Sara Kirschenbaum
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Posted Thursday, Apr 14th, 2011 at 11:54am

Sweet Phoenix

For someone who had been gravely burned as a child, my mom sure is reckless around fire. Last month I was visiting her in NYC where she and my dad still live in the apartment I grew up in. In the tiny hallway of a kitchen she turned on the broiler to cook fish for dinner. I came around the corner just as the broiler lit: there was an explosive boom, the broiler door flew open and orange flames shot out.

“Mom!” I screamed. “The oven just exploded!”

Busy playing solitaire on the dinner room table my Mom replied, “Oh it always does that when it lights.”

My mom was burned by a fire on a boat when she was eleven-years-old. Her thirteen-year-old brother was also burned and died two months later of his injuries. She stayed in the hospital for 6 months and had 25 skin graft surgeries. Her hands and legs were especially badly burned.

Then, ten years later when she and her infant son (my brother) were staying at her parents’ house on their island in Connecticut, the house caught on fire because of faulty wiring. She got my brother out no problem but keeping the cats and dogs out of the burning building was another matter. She kept running back in to get them out. On the way out she’d pull out some of the house’s fantastic belongings. The house had belonged to one of the nineteen century’s greatest zoologists and was filled with stuffed birds, dried crustaceans and ancient furniture. She succeed in hauling some of the furniture out of the burning building but to her dismay, neighbors from other islands and from the mainland who had gathered by boat to watch the fire, were stealing the furniture, putting it in their boats and sailing away. She was furious when she heard one man in a dinghy tell his young son to run in to the burning house and take what he could. She stopped to tell him that that was not acceptable. The house burned to the ground leaving only the stone foundation and a magnificent 11-ft. wide fireplace which was incorporated into the design of a new house.

Making lollipops wasn’t deadly, but we did always get burned.

To make lollipops in the Kirschenbaum house, you had to go shopping for parts. We lived in lower Manhattan where Chinatown pushes its back against Wall Street and City Hall. The apartment building is built on the debris from the famous Five Points region where rival gangs slaughtered each other in the movie Gangs of New York and where the real life ghetto was so crime-ridden that the whole thing needed to be bulldozed in 1890, making room, eventually, for my future apartment building and a city park.

Shopping for lollipop parts was interesting in lower Manhattan because it’s not much of a residential neighborhood. We’d go to the hardware store for lollipop handles. Clothes pins were one of our favorites as were pencils and screwdrivers. Then we’d go looking for edible decorations. At a candy store on Chamber’s street we’d buy red or green swirled peppermint candies, spicy heart shaped red hots, dusty colored valentine message hearts, and sour gummy yellow lemon wedges. My favorite candy to buy was the cut rock candy. On its cut ends were revealed sugary designs of flowers, watermelon, cherries, or even a butterfly, all made out of colored sugar.

Mom and I would carry our haul back to the apartment and get the sugar boiling in the bottom of the pressure cooker. On the side of the sturdy metal pot we would clip the marvelously delicate blown-glass sugar thermometer that was about the size and shape of a hotdog. We would submerse its little mercury nipple in the sugar water, turn on the heat, and watch its thin silver tongue rise up through the numbers as the sugar got hotter. While it was rising, mom would lay out the crinkly squares of tinfoil on every available counter space in the tiny apartment kitchen, sometime spilling out onto the rickety dining room table. I’d stake my claims to several sheets of the aluminum foil. It was fun to have a friend over but then I’d get to make fewer lollipops. On the foil I claimed as mine, I would begin laying out the design for the lollipop: first would go the handle; the clothes pins or whatever I was using that time. Then I would drop the candy on the noisy foil. I’d make designs and sometimes faces out of the candies. It was tempting to use licorice for hair or candy corn for eyes but they would always melt in the blistering hot sugar. Sometimes I’d drop a pinch of sprinkles onto the tin foil, making the sound of a tiny rain. The colored sprinkles would usually melt but they would still add some grains of color to the clear sugar. We’d usually flavor the sugar: peppermint or almond or rose.

The sugar and water would begin to boil and burp. On the thermometer, along with the degrees were the words “soft ball,” “hard ball,” “soft crack,” and “hard crack.” And you could always check to see just how hot your sugar was by dropping a spoonful into cold water and seeing how hard the dollop became. It was the secret language of hot sugar.

When the sugar reached 300 degrees, “hard crack,” my mom would hold up the heavy pot in her scared hands and pour the sugar right onto the tinfoil and smother my lollipop handle and candies in clear viscous sugar. The puddle would curl around the top of the handle and my mom would direct streams of sugar over the handle to make sure it was strong. These unruly puddles of sugar would spread out in uneven shapes sometimes as big as eight or nine inches in diameter. The faces features would slide and the circles of candy would shift.

After all the lollipop parts were submerged in their lagoons of sugar, it became a waiting game: could you wait long enough for it to cool and harden so you could pull the lollipop off the tinfoil without burning your fingers.

Then came the moment. The sugar was cool and hard enough that I could pull up the clothespin hoping it would hold. I would peel off the tinfoil off the back like the most satisfying sunburn. The sugar would have hardened in the contours of the crinkled foil and have an angular, almost cubist, surface on the back of the lollipop. I would lift my paddle of a lollipop, sucking the sharp edge and licking the stuck candies, unable to get enough of the super sweetness into my mouth.


  1. christina Wrote on Thursday, Apr 14th, 2011 at 9:57pm

    Sara, I love this! This wasn't one of the ones you sent me. I really like it and could see it worked into a longer piece too. I'm so jealous that you got to make lolipops as a child, it seems so magical.

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