Here I am standing outside in the snow, after dark, with my foot braced against that of my friend’s and pulling with all my might on the rope between us. The rope breaks and we stumble backwards, but a quick glance around reveals that none of the surrounding pairs notice us, as they are all concentrating on their own tug of wars. I’m at a taffy pull, a New Years Eve tradition around here.
Homemade taffy is best made in the winter, because cooler temperatures help the tally to stiffen. And it just so happens that New Year’s Eve is the best time for such an activity for the young people. We don’t do NewYears Eve “parties” but the young people often get together because it’s a holiday that few people are working, so you may as well do something fun. Additionally, it is the only time during the year that it is acceptable to arrive home after midnight, so the young folks decide to capitalize upon it.
The taffy requires a dedicated stirring team, as the mixture of sugar and cream must be stirred constantly for an hour or two so that it doesn’t scorch. When the call comes that the taffy is ready, all games are immediately abandoned and there’s a rush for the hand sinks as everyone hurrys to wash up and butter their hands. That’s the funkiest, but most necessary part about taffy-pulling, because if you don’t “grease”’ your hands with real butter, you’ll end up with some bad blisters on your hands. After the taffy reaches 210 degrees, it is poured out onto buttered pans to cool just a bit, but not too long as everything from here on out is all about the speed, if you want the best quality taffy. As soon as the taffy is just barely cool enough to handle, you scoop up a handful of the hot gooey substance and try to quickly form it into a ball before it oozes between your fingers and hits the floor. Then you grab a partner and start to pull! Pulling the taffy not only allows it to cool, but also incorporates air into the candy so that it isn’t a hard chunk of caramel.
It looks like I’ll have to change partners because over in the corner are two inexperienced taffy-pullers making a hilarious mess. There’s a small learning curve to pulling taffy, so we try to make sure that two inexperienced people aren’t paired up, but sometimes we forget who hasn’t pulled before. Your first inclination is to pull the taffy like a tug-of-war style, but that just leaves each person with a wad of taffy in their fists and no rope. You have to hold half of the taffy ball in your upturned palm while your partner pulls a string of it out. At the same time, you reach your left hand towards your partner’s taffy ball and pull a string of it out of their palm. You then twist your strands together and reach for each other’s rope again, so that the taffy makes a giant Z. As the tally is pulled, it gradually changes in color,from a dark caramel to a light tan, almost white. As the color changes, the tally cools and hardens. What at first is a gooey caramel-colored string about to drip on the floor becomes a nearly white rope and inch or two in diameter. That’s where the pulling gets interesting. Most often, the partnering is done with like genders, as you really need a balance in strength and size for optimal pulling. However, dating couples don’t seem to care about the taffy as much as their pulling partner, so there are definitely boy- girl pulling partners that are not size matches. This makes for some amusing incidences, like the girl getting pulled off of her feet. If you are pulling taffy with someone stronger than you, you kinda get pulled
around the room and that taffy gets nowhere at all. I’m not that big of a girl, but I avoid pulling with the “hundred pounds or less” girls because it is a bit awkward to be jerking someone off of their feet... I have learned to brace my left foot against the left foot of my pulling partner to help prevent pulling them around. You really get a workout pulling taffy,utilizing not just your hand strength, but also forearms, biceps and your abdomen. As the taffy hardens, it becomes very difficult to pull. That’s when you start testing the “doneness” of the taffy by tapping the rope against a table top. If a piece cracks off,you are done pulling!
It is very interesting how some folks can get their taffy to harden faster than others. We all receive our taffy balls at the same time, but you’ll have some partners who have that taffy to the white, hard crack stage while others are still struggling with a stringy, caramel colored taffy. If your taffy doesn’t appear to be hardening, you carry the taffy outside and the cold environment really speeds it up. Thereis, inevitably, one wad of taffy at a pull that never does harden. A wad of taffy that doesn’t harden for one set of pullers is often handed off to a couple of husky boys who quickly whip it into shape. However, if the pullers have greased their hands too much with butter, that taffy never will harden. After the taffy reaches the hard-crack stage, you hold the rope over a bowl of powdered sugar and snip the taffy into bite-sized pieces. At the end of the evening, each participant goes home with a little sandwich baggie filled with taffy. Sweet!
As the evening nears midnight, we gather to watch the year end. At the stroke of twelve, there’s a little bit of hollering, and the evening closes with a group prayer for our lives in the New Year. The lesson illustrated at a taffy pull is a very appropriate way to begin the NewYear: Pulling together always yields sweet results!