Chautauqua: Haven for Learning and Culture

My husband and I have become evangelists—for the Chautauqua Institution, a unique and wonderful community in the westernmost county of New York, between Buffalo and Erie, Pa.

It’s a combination of college campus, music festival, writers’ workshop,  arts enclave and summer resort, with a little more than a hint of the religious movement that gave it its start 143 years ago. One person we met called it “summer camp for the adult brain.”

And it’s nestled into a picturesque small town chock full of Victorian-era houses, gardens galore and quiet streets. Walking and biking are the primary means of transport (though shuttle buses are available).

Training for Sunday School teachers

Originally called the Chautauqua Lake Sunday School Assembly, the institution was created in 1874 as a two-week program for Methodist Sunday School teachers. The assembly took place following a revivalist “camp meeting” held annually on the shores of Lake Chautauqua. Founders John Heyl Vincent and Lewis Miller thought religion teachers needed more than revivalist spirit. They brought in speakers on a variety of academic subjects and provided music, art and physical education opportunities. It wasn’t long before the assembly totally eclipsed the revival meeting.

The Chautauqua idea caught on quickly, attracting the general public as well as religious educators. Soon there were numerous “daughter Chautauquas” and traveling Chautauquas throughout the country.

The founders’ vision still drives the institution, which now has a nine-week season every summer, from the end of June to the end of August.

Every week has a theme, and every weekday morning there is a lecture from a nationally known speaker on that theme. Every weekday afternoon there’s a lecture on a related theme in the “interfaith” lecture series. And every evening, six days of the week, there is fabulous entertainment: from the resident Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, from the music school’s orchestra, from the opera program or resident ballet company, or from top-notch visiting artists.

In between there are more lectures, book reviews, movies, discussion groups, recitals, art exhibits, nature walks and other activities – more than any one person can do.

For an additional fee there are three productions by the resident theater company and  a whole catalog of “special studies courses” on a wide variety of topics. There’s a golf course, tennis courts and indoor pool, and a lake with small beaches and boat docks. There are reasonably priced day camp programs for children from 3 to 16.

Religious life at Chautauqua

In deference to its history, Chautauqua provides many avenues for religious expression, including daily Protestant services with visiting clergy in the large amphitheater and a Sunday evening “sacred song service.”

Quite early in Chautauqua’s history, various Protestant denominations began operating guest houses so their congregants could stay at Chautauqua for a reasonable fee. Catholics and Jews weren’t particularly welcome in the early days, but now both groups have residences among the “denominational houses” on the grounds – and a Muslim house is in the discussion phase.

The newest of the denominational houses is the Everett Jewish Life Center, which opened in 2009. My husband and I started staying there for a week at a time in 2014. Last year we learned that they were looking for a new “host couple” and we jumped at the opportunity.

This year we spent 10 weeks at Chautauqua. Our duties included welcoming the guests to the Everett Center’s five guest rooms, shopping for food, preparing and cleaning up from breakfast, helping set up seats for the weekly films and speakers, and general trouble-shooting. Others handled the cleaning and maintenance and the programming.

In return, we got to enjoy almost everything Chautauqua had to offer. We heard incredible speakers, including Dahlia Lithwick, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Lewis Black, Jacques Pepin, E.J. Dionne, Bill Moyers and Stella Rimington, the former head of British intelligence and the model for Judi Dench’s “M”.

We saw fabulous entertainers, including Jay Leno, the Capitol Steps, Garrison Keillor, Sheryl Crow and the Beach Boys.

Visitors can stay at one of the 15 denominational houses with  guest rooms, the beautiful Victorian Athenaeum Hotel or at a rental house, apartment or room. There are also less expensive hotels and cabin communities a few miles away.

A word to the wise: The denominational houses get booked up fast! The Everett center has only a few openings left for 2018. The United Methodist House starts taking reservations October 1 and continues until the rooms are filled. The Catholic House has a lottery: get your application in between November 1 and November 30 and they’ll let you know soon afterwards if you’re “in.”

All of the denominational houses welcome people of all faiths, though some give preferences to church members; some allow you to become an official member of the tribe by paying a small membership fee.

Like any good evangelist, I’m willing to “testify” for Chautauqua! If you have any questions about the program or about the Everett Jewish Life Center, please contact me.

