Monday, March 11, 2013

A Formidable Woman

My grandmother was a very formidable woman.

My grandmother, in the Virgin Islands, with four of her six children. My mom is on the left, with the braids.

First of all, she was huge. Unlike my Dad's mom, who was wispy and petite and barely reached up to her son's chest, my mother's mother literally loomed over us.  Her ample bosom was supported by long, strong, sturdy arms and legs.  She was thick around the middle, and her face was broad and large, with a pronounced nose and thick, cats-eye glasses.  Although to adults she may have just been tall and statuesque, she such had a commanding physical presence that I, as a child, naturally believed she was a giant.  My recollections of her are full of neck-craning and futile attempts to wrap my arms all the way around her waist when we visited her and my grandfather in their crazy purple house.

She was opinionated, combative and authoritative.  Her voice carried up and down stairs, through doors and walls, berating her children, calling us "heathen Chinese" because my mom wasn't taking us to church, and holding forth in general about how everyone was going about their lives. She communicated mostly by hollering and dramatic sighs of "oy, yoy".  After decades in San Francisco, her lilting West Indian accent was thick and constant and a fundamental part of the air we breathed around her.

She carried herself like a queen.  Outfits festooned with flowers. Brightly colored pantsuits. Always a purse, clasped just so. Standing ramrod straight, unruffled and in charge regardless of the circumstances. I have one particularly vivid memory of a trip to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. My regal, perfectly coiffed, massive grandmother stepped onto the wooden roller coaster car, and rode the entire ride with me in composed silence, as I clung, terrified, to the bar in front, screaming my head off. It was one of the strangest and most thrilling moments of my life.

Me and my grandmother

She taught me to make a quilt, to crochet, to hold my own in an argument, and above all, to be on my toes at all times.

She also made bright pink candy out of coconuts.
How fantastic is that?

Just Like My Grandmother's Coconut Candy

by Sharon Graves
Prep Time: 5 minutes
Cook Time: 15 minutes

This is not her actual recipe, since I was too intimidated to even think to ask before she died.  Instead, I've done my best to recreate it from memory.  I used this as a starting point.
  • 2 c. raw turbinado sugar or regular sugar*
  • 1/2 c. water
  • 2 c. unsweetened coconut flakes**
  • 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
  • generous dash of kosher salt
  • 1/2 tsp. vanilla or almond extract
  • A few drops of food coloring, optional

Set out a large sheet of parchment paper, wax paper or a silicon baking mat on your counter.

Combine sugar and water in a heavy saucepan over high heat. Stir occasionally, until sugar has dissolved, and bring to a boil. Stop stirring, and continue to cook for 5-7 more minutes. Add coconut, stir well, and continue to cook, stirring only once in a while, for another 5 minutes or so. If you have a candy thermometer, you want the temperature to reach 234. If you don't, have a bowl of ice water nearby. Drop in a little of the mixture after 5 minutes. If it keeps its shape and feels like taffy in the water when you touch it, it's done.

Remove from the heat, and add the cinnamon, salt, extract, and food coloring, if using. Stir vigorously for a minute or so, until everything is blended in nicely.

Immediately drop mixture by small spoonfuls onto the prepared paper/mat, forming small mounds. The candy will begin to harden pretty quickly, so don't dilly dally. Allow to cool completely.

I made one batch with the raw sugar

And a bright pink batch, too!

They both tasted like being a kid again.  Crisp, a bit prickly, and slightly tropical, (like a certain West Indian matron after years in San Francisco) they are intensely sweet and incredibly delicious. 

* My grandmother would have used the whitest of white sugar.  When she made these, she'd tint half the mixture bright pink, probably with red dye #2, and leave the other half snowy white. Then, she'd make these fabulous mix and match versions, some with pink bottoms and white middles, and some the other way around. Like I said, the woman was not shy, and she certainly had style.
** I found these at the supermarket in the kosher section, or you can also check at natural food stores.  Fresh coconut would work, too, but honestly, my grandmother wouldn't have bothered.  Too much of a mess.  Oy.


  1. You paint an beautiful, if not imposing picture of your grandmother. Ah food and memory so closely bound. Thanks so much for the read.

    1. You are so welcome! I think that's why I love food and cooking so much - for the memories that come back, and the new memories that I get to make.