Virgil Jamison knew teaberry when he smelled it.
“What do you think I came back here for?” said the 96-year-old elder statesman of the Jamison family, which has farmed the foothills of Southwest Roanoke County for nearly 145 years.
On this cool fall morning, though, nobody was picking apples or peaches. The Jamisons were bringing in the candy crop. The sweet and spicy aromas of candy-making drew Grandpa Jamison to the back of the farm market shop, where a small group of workers, mostly members of the Jamison family, gathered to make hard candy, one of the biggest sellers this time of year. The Jamisons have made hard candy since at least the late 1960s, starting when Grandma Esther, Virgil’s late wife, cooked up batches of rock-hard sweets around her kitchen table.
From mid-fall right up until the holiday season, the Jamisons will make 6,000 pounds of hard candy. That works out to about 600,000 pieces of orange, lemon, cinnamon, clove, teaberry and about a dozen more flavors of candy, all of it made in the shop’s kitchen.
“Each piece, hand-cut just for you!” joked Angie Jamison, who, as it turns out, wasn’t really exaggerating. All the pieces are cut by scissors-wielding women in a process as seamlessly choreographed as couples dancing a reel.
The crew of five, headed by the husband-and-wife team of Dennis and Jennifer Jamison, can make a batch of candy every seven minutes. Twice a week, they work from 8 a.m. until about 3:15 p.m., taking a half-hour lunch break, as they make 400 pounds of candy each day.
Hard candy is a staple around the holidays, a sweet and sour throwback to days when finding candy in a stocking might have been the biggest treat at Christmas. Families still buy candy by the basketful from the Jamisons.
The recipe is pretty simple. Each batch consists of 2 ½ pounds of corn syrup, 5 pounds of sugar and 1 ½ cups of water. Yes, that’s a lot of sugar and sweet stuff. Look, they’re making candy, not homemade tofu.
In fact, the Jamisons buy sugar by the pallet-full each year. In some places, that kind of bulk purchase of sugar might prompt federal lawmen to scour the countryside in search of copper kettles and moonshiners. But the Jamisons, devout German Baptist Brethren, are just farmers and candymakers.
“They take our word for it,” Jennifer said.
The ingredients are boiled in a pot atop a gas stove until the concoction reaches a temperature of 300 degrees. The crew keeps three or four pots going at a time, so each comes off one after the other. When a pot is ready, Dennis dumps the sticky goo onto a chilled marble slab, which is cooled by ice water fed through tubes, and then spreads the clear taffy-like candy base into a large rectangle. Jennifer adds flavoring and coloring from pre-measured test tubes. The shop is as much a candy lab as it is a candy kitchen.
The scent of each flavoring rises from the goo — the piercing cloves, sweet butter, the aromatic citric acid of the orange.
Grandma Esther used an old-fashioned candy thermometer, but today the Jamisons have a digital thermometer that beeps at the right time, which means workers don’t have to watch the mercury rise.
Dennis uses a putty knife to stir the fast-cooling candy, swirling it in figure-eight patterns and then mounding it into a gelatinous lump that tips the scales at about 7 ¼ pounds.
“Sometimes, when the second-graders from Oak Grove Elementary come watch us work, they say, ‘it looks like slime!’ ” said Jennifer. Sweet, edible slime, though.
As precise as a butcher, Dennis slices the lump of candy into four pieces and tosses the steak-sized hunks onto a long table dusted with powdered sugar, which will make the candy less sticky. He walks around the table and uses a large pair of scissors to cut each hunk into about a dozen strips. He is trailed by the women workers: Jennifer, Angie (who is married to Dennis’ brother, Sheldon), Denise Hubbard and Brenna Strike — each wearing long candy-colored dresses of blue and green covered with white aprons, their heads capped with small bonnets tied under the chin, their feet laced into running shoes that make standing on the concrete floor for hours more bearable. They cut the strips into bite-sized pieces, their own scissors snipping rhythmically like dancers’ taps.
The team works quickly, eyeballing the size of the pieces and cutting before the candy hardens. The pieces are rolled and separated atop the powdered sugar-covered table, then dumped into a bin, glistening like precious jewels or Christmas ornaments.
The candy is bagged and weighed; then each 1-pound bag is affixed with a label that bears the family’s logo, an etching of the old water wheel that used to stand on the property.
Cinnamon is the most popular flavor, Dennis said. The family also sells bags of mixed flavors and includes candy in Christmas baskets.
Dennis remembered making candy with his grandmother when he was a boy. In fact, they used to make candy in the shape of pacifiers to give to children.
“Times have changed,” he said.
Mostly, Dennis worked outside in the orchard as a teenager. He used to ride in the truck with his grandfather and great-uncle when they delivered produce door to door to customers. Now 52, distinguished by his thick gray hair and beard, he carries on the family’s tradition of farming and candy-making.
The Jamisons also make chocolates and other kinds of candies during the holidays, in addition to breads and baked goods. All the items are for sale year-round in their farm market, which sits on the edge of the 140-acre property, with about 25 of those acres still in peaches, apples and other crops. The farm lies barely a mile from busy Electric Road, near the Oak Grove suburb of Roanoke County.
On a recent candy-making morning, not only did Grandpa Jamison come to the shop to sample the product, little Taylon Jamison, age 21 months, Dennis and Jennifer’s grandson, sucked on a couple of pieces of candy when it was still in the warm, soft stage.