The recipe below is for one of the breakfast casseroles I served to our guests at the Everett center. I got it from It would be a great brunch or potluck dish. Be sure to plan ahead, because the recipe calls for the dish to sit overnight in the refrigerator. You can probably get by with letting it sit just a few hours, but I don’t recommend baking it right after you mix it up; the bread needs a chance to soak up the eggs and milk.


Gefilte Manifesto makes Ashkenazi foods cool

About five years ago I went to a program about sustainable food at Detroit’s Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue and met Jeffrey Yoskowitz, a young man visiting from New York who was about to open a company called the Gefilteria.

He and his partners, Liz Alpern and Jackie Lilinshtein, loved Ashkenazi cuisine – the foods invented, passed one and immortalized by the Jewish communities of Central and Eastern Europe.

In the last 50 years or so, Ashkenazi food has fallen out of favor. Too heavy, people say; too bland, too much fat, too much salt, not enough fresh produce.

Reclaiming gefilte fish

The Gefilteria aimed to reclaim gefilte fish and other typical Ashkenazi Jewish foods for the 21st century. As the founders explain on their website, “Jewish delis were closing. Our grandparents were getting too old to cook. Ashkenazi cuisine was perceived as a thing of the past, if perceived as a cuisine at all. We were friends in our 20s and we heard the call. It felt like something big was at stake. We came together with a fresh approach – to create a culinary laboratory where Ashkenazi stories and culinary wisdom from the Old World could be explored and brought into the New. So, we wrote a manifesto and launched The Gefilteria.”

The “Gefile Manifesto” tells what they’re about – and what they’re not. “Gefilte is not just about your bubbe. It is not about kitsch or a foodie revolution,” says the manifesto. “Gefilte is about serving a dish with pride, not simply out of deference to hollow convention. It is about taking food traditions seriously and reclaiming the glory of Ashkenazi food – what it has been and what it can be.”

The Wall Street Journal raved about the product: “Founders Elizabeth Alpern, Jackie Lilinshtein and Jeffrey Yoskowitz have crafted an elegant terrine-like gefilte from whitefish and pike, topped with a pale-pink layer of salmon and steelhead trout, and blast-frozen to preserve the dish’s delicate texture and flavor. It makes for an attractive and festive plate, all the more so garnished with Gefilteria’s own jewel-toned horseradish, in sweet beet and zesty carrot-citrus varieties.”

Fish and more

Once the trio mastered the art of gefilte fish, which they sold via local stores (you can buy a loaf of Gefilteria Gefilte as part of a “Jewish Food Essentials” gift package available at The Challah Connection), they branched out to pickles, horseradish relish, borscht, black-and-white cookies (a New York staple) and other foods. They’ve developed a thriving catering business and like doing pop-up dinners.

Now Yoskowitz and Alpern have collected 100 Ashkenazi recipes into a beautiful cookbook, The Gefilte Manifesto, named after their founding statement of purpose.

Interspersed with the recipes are short essays by Yoskowitz an Alpern explaining the background of the foods, giving some insight into the food based on their personal experience, or giving some family background about the recipe.

The book deftly combines the old and the new, relying on the Ashkenazi culinary traditions of seasonality and practicality even when introducing a recipe that would probably have shocked the authors’ shtetl forebears (roasted beet and dark chocolate ice cream, anyone?).

There’s a nice section about pickling, and along with the old-time “Classic Sour Dills”  there’s a trendy “Cardamom Pickled Grapes.” Right after the recipes for classic gefilte fish, there’s one for “Smoked Whitefish Gefilte Terrine.” There are instructions for pickling corned beef and pastrami at home. There’s a section on European Jewish breads, with a recipe for bagels and one for challah that includes illustrations showing how to braid the Sabbath loaves.

A recipe for the Jewish New Year

This week, we in the Jewish community are getting ready for Rosh Hashanah, which starts at sundown on Sunday, October 2.

It’s traditional to eat sweet foods as an indication of our wish for a sweet year to come, and to eat fall harvest foods, such as apples.

Here is a lovely recipe from The Gefilte Manifesto which they call “Ruth’s Apple Strudel.” Yoskowitz says it’s identical to the recipe he wrote down as a boy while trailing his grandmother, Ruth, in the kitchen.

To me it isn’t really a strudel, which I think of as very thin pastry spread with a filling, rolled up and baked, then cut into slices. This is more of a thin-crust, rectangular pie, but I know it’s a traditional Jewish dessert because my neighborhood bakery sells something similar. And it looks like a great recipe for the holiday!


Let’s hear it for charoset!

