I attended a meeting of the Culinary Historians of Chicago this morning. The speaker was Clara Orban, author of a book on the wines of Illinois. Good program, as usual. Then after the program, the redoubtable Catherine Lambrecht, founder of the Greater Midwest Foodways Alliance and co-founder of Chicago’s iconic LTHForum.com, but also guiding light of Culinary Historians, brought out a collection of brown paper lunch bags. She explained that driving around the Midwest as part of the Greater Midwest Foodways Alliance brings her into contact with a lot of local traditions. This one was from South Dakota.
Inmates are not allowed to get packages from their families, because it’s so hard to control what might be in those packages. Families can send money, but most don’t. So a wide range of churches, Catholic and Protestant, come together each year to put together these lunch bags. Each bag contains peanuts in the shell, hard candies, a candy cane, two handmade Christmas cards, and the official “Christmas Sack Fudge,” a recipe that has Velveeta as its base. There are 3,000 inmates in South Dakota, so 3,000 of these sacks are made each year.
Cathy Lambrecht had gone to the rather considerable trouble (though it’s the sort of trouble she goes to often) to recreate not only the fudge, but the sack with all its contents (though, she explained, since this was just for us to sample, she only gave each of us one piece of the fudge). Nuts and candies were not especially interesting, but I found the handmade cards really touching (it looks as though Cathy had photocopied the hand-drawn originals, but there were two in each of our bags). Remarkable to think of all these people making cards for the inmates. And the fudge, too, is made in the kitchens of the many families that take part in the project.
The fudge was surprisingly tasty. One could not detect the Velveeta, but I suspect the fact that it’s not overly sweet can be attributed to its inclusion. If you’re interested in the recipe, Cathy told us it was included in an article that appeared a few years ago in South Dakota Magazine. Here’s a link to the article, which includes the recipe, as well as more info on this tradition (and comments from grateful prisoners). http://southdakotamagazine.com/sweet-time-fudge
Cheers to the folks of South Dakota who go to the effort of brightening the holidays of those who have little else bright in their lives.