Appalachian Ingenuity and Red Hot Candy
By Stephanie Burt
From “40 Cooking Hacks That Will Change the Way You Cook” to “14 Clever Cooking Hacks You Need to Try,” ubiquitous lists of tips and tricks fill our social media feeds. They suggest that a “hack” is something new. Don’t believe the lies.
Shortcuts and substitutions long informed thrifty home cooking across cultures. And when it comes to American Appalachian ingenuity, old-fashioned cinnamon red hot candies are a firecracker case in point.
Although I grew up in the middle-South metropolis of Charlotte, North Carolina, my maternal grandmother Madeline Eatman hailed from Rabun County, Georgia, a community deep in the Appalachian mountains. She cooked masterfully with simple ingredients, and her fried pies triggered my most intense childhood cravings.
Madeline made her hand pies with short dough and filled them with apples…and red hot candies. Adding additional sweetness and a cinnamon bite, the candies also turned the filling a tantalizing hot pink. I believed Granny made it just that way, just for me. To discover her “hack” had a long history only impressed me more.
“My awareness is that red hots are one of those synchronistic, serendipitous things,” says Ronni Lundy, author and expert in the foodways of the Appalachian diaspora. “They were probably being used after the 1930s in some capacity, but my awareness of the Appalachian use of red hots really is the 1960s and beyond.
“Most who did it probably thought it was their own secret ingredient, but you start seeing red hots showing up in pickles, apple butter, that kind of thing. It was showy, and since red hots are really a straightforward simple candy, the results actually taste like something you made from scratch, but look like something you made with magic.”
More than likely, red hots initially replaced the more expensive and harder-to-come-by cinnamon sticks or ground cinnamon, but the candies soon became a stand-alone ingredient instead of a substitution.
“I didn’t really know any reason why she did it,” says chef Travis Milton, recalling his great-grandmother’s use of red hots in apple butter. “She just used what she could afford. It gave the normally brown apple butter this bright red color, and I love that creative ingenuity. It was beyond just bringing something to the table. She was trying to make it good.
“There is this huge Appalachian tradition of ingenuity out of subsistence. And red hots are a great example of being adaptable. That is the authentic Appalachian way. It is this thinking on the fly, this resourcefulness and creativity that we are continuing to expound upon.”
Chef Teryi Youngblood saw this resourcefulness at work the first time she tasted red hots while traveling with her family in Georgia. Her mom whipped up the fried pies in the hotel room’s kitchenette as a treat for the family. Youngblood, an Easley, South Carolina, native, still incorporates the candies in her French-inspired cuisine at Passerelle Bistro in Greenville, SC. She considers it a quirky aspect of her culinary culture and shares it whenever she can.
It turns out, red hot have captured the imagination of many noted Southern chefs. Milton incorporates them into everything from pork brines to moonshine; Youngblood prepares red hot apples and a red hot chocolate mocha; North Carolina chef Bill Smith uses them to spike a Tequila Sunrise and an orange sorbet.
However, while these chefs don’t lack inspiration, they sometimes struggle to source the special ingredient itself.
“Red hots are a very seasonal item,” Smith explains. “I finally got a whole case of them, but they were in the little boxes they come in for Valentines. We have to open lots of little boxes to use them.”
Both Milton and Youngblood have found red hots similarly elusive. The candy, once an Appalachian corner store staple, is now closely associated with Christmas and Valentine’s Day. Youngblood offers this pro tip:
“Look for the dollar candy section of your grocery or drug store. If you find the circus peanuts, then you are getting close.”
Bill Smith’s Orange-Red Hot Sorbet
Makes two generous quarts
4 cups of sugar
8 cups of water
Zest of 1 orange
8 cups fresh orange juice
2 cups real Red Hots
Whisk the sugar into the water to mostly dissolve it. Bring to a boil and cook for 5 minutes until it begins to appear shiny. Remove from heat and add the zest.
Cool the syrup, then combine it with the orange juice. Churn in an ice cream maker until firm.
Dump into a large bowl and fold in the Red Hots, distributing them evenly. Place in the freezer for an hour or so to set up.
“In truth, I’ve never measured the red hots.” -Bill Smith, Crook’s Corner
Stephanie Burt grew up on good Southern cooking and lots of books. Her writing has taken her from the haunted halls of old mountain mansions to the white beaches of the West Coast of Florida, but these days, all things culinary fill her plate. Currently based in Charleston, South Carolina, she’s the host of The Southern Fork podcast and a contributor to a wide variety of publications, from The Post and Courier to Zagat.