The Home Stretch
The sound of knife blades clicking against stainless steel and the aroma of caramelized sugar fill the air of Seven Winds Kitchen as Jane Gammon and Frances Scruggs prepare a batch of peanut brittle.
|Jane Gammon, left, and her sister, Frances Scruggs, stretch their Bert's Brittle into delicate strips the same way their mother did 50 years ago.|
Working together like choreographed performers, the sisters have just 10 minutes to transform the piping-hot slab of candy into the wafer-thin shards of sweetness that have become a trademark of their Cullman County business. It's a dance they learned from their mother, Berta Dee "Bert" Gammon, who first stretched the bounds of traditional peanut brittle more than a half-century ago.
Jane Gammon shared the story of how her mother borrowed, and then modified, a classic recipe until she perfected what's come to be known as "Bert's Brittle."
"At that time (about 1945), all of the women in the family got together to try new recipes," Gammon said. "A cousin worked for a candy company in Birmingham, and she brought a recipe for peanut brittle. Mother modified the recipe, plus she stretched (the candy) out a bit. They all said she messed the recipe up, but we liked it, and she continued to make peanut brittle that way while we were growing up. That's how we learned."
Nowadays, the sisters sell about 2,500 gallons of "Bert's Brittle" annually, as well as a host of other culinary creations--most of which are based on their mother's original recipes. Working in a 558-square-foot kitchen near Smith Lake in Logan, Ala., the sisters prepare cakes, cookies, pralines, pickles, muffins and more for corporate gift baskets as well as for retail sales in their showroom.
Seven Winds makes deliveries to Birmingham, Tuscaloosa and Montgomery, but the sisters prefer not to ship Bert's Brittle by mail because it's so fragile. "We've had some good results and some bad results," Gammon said. "But I've had people say they didn't care how it got there--they'd lick the crumbs because it was the best peanut brittle they'd ever eaten."
Scruggs said there's no denying that Bert's Brittle tastes good, but it's the candy's thinness that appeals to customers. "It doesn't stick to your teeth," she said. "A lot of people who say they can't eat peanut brittle can eat ours because it is so thin. We have a lot of older customers who are delighted to be able to eat peanut brittle again."
Although the sisters use premium ingredients in their candy--including all-natural salt and Alabama-grown peanuts--it's the "stretching" that makes Bert's Brittle melt in your mouth. Gammon explained that when her mother made her first batch of brittle, the creative cook poured the hot mixture onto a piece of tin that had been torn from a barn roof and pounded flat with a hammer. She then used knives to cut and stretch long strips of candy from the edges of the molten mound--gradually working her way toward the center.
Today, the sisters use much the same technique to make their candy--only they work atop a sheet of stainless steel that's been distressed so it will hold a coating of butter. The result is a translucent treat unlike any peanut brittle most folks have ever seen.
For Gammon and Scruggs, however, Bert's Brittle is more than just a tasty snack. It's their way of preserving an important part of their childhood.
Gammon recalled that her father, W.C. Gammon, operated a country store in Logan for 42 years, and he supplied sugar and peanuts for Berta Dee to make peanut brittle. She would then sell the candy at the store and use the money to buy the girls' Christmas presents.
In later years, Berta Dee worked as a customer service representative for Alfa Insurance Co. in Cullman, where she often shared her crunchy candy with coworkers and policyholders. She also gave plenty away to friends and family members.
"For years, I relied on her to make candy for me when I wanted to give it away," Gammon said. "About 20 years go, I started making it for her when she couldn't do it anymore. Fran and I thought it would fade away, if we didn't learn how to do it."
Armed with their mother's recipe, the sisters began cooking Bert's Brittle in their kitchens in 1984. Like Bert, they gave most of their candy away, until their friends offered to buy it.
Prompted by the increasing demand for Bert's Brittle, Gammon and Scruggs built Seven Winds Kitchen in 1994. The kitchen is located on land once farmed by their paternal grandfather, Joe Gammon, and is just two miles from the farm of their maternal grandfather, Cullman County Farmers Federation Charter Member Elbert Kilgo.
Although Gammon is a skilled brittle maker, she said her mother and sister are the real cooks in the family. "Mother was from the generation of Southern women who (felt) their kitchen was their signature," Gammon said. "She not only knew how to cook, she could make recipes better. Mother and Frances have a knack for looking at a recipe and knowing if they need to add this or take away that. Fran is our research and development department."
Scruggs' research has resulted in the creation of several new products, including spicy cheese wafers she calls "hooies" and candy-coated pecan halves or "gems," which were developed when Scruggs was perfecting her pecan brittle. Meanwhile, Scruggs credits her sister and best friend for coming up with the idea of marketing corporate gift baskets to complement Seven Winds' thriving holiday sales.
"Randy Johnson of Alabama Coal Co. was our first big basket customer," Gammon said. "He ordered 20 baskets, and gave some to executives at Alabama Power Co. We now have three vice presidents at Alabama Power who use us for their Christmas presents."
Seven Winds also made 168 hospitality baskets for the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN) when The Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament opened in Hanceville. That job led the sisters to expand their operation to include catering. Today, Seven Winds caters breakfast and lunch--three to four times a week--for pilgrimage groups that visit the Shrine.
Scruggs, who lives in Tuscaloosa, said her husband's employer, Tucker Motor Co., also has been a loyal customer. In fact, customers in the Tuscaloosa area can arrange to pick up Bert's Brittle and other products at the used car dealership by calling the kitchen's toll free number or by contacting Scruggs directly.
"Our customers treat us like family because we treat them like family," Gammon said. "It's not unusual for us to show up on a Friday afternoon at their doorstep with a dozen muffins. Although we don't make deliveries as much as we used to, we try to make our rounds this time of year just to say 'thank you.'"
In addition to being great cooks, Gammon and Scruggs also are farmers. They raise cucumbers, peppers, blueberries, blackberries and muscadines, and they try to purchase other ingredients for their products from Alabama companies. The sisters buy peanuts from Anderson Peanuts in Goshen, and their pecans come from Louisville Pecan Co., in Barbour County.
Besides Gammon and Scruggs, Seven Winds has eight part-time employees year-round, and as many as a dozen full- and part-time workers during the holiday season. Earlier this year, the sisters were named the Small Business Persons of the Year for Cullman County. They credit the local Chamber of Commerce and North Alabama Tourism Association for helping spread the word about their business.
"We really love what we are doing, but the recognition is kind of overwhelming," Gammon said. "We just appreciate the opportunity to let people know the kind of products we are trying to make."
Scruggs said she would like to build a larger kitchen in 2005 with a large window where tourists could watch the candy-making process. For now, however, the sisters are content knowing their mother's recipes are being enjoyed by another generation.
Berta Dee Gammon, who will be 90 in July, is a patient at a nursing home in Hanceville. Her medical condition, however, has not curbed her interest in her daughters' business. "She doesn't remember a lot of things anymore, but one of the first things she asks me each night when I go see her is, 'How much candy did you make today,'" Gammon said. "It pleases her to see us succeed even more than it pleases us. And Daddy would be delighted to see us using the land to grow things we use in our products."
Seven Winds Kitchen
Seven Winds sells its peanut brittle in litter ($9), half-gallon ($15.50) and gallon ($26) glass jars. The kitchen is located about 10 miles west of I-65 on County Road 222 in Logan, Ala. For more information, call 1-888-597-9997 (toll free), (256) 734-0246 (Logan) or (205) 556-4785 (Tuscaloosa).