Sweet Motherhood

Local upstart candy company Edna's Caramels proves parenthood can take you to the most surprising places

Edna's Caramels

Many trite words will be spilled this Mother's Day, and so I offer this bracing alternative: Moms, take a look at those little darlings feeding their dollies around your feet. You know how your heart melts with their every giggle, how you'll rearrange your whole house in order to make the dining-room table a doll hospital? You may be powerless to resist her now, but guess what? You will also be powerless to resist her in 40 years! You know what that looks like?

I do: It looks like Edna Kimmes, age 77, blue eyes sparkling, hair as fair as snow, stirring molten caramel over a hot stove hour after hour after hour. Edna does it because her daughter, 48-year-old Carolynn Kimmes, asked her to, to help her get her new caramel company off the ground. "She told me she'll do this till she's 80, and that's it," Carolynn Kimmes tells me when I go to watch this very Minnesotan mom and daughter make their remarkable caramels.

Mother and child reunion: The caramel-making team of Edna and Carolynn Kimmes
Bill Kelley
Mother and child reunion: The caramel-making team of Edna and Carolynn Kimmes

I first tasted these caramels a few months ago, after blundering upon a bag at a Minneapolis market. I can't say I've thought too much about caramels over the years. I like caramel sauce, caramel apples, caramel layers in chocolate cakes, but all-by-themselves, wrapped-up caramels? Usually they taste fine to me—fine, but not good: They're always a little too sweet, a little too gummy and artificial-tasting, and that's all. I'm not a taffy person, not a lollipop person, and, I assumed, not a caramel person. Wrong!

These caramels are the old-fashioned, farmhouse-domestic version, made with lots of butter and brown sugar, and cooked hot and long until they turn a color dark as mahogany. They taste pure, sweet, buttery, deep, rich, and big, and when you eat one a sort of weight is left in your mouth that makes it seem like you've been eating caramels all day. Because they are made with so many real ingredients, Edna's caramels have to be treated like real food—eaten within a few weeks of their making or refrigerated. This is in stark contrast to their mass-market cousins, which often try to approximate the taste of real, old-fashioned butter-and-sugar caramel by, say, combining artificial butter-flavoring ingredients like lipolyzed butterfat with caramel color. Yuck. But with Edna's caramels: Yum! Still, as much as I am a connoisseur of Minnesota candies, I am even more a connoisseur of Minnesota stories, and Edna's Caramels might just be the most authentically Minnesotan object this side of Babe the Blue Ox's lefse iron. Get this:

Once upon a time, Edna King was the youngest of five daughters of Hastings pharmacist Ed King and his wife Nettie. The other girls had the perfect prewar names of Gloria, Virginia, Mary-Catherine, and Marge. The Kings were a candy family. In the 1930s and '40s Nettie King was famous among the neighborhood kids in Hastings for her popcorn balls—children would smell the popcorn popping and race up sidewalks in the close-knit river town. Ed King was famous among the neighborhood kids as the tall, clockwork figure who would walk back and forth from his house to the town pharmacies several times a day, and he was famous among his daughters for, among other things, his way with sweets.

"He could open up a box of candy with cellophane so it looked as if it had never been touched," remembers Edna. "And he would slip a 10- or 20-dollar bill in there, which was quite a lot of money at the time. We never knew how he did it, he must have had a sharp jackknife or something, but I can say we never looked at a box of candy quite the same way other kids did."

Edna nursed hopes of becoming a farmer's wife, and when she started dating Joe Kimmes it looked like she would get her wish, as his father had been crushed by a bull and young Joe was running his family farm. He went off to fight in Korea, however, and by the time he came back and they married, the farm was no longer in the picture. Instead, they moved to south Minneapolis and opened a laundromat on 38th Street and Minnehaha Avenue. Edna carried forward her mother's candy-making legacy. First she made fudge. Then the family bought a new stove from Northern States Power, and, if you can believe it, representatives from the power company came over to show her how to use it, and subsequently provided her with special candy recipes.

Edna focused her candy-making efforts on taffy for many years—the kids would make it during the day, and then wait for their father to come home to add the final muscle necessary for taffy pulling. Then, Edna turned her attention to caramels, a notoriously tricky confection prone to burning, scorching, breaking, and otherwise rendering a homemaker's life difficult. After perfecting her caramels, she taught herself to cut them into bite-sized bits and wrap them in wax paper. As a pharmacist's daughter might, she used the same fold her father used to enclose drug powders and such; it was a sort of fold that has extra material doubled up together, to keep the contents safe.

Next Page »