Jews all over the world are getting ready for Passover, which starts this year on the evening of April 22.

As an aside, you may wonder why this holiday, which normally starts betwen late March and mid-April, is so late this year. It has to do with the peculiarities of the Jewish calendar. It’s a lunar calendar, with months of 28 or 29 days. This means that every year, the lunar calendar dates are approximately 11 days earlier than they were the year before on the coinciding Gregorian calendar.

Many Jewish festivals, including Passover, are tied to a particular time of year. It wouldn’t do to have Passover fall in February! So to keep the calendar kosher, so to speak, we periodically insert a “leap month” into it. This happens seven times in 19 years. You have to admire the people who figured this out!

This is a leap month. After the month of Adar in February-March, we had “Second Adar.” This pushes the next month, Nisan, back to where it belongs. The earliest date Passover can start is March 25. The latest is April 25.

As we’re cleaning our houses and shopping for Passover food,  we’re also planning our seders, the ceremonial meals that take place on the first two nights of the eight-day holiday.

The centerpiece of the seder table is the seder plate, which holds the ceremonial foods used in the meal: greens, bitter herbs, a roasted egg, a roasted shankbone, salt water and charoset.

What’s charoset?

What is charoset?

First of all it’s pronounced to rhyme with “Pa HOSE sit,” with a guttural “ch” to start.

It’s a paste made of fruit, nuts, spices and wine and is meant to symbolize the mortar that the ancient Hebrews used to hold together the bricks they made as slaves in Egypt. The word may come from the Hebrew “cheres,” meaning clay. The Passover festival celebrates the Hebrews’ freedom from hundreds of years of captivity in Egypt.

You eat charoset with the bitter herbs during the ceremonial part of the seder, and then as a relish for the festive meal that follows.

There are just about as many versions of charoset as there are countries where Jews have lived.

In America, the most common type of charoset uses chopped or grated apples, chopped nuts, sweet wine and maybe a little cinnamon, because those were the ingredients available to our ancestors in Central and Eastern Europe.

Many, many varieties

Jews in other countries used dates and other dried fruits and honey. Some incorporated oranges and bananas. The only constants seem to be some sort of fruit and some sort of nuts. The mixture should be sweet.

For years I made the standard apples-and-nuts mixture.

Then I got a copy of Gloria Kaufer Greene’s fabulous Jewish Holiday Cookbook – not to be confused with Joan Nathan’s equally fabulous Jewish Holiday Kitchen.  Greene offers recipes for Moroccan-Style Charoset, Israeli-Style Charoset, Turkish-Style Charoset, Sephardic-Style Date Charoset, and Yemenite-Style Charoset. I also have in my recipe stash charoset recipes from Persia, Venice and Surinam.

I like the traditional apple-and-nut charoset, but it’s a little boring. And what do you do with the leftovers? It’s not easy to spread on matzoh because the apples make it runny, and it doesn’t keep more than a few days in the fridge.

So I tried this recipe for Moroccan-Style Charoset, which you can serve in a bowl as a paste or make into little balls. It keeps for weeks in the fridge, which is good because the recipe makes a large amount (you may want to halve it if you’re not serving a horde). My kids loved it; they thought it was candy!

Give this a try, even if you’re not Jewish and getting ready for a seder. It’s a nice dessert, lunchox snack or party item.


Making my grandmother’s rugelach


Margot Kahn is a writer-in-residence with Seattle Arts & Lectures and the author of the biography Horses That Buck: The Story of Champion Bronc Rider Bill Smith. This article originally appeared (on August 17, 2015) on Tablet Magazine, at, the online magazine of Jewish news, ideas, and culture.

My grandmother fled Poland in 1938 when she was 19 years old, bound for Cuba, where she and her mother and sister would spend two years before immigrating to the United States. She didn’t bring much with her from Poland, but she did bring recipes. Whether it was her chopped liver or her blintzes, her gefilte fish (from scratch) or her carrot ring, she brought the flavors of her old home to her new home.

She also baked—desserts from Europe, as well as purely American ones she mastered after she arrived. There were cheesecakes and pound cakes and rum balls to beat the band, but there were five standbys that she made the most: chocolate chip cookies, macaroons, banana cake with chocolate chips, “chocolate bar cake,” and rugelach.

