Chelsi let out a breath. With that breath went the stresses, anxieties and worries of the hectic month. Finally, some semblance of normalcy. She though gathering herself this Friday morning. There was just one more program on the docket before she could really break for the next round of programs and activities.
In her oblong green basin she gathered a medium pot, carton of sugar, bag of popcorn bottle of vanilla, wooden stirring rod, and candy thermometer. Filling her small brazier with charcoal and grabbing her hat Chelsi made her way out into the morning. It was early, but the morning was already feeling hot. She positioned her green basin upon her head, thankful the little bit of extra shade.
For the last year, nearly every member of her village had pestered her to teach them to make breads, cakes, and biscuits. To them, this knowledge promised the freedom of poverty, through the sale of these goods. Chelsi, however, easily saw through the thin fog of this promise. A few times she had tried to explain her reason against these activities. ‘Just the capital to get started it immense.’ She would begin with a sigh. ‘First there is the purchase of flour, sugar, baking powders, plus, milk, butter and eggs, all of which are sold at a premium and the latter spoil quickly without proper refrigeration. Then there’s the construction of an oven.’ Here she would reflect on her own half built oven. The work in constructing the fuel effect oven proved to be much for her time and energy. But seeing it every day, sitting unfinished in her chinzanza was an ever present reminder the only program her village had ever been excited about. ‘And even if you get the oven properly constructed, seeing how it is heated with wood or charcoal the temperature will take a while to learn to control, and even so, too hot or too cold the outcome for the baked good would be disastrous. All those precious ingredients would be waste.’ Chelsi could envision all the rolls, cookies, and cakes she had burned, even using her electric, temperature controlled oven. ‘But even with all this uncertainty, let’s say your final product finish the way you expected; what will you do with it then? The only market for these expensive goods would be in town, which is an hour and half long bicycle ride into town, in the sun or the rain. Then if you’re successful getting it there, you have to find someone to buy your cake with in a day or it’ll go off. And given the price of ingredients, labor, and transport, you’re finished product is going to be exponentially more costly than the cake rolls, buns, biscuits and breads already flooding the market in town. Trust me,’ she would finish, ‘this venture would not be profitable.’ But still, the members of her village would be ever asking her ‘when the program for cake making will begin.’
Only one family had heeded her advice; they were ready adopter of all her suggestions. And after hearing her reasoning asked, “So what’s the alternative?” The initial idea for popcorn balls came to her more than a year, and she explained her idea to the Masize family this way; ‘People are already familiar with popcorn. Women on the roads of the outskirts of town sell it, prepopped, 5 kwacha for a small bag. Covering it in sugar adds additional value. The only ingredients required are popcorn, sugar, water, flavoring, all of which are cheap and easily available. None of the ingredients require refrigeration and once finished and properly stored, the popcorn balls are easy to transport and will keep without spoiling for some time. And oh, yeah, and there’s no need to build a blasted oven.’ This initial conversation had taken place some months ago. Every week Chelsi had promised to come and teach them, but having been so bogged down with planning Camp she couldn’t find the time.
“But today’s the day!” she espoused to Daisy, who trotted to the path to the Masize’s house, in front of her.
“Mwaiyi,” Ba Gladys Masize greeted her from the edge of her compound. She was wearing a simple black dress and her white apron.
“Mwane,” Chelsi responded, picking her way across the old maize field.
“Mwabuuka mwane,” old Bamaama Egness, a neighbor and auntie of some kind to Gladys’ husband, greeted her with respect to the morning.
They greeted each other with a quick handshake, and without delay Chelsi asked, “Twakeba kutatula? Najina masugar, ne mathermometer.”
“Eee,” Ba Gladys sounded with some excitement, taking Chelsi’s brazier from her and adding fire to it.
As the fire heated, Chelsi’s two students gathered round on little stools next to a small coffee table under a mango tree. Chelsi removed the supplies from her basin. The women washed their hands; having waited a long time for this day the women were still too excited to engage in any small talk. So Chelsi started in on the lesson.
