February is Valentine’s Day month, and so a book with a little romance in it is an appropriate choice for this month’s Reading and Refreshments. We chose Louisa May Alcott’s An Old-Fashioned Girl, a heartwarming tale of a sweet, unspoiled country girl, Polly Milton, who comes to visit her friends in the city, bringing sunshine into their wealthy but dull lives.There was so much love in her own home that [Polly] quickly felt the want of it in Fanny’s, and puzzled herself to find out why these people were not kind and patient to one another. She did not try to settle the question, but did her best to love and serve and bear with each, and the goodwill, the gentle heart, the helpful ways and simple manners of our Polly made her dear to everyone, for these virtues, even in a little child, are lovely and attractive. – An Old-Fashioned Girl
When Polly grows up, she returns to the city to earn her own living and help her brother through college. Her efforts to help both the wealthy and the poor around her continue, although Polly soon finds that she may need some help herself in solving that age-old, all-absorbing dilemma: love.. . . Polly returned to the subject from which these little vanities had beguiled her. “Just suppose it is true, that he does ask me, and I say yes! What a stir it would make, and what fun it would be to see the faces of the girls when it came out! . . . I could do so much for all at home—how I should enjoy that!” And Polly let her thoughts revel in the luxurious future her fancy painted. It was a very bright picture, but something seemed amiss with it, for presently she sighed and shook her head, thinking sorrowfully, “Ah, but I don’t love him, and I’m afraid I never can as I ought!” – An Old-Fashioned Girl
But eventually the love and duty towards family, friends, and lovers all come together, in the delightfully “paired-off” conclusion of the novel.. . . intimidated by the threats, denunciations, and complaints showered upon me in consequence of taking the liberty to end a certain story [Little Women] as I liked, I now yield to the amiable desire of giving satisfaction, and, at the risk of outraging all the unities, intend to pair off everybody I can lay my hands on. Occasionally a matrimonial epidemic appears, especially towards spring, devastating society, thinning the ranks of bachelordom, and leaving mothers lamenting for their fairest daughters. That spring the disease broke out with great violence in the Shaw circle, causing paternal heads much bewilderment, as one case after another appeared with alarming rapidity. Fanny, as we have seen, was stricken first, and hardly had she been carried safely through the crisis when Tom returned to swell the list of victims. – An Old-Fashioned Girl
And as candy is also appropriate for Valentine’s day, it seems suitable to record a recipe for molasses candy below, in tribute to the attempts of Polly to teach her friends to make and enjoy candy together—with devastating results.Hoping to propitate her tormentor, Fanny invited Tom to join in the revel, and Polly begged that Maud might sit up and see the fun, so all four descended to the big kitchen, armed with aprons, hammers, spoons, and pans, and Polly assumed command of the forces . . . “Now, put in the nuts,” she said at last, and Tom emptied his plate into the foamy syrup while the others watched with deep interest the mysterious concoction of this well-beloved sweetmeat. “I pour it into the buttered pan, you see, and then it cools, and then we can eat it,” explained Polly, suiting the action to the word. “Why, it’s all full of shells!” exclaimed Maud, peering into the pan. “Oh, thunder! I must have put ’em in by mistake and ate up the meats without thinking,” said Tom, trying to conceal his naughty satisfaction . . . “You did it on purpose, you horrid boy! I’ll never let you have anything to do with my fun ever again!” cried Fan in a passion . . . “Where is the molasses? We’ve used up all there was in the jug,” said Polly good-naturedly, beginning again. – An Old-Fashioned Girl
Hopefully your family’s candy-making party will go more smoothly! If you decide to hold your own “Reading and Refreshments,” please let us know how you liked the book and the candy. You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Look out for the next installment of Reading and Refreshments in March!
Ingredients:¾ cup cooking molasses ½ cup packed brown sugar 1 tablespoon white vinegar 1 ½ teaspoons all-purpose flour, moistened with 2 teaspoons hot water 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, softened ½ teaspoon baking soda ¾ teaspoon vanilla extract 8 oz. chopped walnuts
- Line a baking sheet with a piece of well-buttered tinfoil.
- Bring the molasses, sugar, and vinegar to a boil over medium heat. Cook until the mixture reaches the soft ball stage (a small amount dropped in ice water will be able to be rolled into a pliable ball), or 238°F on a candy thermometer, 4 to 6 minutes.
- Quickly whisk in the flour-and-water paste.
- Continue to cook, without stirring, until the mixture reaches the hard crack stage (a small amount dropped in ice water will form a thin, brittle sheet), or 300°F on a candy thermometer, another 5 to 6 minutes.
- Stir in the butter and baking soda.
- As the mixture foams up, quickly beat in the vanilla and walnuts.
- Immediately scrape the mixture out onto the prepared sheet, using a rubber spatula, and spread out as thinly as possible. (The mixture cools and hardens rapidly.)
- Allow the candy to cool completely and then cut into 1-inch squares with a heavy knife.
- Store on sheets of wax paper in an airtight container in a cool place.
Yield: Approximately 4 dozen candies