Each of my grandmother’s children and grandchildren had their favorites, and she never wanted to be without someone’s dessert of choice, so she produced in quantity: Her freezer was full of aluminum-foil-wrapped, plastic-bagged baked goods. Whenever she came to visit she would bring a little something. “In case you have company,” she would say, stuffing another bag into our freezer with the rest. It became a nuisance and a joke. We’d open our freezer for a bag of peas, and a few of her frozen Bundt cakes would inevitably topple out. “More bar cake!” we would exclaim, opening another cold, silver package. No matter how well my grandmother’s baked goods had been wrapped, the taste always included a touch of freezer burn. But we still ate them. Her cakes and cookies were always the same, which left us wishing for something different, something new—until she died in 2012, at which point the last of the chocolate bar cake, the last of the cookies, became something rare and beautiful. They sat in my mother’s freezer drawer untouched. No one made fun anymore when a silver brick of baked goods fell out on their foot. These cookies were the last we would ever have made by my grandmother’s hands.

A year after my grandmother’s death, my parents sold their house of 30 years, and my mother realized she could not transport my grandmother’s cookies from one freezer to another. So, we ate the last of them. And then there were no more. Even though we had her recipes, nobody else in the family baked any of her famous desserts. Maybe no one craved chocolate bar cake—we’d eaten enough of it to be satiated for a lifetime. Or maybe nobody wanted to try to fill her shoes.

Trying Grandma’s recipes

But last Mother’s Day, some relatives were coming over for tea. Unlike my grandmother, I didn’t have a stockpile of treats from my freezer to serve. So, I opened her recipe book and made the chocolate bar cake myself. A simple shortbread-type cookie base layered with chocolate chips and a nut topping, it was quick and easy and completely delightful. As I shared the sweet squares with my family, I was struck by how much more delicious they were when they were fresh from the oven, rather than not-so-fresh from the freezer. I made them again, this time swapping out some of the white flour for whole wheat and some of the walnuts for pecans—superb!

Soon after that, I turned the page in my grandmother’s recipe book: banana cake. This recipe called for sour cream, a substance to which my husband has an extreme aversion. But I had a few old bananas, and my 4-year-old son loves anything with chocolate chips. So we got out the bowls and flour, butter, and eggs. My son brought a chair from the dining room and stood next to me at the kitchen counter. He did the scooping. I cracked the eggs. I used low-fat sour cream and coconut sugar instead of refined, but the result was just as moist and flavorful as my grandmother’s cake.

The next two pages I skipped: Chocolate chip cookies are already a standby in our house, and I’ve made them enough times to not need my grandmother’s recipe. Her macaroons I never actually liked, the recipe coming from a can of almond paste popular at the time. But then came the rugelach—a cookie that had grown on me over the years. These were, without a doubt, the most culturally significant and beloved tastes of my grandmother’s fare. What I noticed when I was young was how all the grown-ups reacted to the rugelach: Of all the desserts my grandmother churned out, the rugelach never failed to garner reactions of amazement and something close to rapture. Whatever disagreements the family might have, whatever familial tension in the room, no one ever argued about the rugelach. It was the cookie of peace. As I got older and tasted rugelach from other kitchens and bakeries, I started to realize what a gift my grandmother had. While a store-bought rugelach has little texture or taste, rugelach from my grandmother’s kitchen had the perfect mix of sweet and spice, flake and crunch.

If at first you don’t succeed…

I tried to make rugelach from my grandmother’s recipe once and failed, but after that first attempt, I’d learned a few things about working with dough from my pie-baker friend, Kate. Good rugelach, like a good pie, must be made by hand with a delicate touch. The dough and the filling are of equal importance. The dough must not be overworked, or else it will lose its lightness; the filling should taste divine all on its own, before it is baked into anything. Putting the two together will yield excellent results—if you remember a few key details: When making the dough, the ingredients need to be nice and warm. When rolling the dough out, it should be plenty cold—keeping the balls of dough in the fridge until the exact moment they are needed is key. Whacking the balls down with the end of a rolling pin until they are flat discs makes for a more consistent roll-out with far less handling of the dough. The less handling, the more flake.

Keeping Kate’s suggestions in mind, I tried again to make my grandmother’s rugelach. This time, when I opened my fridge for ingredients, I saw the red plum jam Kate had just made for me. The plums had come from our Japanese plum tree, and they were the sweetest, most delicious plums we’d ever eaten. The resulting jam was heavenly. My grandmother had always preferred apricot jam, but in a pinch she would use whatever she had on hand, which gave me the freedom to do the same. I didn’t have apricot jam in the pantry, so I took the plum. My new skills and the excellent jam matched up beautifully. My rugelach turned out subtle, flaky, and not completely misshapen. They reminded me very much of my grandmother’s rugelach, and yet with my little modifications they became completely my own.

