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.
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.
When Edna wasn't making caramels, she was raising kids. The second-oldest, Carolynn, had a strong head for business—and style—and after graduating from the University of Minnesota with a major in English soon enough found herself a jet-setting corporate district manager for Coach, the leather and fashion company. She moved to California. Eventually, though, she got sick of all that, and decided to reinvent her life. It was then that she felt the calling of candy in her genes.
"When I was a little kid, my fantasy of being an adult was to have a candy dish in every room," Carolynn remembers now. "Growing up, I was really the one that loved caramels, and that sort of became my thing. Then, as an adult, I became sort of disgusted with these caramels that are all around the market. People would hand me these things that were sticky and pale yellow—I like a caramel that is chewy, too, but the overriding taste can't be corn syrup. I totally get it—if you're going to produce massive amounts of caramels and let them sit on shelves forever, you can't do it the way we do it. If you want to extrude caramels through a machine, you can't do it the way we do it. Still, I was like: People need to taste an actual, caramelized caramel!"
So she came home and started calling in favors from her old art and design pals from the U—"I was a studio art minor; if you're a studio art minor you will never lack for good friends or an in-house design team," says Carolynn. Those studio art friends provided the elegant package design and pretty graphics that make Edna's Caramels stand out on the shelves. The company launched last summer. The first months were hard, as Carolynn had arranged to rent commercial kitchen space from an Uptown coffee shop, which meant that she was dragging her 77-year-old mother in to make caramels from nine o'clock at night till two in the morning.
All summer they sold caramels on Saturdays at the Mill City Farmers' Market, and Carolynn worked on getting her little beauties wider distribution. Now Carolynn cooks caramels with her mother once a week or so, and the rest of the time works on bookkeeping, marketing, distribution, and such. Edna's Caramels are now available at a variety of Minnesota stores, including the Premier Cheese Market in Edina, all the Kowalski's markets (except Eden Prairie), the Linden Hills Co-Op, and others. (The caramels usually cost about $14 for an eight-ounce bag, or $3.25 for a four-piece sampler.) This volume is good because, among other things, it allowed the Kimmeses to upgrade to a commercial kitchen where they can work during the day. I spent a morning watching them make their candies.
To make caramel the way Carolynn and Edna do it, you need pots with bottoms and sides as thick as a thumb, professional candy thermometers, lots of butter, lots of brown sugar, condensed milk, a little corn syrup, molasses, vanilla, salt, two wooden spoons, and all the patience in the world. I sat watching the women as they stood side by side for an hour and a half stirring their caramel, stirring their caramel, stirring their caramel, and waiting.
"How you coming there, cookie?" Edna asks Carolynn.
"Looks good!" says Carolynn, stirring.
"My friends always tell me of some disaster they had when they tried to make caramels," says Edna, stirring.
"It's hard to believe you really have to stir it the whole time," says Carolynn. "It's hard to wrap your head around."
Edna nods, stirring.
"I always tell everybody that the hardest part is waiting, waiting, stirring, stirring," says Carolynn.
"It's not mentally taxing, and it's only slightly physically taxing," says Edna.
"Very slightly," says Carolynn.
"Oh my, we've got a way to go."
When the caramel is finally done, they'll pour it from the pots into flat sheets, slice it into bite-sized squares, and wrap each piece in wax paper in Ed King's classic pharmacy fold. The packages they eventually tuck the caramels into all say "handmade," but they don't say that they're handmade by these four hands: the mother, the daughter.
This Saturday, Edna and Carolynn will be at the Mill City Farmers' Market for the season's kick-off, and for the market's big Mother's Day celebration, complete with free, red-leather jewelry cases from Target for moms as long as supplies last (www.millcityfarmersmarket.org). After that, Carolynn will be there every Saturday for the rest of the season, and Edna will be there whenever she can. Joe, Edna's 79-year-old husband and Carolynn's father, will be there early and late to help his sweethearts set up their market table, and to take it down again. "People don't believe it—there's a real Edna?" laughs Edna. "One person said to me, 'I thought you were just a hired model.'"
While Carolynn and Edna Kimmes may not have a hired model, I couldn't help but think that in their easy closeness, with their proud, third-generation Minnesota sweet tooth, with their hand-in-glove support of one another and admiring gazes, they're models nonetheless.