards, more chunks are cut off and given different flavorings - spearmint, wintergreen, peppermint, cinnamon, or even molasses - so that they can be colored and converted into the red, yellow, and green stripes you see in the cane itself.
Next, everything is carried across the hall where Wendy waits at a long table with the onion skin, which is combined with the colored striping and primary mass to create a single colorful glob. Gleaming tubes nearly an inch in diameter are teased from the now inflexible lump through a well rehearsed series of tugs and twists, then snipped to the requisite length before being hand rolled in a metal tray to cool them even further.
A sharp clacking sound lets you know they're almost finished, until finally all that's left is for the "hookers" (insert your own joke here) to bend one end of the cane into an arc and leave it on the tray to fully harden. Eventually these consummated candies will be wrapped in plastic and hung on wires around the store to be sold to eager customers.
Candy with capacity
One can't help but notice that among the finished product no two canes are alike. They all vary in width, height and color distribution, as though custom designed to a hundred different tastes and preferences. They do all share one thing in common, however: Each one is at least twice as large around and a good three inches taller than their wimpy, mass-produced brethren found in grocery stores nationwide.
Perhaps what draws people to the candy cane year after year is its versatility. With ice cream or chocolate - scrumptious though they may be - neither really does anything more than take up space until finally being consumed. The candy cane, however, can be employed in a wide variety of ways.
Cost-conscious consumers may hang one on the tree for a festive and inexpensive ornament, while on-the-go types may prefer to hook one into a belt loop for a portable, stylish, and refreshing mid-day treat. Martha Stewart wannabees love the cane's dual capacity for stirring a cup of tea while simultaneously adding a zesty peppermint tang, while budding Buddy Hacketts extol its comedic virtues in allowing them to give themselves "the hook" with the old cane around the neck bit.
Despite its Yule-biquity, the candy cane still holds a special place in the hearts of young and old alike. As happy customers of all ages file back upstairs with freshly snipped bits of cane already in their hands or mouths, they can't help but remark on the process they have just witnessed.
"How cool was that!" one father exclaims to his children. "Now you know how candy canes are made."