I was the eldest of my grandmother’s six grandchildren, and I spent the most time with her, since we lived close by. While her children often chided her for spending too much time in the kitchen, I never faulted her for it. She took care of me for many years when my mother was single and needed help. Sitting at her kitchen table, she would tell me about her friends, her travels, her memories. When she was very old, she told me more than once that she felt I knew her better than anyone.

Since she died, I have tried to hold on to her by keeping some of her traditions: planting marigolds in the garden, squeezing orange juice fresh in the morning, wrapping my son in towels like a blintz after he bathes, lighting an extra Yahrzeit candle at holidays for those who have no one else to light one for them. And now, baking. I always wanted to record her voice on tape so that I would never forget the sound of it, and so I could play it for my son—but I never did, and my grandmother died when he was just a year old. So, baking isn’t just how I hold on to her; it’s also how I make sure my son gets to know her just a little: I show him how to scoop the flour, baking soda, baking powder. I show him how to mix the wet ingredients into the dry.

Together we have put my grandmother’s recipes back into heavy rotation. This week, my son and I have been eating banana cake for a snack every morning. Last week, I cut chocolate bar cake into thin slices and took it to the neighborhood block party down the street. I packed up a little bag of rugelach for my friend’s 40th birthday, and another to welcome a friend who just moved back to town. With each gesture, my grandmother is with us. This nourishing legacy is what I have left of her, and this is what I will pass on.

This  is Anna Zylberberg’s recipe adapted by Margot Kahn.


The Red Delicious Apple: What went wrong?

When I was young we had only a few variety of apples to choose from at our local markets. There were McIntosh, which I didn’t like because they were soft to the bite, the great big Romes that were good for baking, and, occasionally, Jonathan, Winesap, Northern Spy and Ida Red.

And then there were the Red Delicious and Yellow Delicious, which were ubtquitous, especially the reds. Both were delightfully crunchy and sweet.

Michigan Red Delicious  are still similar to those of my childhood, but somewhere along the line, the Washington Red Delicious, the most common apple in America, went off the rails.

Originally a roundish, mostly golden fruit blushed with red, it became a huge, dark red, almost oblong monstrosity with bitter skin and mushy flesh. Bleah!

The rise of the Red Declicious

In an article in Atlantic from September, 2014, Sarah Yager gives an interesting history of the rise and ongoing fall of the Red Delicious apple, which has dominated apple production in the U.S. for more than 70 years.

Its history starts in 1893, when Stark Brothers’ Nursery in Missouri held a contest to find a replacement for the Ben Davis apple, then the most widely planted variety in the country.

Jesse Hiatt, an Iowa farmer, submitted a new variety of apple that had grown from a mutant seedling in his orchard. He called it the Hawkeye. Clarence Stark, president of the company sponsoring the contest, reportedly took a bite and said, “My, that’s delicious!”

Stark Brothers secured rights to the Hawkeye and changed its name to Stark Delicious. (When the Golden Delicious came out in 1914, the earlier variety was rebranded the Red Delicious.)

Clarence Stark spent a small fortune promoting the new apple, which quickly became a favorite of growers and apple lovers.

In 1923, a chance genetic mutation resulted in apples that reddened earlier and had a deeper, more uniform color. The Gettysburg Times called it “the marvel apple of the age.” Growers began to seek out and cultivate similar mutations.

Shoppers loved the uniform deep red color and sweet taste. Unfortunately, the growers began to prefer apple genes that produced beauty over those that produced good taste. They developed Red Delicious varieties tolerant to being stored in warehouses for up to 12 months. Red Delicious skins grew tough and bitter and the fruit became extra-sugary and mushy.

Washington apparently has the ideal environment for growing the redder and more oblong apples  (which may explain why Michigan Red Delicious apples are still smaller, lighter in color—and tastier).

By the 1980s, Red Delicious accounted for up to 75 percent of Washington State’s apples, where the market was controlled by a few big nurseries.

The fall of the Red Delicious

People bought them, but they didn’t like them. How many thousands of pounds of them were discarded after one bite? The Red Delicious became “the largest compost-maker in the country,” said Timothy Buford, author of Apples of North America.