“Kutatula, twateeka mapopcorns.” She scooped out about a half a cup into the pot on the fire and covered it with the lid. She knew the women were well versed in the popping of popcorn, it was the cooking of the sugar left them mystified. She had tried to explain the details of candy making before; how all lollipops and candies were just sugar, cooked to varying temperatures with added flavor. The response to this revelation was always, ‘Serious?’ That is to say you’re pulling my leg, or ‘I’ll believe it when I see it.’ Chelsi could easily excuse this skepticism; Chelsi herself, had been surprised at her success with candy making them first time she tried nearly ten years ago.
While the popcorn finished popping she filled her pot with the sugar water mixture and did her best to explain the thermometer and how they would use it. “You see, we want to sugar to cook until the inner red line reaches here,” she indicated a small black mark inside the glass tube. “We need it to be about 300F but because this thermometer is old and the gauge has slipped we can’t be looking at the numbers. After we practice a couple times we’ll also start to learn how the sugar looks when it reaches the right temperature.”
Popcorn finished, she eased the sugar water onto the fire. “And we have to be careful, when taking the temperature, that we don’t let the thermometer touch the bottom of the pot. Otherwise all we’re doing is taking the temperature of the fire.” And so, all that was left was to wait and watch.
While they waited the women chattered about what an easy and brilliant idea the popcorn balls were. How well they would sell in town, at the price they should be sold at. They talked about ways to change the flavors of balls, and how they should be colored accordingly; and how children and adults alike a attracted to colorful sweeties. Chelsi stoked their enthusiasm by describing where she saw their business going in a couple of year. “Because you know, if I can come to visit in a few years, travelling around Zambia, I’ll see your popcorn balls, peanut brittles and candied fruits sold everywhere. And when I come to Solwezi, I’ll see everyone wearing t-shirts baring your face saying ‘Ba Gladys’s Candies’’ Chelsi archer hand across her chest, “’Solwezi Zambia!’” Arching her hand around her belly. The women laughed, and so Chelsi continued. “Then upon returning to American, I’ll look around and still everyone will be wearing your t-shirts!” The women nearly fell off their stools with laughter.
Once they’d calmed, Chelsi reminded them to take the temperature of the sugar. It was foaming up in the pot now, a soft caramel color. The red temperature line shot up to just under their desired temperature.
“Alright! Perfect, so this is the time, if we’re going to, to add flavorings.” She tipped the bottle of vanilla gently over the pot. “And a little salt, and vinegar.” The sugar concoction simmered with anger, Chelsi removed the pot from the fire. “This is the part where we have to be really careful. This sugar is hot enough that it can burn you very seriously, but we do have to touch it, and be quick about it. Otherwise it’ll cook and harden in the pot.” Without wasting anymore time she started pouring the sugar over the popcorn, stirring all the while. The two women watched eagerly. When Chelsi was satisfied, she directed Gladys to rub some cooking oil on her hands, “to help keep the sugar from sticking to you and burning your hands,” she explained. Chelsi followed suit. “Now we carefully, but quickly shape the popcorn into balls.” She started picking some of the cooler bits off the top, and pressing it in her palms. Gladys scooped some into her hands, but less carefully and winced a bit in pain. But she powered through, and made her next ball from the cooler kernels on top.
When ten balls sat cooling on the top of the little coffee table, Bamaama Egness exclaim “Kyawama!” Very good indeed! Chelsi thought. The cooling sugar glistened in the sunlight. The shininess of confectionaries had always attracted Chelsi.
“And there you go! Now once they’re cool enough, you can wrap them in oiled paper or plastic, before packing them away. This way, if they’re sitting in the sun, they won’t start sticking together.”
“Twasanta,” Ba Gladys said to Chelsi with a gracious smile.
“No problem, my only regret is that it took so long for us to sit down and find time for it.”
As Chelsi started to clean up her things to go, her friend continued chattering about all the possibilities. Chelsi couldn’t help beaming with pleasure. It’s always the small successes.