Appalachia: The Divine Secrets of Syrup and Sugar

FRED SAUCEMAN (this article was first published on December 14, 2012)

Divinity candy, a souvenir from the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee. Photo by Ejm225, via Wikimedia Commons.

At Christmastime, the young women in Ada Hornsby Earnest’s Home Economics classes at East Tennessee State College took home more than knowledge. For the train trip back home, they packed away cartons of divinity candy, stirred and stiffly beaten by the hands of their experienced teacher, who claimed her foamy formula “never failed.”

“No doubt her recipe has been used hundreds of times across the years by homemakers and home economics teachers throughout the East Tennessee area,” recalls former student and later colleague Carsie Lodter of Johnson City, who kept the tradition of giving divinity to her own students.

Mrs. Earnest taught in one of the original departments, Domestic Science, after having enrolled as a student in the very first year of East Tennessee State Normal School’s existence, 1912. According to an early catalogue, the required course in Home Economics dealt with “the necessities of daily home life, the material and forces with which the housekeeper has to deal.”


Ada Hornsby Earnest. Photo courtesy ETSU.

For Mrs. Earnest, divinity candy was a way to add grandeur and elegance to those necessities, elevating the most accessible of ingredients, water, sugar, syrup, eggs, vanilla, and nuts, to a confection worthy of its churchly name.

The Joy of Cooking warns candy makers that divinity should only be made on a dry day. Kelly Ehlinger of Houston, Texas, says her father, a petroleum engineer, brings a meticulous level of precision and measured control to his candy-making.

“He checked the barometric pressure before starting the humidity-sensitive divinity when we were living on Corpus Christi Bay,” she remembers.  “His job required us to move all over the world and the States, but we could always count on a relative sending us some Texas pecans wherever we were, in time for candy-making. It was one of the special things he did that brought a ‘sameness’ and family tradition to wherever we were.

Jesus Gomez uses keen eyes and fast hands to sort out any pecans that are less than perfect from the 2011 harvest at Arrowhead Farms of Crystal City, Texas. Photo from the USDA, via Wikimedia Commons.

“He has certain pans he uses for the candy. When making Easter dinner, my mother might say, “Let’s put that in the divinity pan.’”

Gurniadean Myers kept the hen population of Morgantown, West Virginia, in business. If she wasn’t bringing divinity to a church or community gathering, then it was custard or a meringue-crowned pie.

“That woman knew her eggs,” says Janeen Bradford of Morgantown. “She was an active lady, manning election boards, attending every committee and woman’s group at church, knowing the scoop on everyone from eight to 80 and often praying for their souls. Gurniadean has been gone to the big Methodist Women’s Society meeting in the sky for many years, but the image of this four-foot, 11-inch wizened little woman carrying a plate of divinity in one hand and Bible tracts in the other still lives in legend and lore up on this hill.”

An old Stuckey’s in Carroll, Texas, I-20 exit. Photo by David, via Wikimedia Commons.

For Al Bowen of Lanesville, Indiana, divinity evokes memories not of hearth and home but of life on the highway.

“We have always used divinity as the excuse for a stop at a Stuckey’s whenever we travel,” he told me. “Especially on I-40 out West, those Indian tourist stops for gas and snacks do help break up the trip. The little puffs of divinity are so melt-in-your-mouth good, it’s hard to control your intake.

“I know these are commercially-made, but the feeling of connecting to the trips we made across the country even back to the 1940s goes a lot deeper than the light chunks of candy. Tasting divinity at one of those odd-roofed huts brings back memories of things like the grandparents’ dog that rode with me in a 1950 Studebaker, and my honeymoon trip out West in 1963. When we stop today, we not only get snacks, we get a chance to peek into our personal family travel history.”

Ada Hornsby Earnest, who died in 1982 at age 96, used to recite “Prayer of a Homemaker” to each one of her home economics classes at East Tennessee State. She did so for the final time in 1963, eight years after she had retired from teaching. The prayer speaks of the homemaker seeking sainthood not by quiet contemplation and study but through the dignity of work, “by getting meals and washing up the plates.”

Folks around East Tennessee who have made her divinity recipe late in December without blemish, fault, or imperfection for years say her prayer was answered.

A four-year old adds sprinkles to candy during the Candy School class at the Harriotte B. Smith library. Participants learned to make caramel, master and divinity candy from scratch. Photo by US Gov employee, via Wikimedia Commons.

Mrs. Earnest’s Never-Fail Divinity

  • 1/3 cup water
  • 1 1/3 cups white sugar
  • 1/3 cup white Karo syrup
  • 1 egg white, stiffly beaten
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • ½ cup chopped nuts, coconut, or candied cherries.  Mrs. Earnest used green and red cherries at Christmastime.  When she used nuts, it was usually pecans or black walnuts.

Cook together the water, sugar, and Karo syrup until it spins a thread.  (Some old candy thermometers have a marking for “Thread,” at around 230 degrees. The “thread” is a very thin, wispy filament that appears when you dip a spoonful of the mixture out of the pan.)

Pour half the syrup over the stiffly beaten egg white, beating all the time. Cook the remaining syrup to the “crack” stage (300 degrees) when tested in cold water.

Continue beating the first mixture while pouring the rest of the syrup into it. When it begins to hold its shape, add vanilla and nuts, coconut, or cherries. Continue beating until it holds its shape well. If it should not hold its shape as desired, add a tablespoon of sifted powdered sugar, or 2 tablespoons, if needed. Drop from teaspoon onto waxed paper.

Store in airtight box when it cools.


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