In the 1990s, new varieties of apples originally developed for overseas markets–such as Gala and Fuji–started becoming popular in America, leaving the Washington growers with a surplus of Red Delicious.

Since then, Red Delicious production has declined by more than 40 percent. By 2003, Red Delicious accounted for only 37 percent of the Washington crop. While it’s still the most common U.S. apple, a greater percentage of the harvest is being shipped abroad. The biggest markets for Red Delicious now are in Southeast Asia.

Despite its decline, many Washington growers think there will always be a market for Red Delicious. Lee Calhoun, an apple historian and retired orchardist in Pittsboro, N.C., disagrees, feeling the Red Delicious is “an apple that has done its duty and is on its way out”–like so many heirloom varieties that preceded it.

Coming soon: What’s the story with all these new apples?

Red Delicious apples are not usually good for cooking, but they work well in the recipe below, especially if you can get the smaller, pinker Red Delicious, not the giant, thick-skinned type. This recipe isn’t that hard to make but it has a real “wow” factor! The recipe comes from the Detroit Free Press, which also has a video showing how to make the dish.


Aunt Helen’s 30-Day Cake

Today’s piece is by veteran journalist Desiree Cooper, who describes herself on her “Detroit Snob” website this way: “As the editor of the alternative newsweekly, the Metro Times, and a columnist with the Detroit Free Press for 11 years, Cooper was well-regarded as a compassionate writer who gave voice to the city’s everyday heroes. ​In 2009, she reinvented herself as a blogger, author and content specialist for non-profit organizations.” (And she has the cutest grandson in the world!)

By way of full-disclosure, she says Aunt Helen has never shared her recipe for 30-Day Cake. Desiree put the recipe together after doing some online research, but she hasn’t tried it yet – after all, it takes 30 days to make!

They weren’t born relatives, but circumstances made them sisters: two African American Air Force brides on the small Japanese island of Kyushu in the late 1950’s.

Back then, Helen Jennings was already the mother of four boys. My mother, Barbara, had been struggling with infertility, but was finally expecting her first child (me!). For my mom, it was a gift from God to find a sister who could help her navigate new motherhood when she was so far away from home.

Even after our families left Japan, we remained close friends. Helen’s family settled outside of Baltimore, Maryland. My parents moved to the Virginia Beach area. All my life, “Aunt Helen” has been my godmother and prayer warrior. I was the little girl she never had, and she was my fairy godmother.

Now 85, she’s never missed my birthday (all 55 of them). In between special occasions, a package from Aunt Helen would often appear on my doorstep with surprise finds at unbelievable prices (eventually she had five boys and became an expert at bargain-hunting).

Christmas brought the best gift

But the best gift came at Christmas. That’s when I’d receive one of Aunt Helen’s special “30-day” cakes chock full of coconut, walnuts, pineapples, raisins and so much love.

The cake was made from a starter that she reused over the years, linking each Christmas to the one before. The outcome was a moist, gourmet cousin of the fruitcake–except Aunt Helen’s cakes never lasted long enough to be re-gifted.

Helen and Barbara’s friendship suffered after my mother’s slowly encroaching Alzheimer’s made it difficult to stay connected. These days, they rarely see each other. My mother has become isolated, and as both couples aged, the five-hour drive between their homes may as well have been 500.

Aunt Helen and I continued to communicate when my mother couldn’t, me trying to fill my mother’s shoes as Aunt Helen’s “sister.”

A tragedy and a reunion

This year, Aunt Helen and her husband, Uncle Ollie, lost their home of nearly 60 years to a fire. Aunt Helen has survived cancer. My mother is slipping further into dementia, making it hard to even stay in contact by phone. So my god-brothers and I decided it was time to bring the sisters together again.

On the day of their surprise reunion in Maryland, Aunt Helen’s mouth flew open and the tears flowed as my mother knelt before her and put her head on her sister’s lap. They’d held hands through young womanhood and through mid-life. Now they were back together to support each other through life’s last journey.

Aunt Helen hopes that she’ll be able to move into her new home in February. I check on her now and then, worried that she will sink into despair while she waits. How do you overcome losing your family home, along with all of your treasures, so late in life?

But that’s not my Aunt Helen. She has taught me so much about faith and sisterhood. Even without the convenience of her own kitchen, Aunt Helen baked and sent us our 30-Day cakes in time for Christmas!

Meet the Candy Man

This piece, by Kim North Shine, is reprinted with permission from Metromode, a monthly e-magazine for Southeast Michigan, originally posted on May 22, 2014. All Photos by David Lewinski Photography.

Walter Blake Knoblock is a grown-up kid in a candy store, his own 21st century version: an online, global, social-media driven start-up he hopes will balloon into other businesses. His model? Monthly subscriptions for treats and snacks delivered to doorsteps everywhere and anywhere.

The first version of his membership-based, online pre-order biz for premium treats is

Knoblock started Bocandy nearly five months ago and just over 100 subscribers are signed up. For $9 a month [now $11, with half-sizes available for $8 – Ed.]  they receive Bocandy’s candy apple red bubble envelope filled with 7-10 candies from around the world.

Knoblock’s newly formed relationship with candy wholesalers in Chicago and New York, means an unexpected treat – roasted seaweed, anyone? – from another continent will be thrown in. subscribers come from metro Detroit, but the bulk are from other states and other countries, he says.

Rekindling childhood memories

Some Bocandy customers are looking for a reunion with the candy of their childhood, often products they left behind when they took jobs in other countries. Some subscribers are candy adventurers who want to break away from America’s M&M, Mars, Hershey monopoly to more exotic or unusual confections. Other Bocandy buyers are gift givers looking for that something different.

“Yesterday I got about five orders: Virginia Beach to Miami to El Paso and Utah,” he says. “Some are organic traffic. Some are Facebook ads…One of my goals is I want people to form a relationship with Bocandy.”

Knoblock’s business is small enough to make that happen. He hears personal stories about pining for tartouche from Lebanon or an Aero bar from the U.K.

He uses a low-tech customer service survey that’s an email with a tracking number and a quick, 300-word welcome appeal to tell why they came to Bocandy. “No wasted trees, and people are more apt to reply to an email rather than a survey that I could have sent with the candy.”

“I’ve had three or four people say they remembered from their childhood one particular hard candy from Holland. People talk about the memories the candy brings back,” he says. “What I want is to make this fun. When it comes down to it what I’m not selling is sugar. In my mind, what I’m selling is an experience. Once a month you get this fun present… a red package, easy to see so you know what it is and when you open it up it gives you something you really can’t get anywhere else.”

Bocandy delivers treats and a cultural hello without the travel: Relleritos from Mexico, Pipp Bars from Iceland, Konpeito from Japan, Hitschler Softi from Germany.

“It’s not sitting down and going to a lecture or whatever, but it’ s a little introduction to something from another culture.”

Knoblock runs Bocandy from his Detroit apartment, where he is website designer and operator, e-sales management, inventory control (don’t eat the merchandise), accountant, packager, marketer, and salesperson. It’s a one-man Willy-Wonka-esque operation with the only nearby river being the Detroit, not one made of chocolate.

The candy idea came to him one day, and he started building the website, writing code, etc. the next.

Everyone loves candy

“I figured it was the easiest market to get into and the easiest thing to sell…You can go into a gas station, grocery store, any retail counter and what do you always see? Candy and cigarettes,” he says.

“I’m not going to sell cigarettes. Candy is the logical thing. It gives people immediate satisfaction,” says Knoblock, who has a sweet tooth and also sees himself as an accomplished snacker. (His discovery of trout jerky has him planning to start by fall.)

He got the business off the ground with a $5,000 grant from Start Garden, an unconventional venture capital fund founded by Rick DeVos and based in Grand Rapids. It invests in more than a hundred ideas a year in small increments. Today, Knoblock goes back with sales to ask a second round of support.

Like one of the world’s most famous candy entrepreneurs, the 25 year-old Knoblock is launching his candy career at a young age. The founder of Hershey’s Chocolate started his candy-making company at age 18.

But lest you think he’s playing catch-up, candy wasn’t the first of Knoblock’s entrepreneurial endeavors.

From comedy to candy

In college he was a standup comedian. He gave that up when he tired of the travel. He then solicited and compiled writings for his Great Lakes Book Project, which was nominated for a Michigan Notable Book in 2013. His foray into publishing gave him the knowledge that bookstores rely on things other than books for sales, and he launched a line of stickers and bookmarks that are sold in 200 stores nationwide.

Early on Knoblock tapped his candy memory bank trips to Mexico, Canada and backpacking from Amsterdam to Sicily  to gather international products for the mail-order company. The Traverse City native went to school in England and Mexico and then closer to home at Hillsdale College and eventually Eastern Michigan.

“In my mind I had candies I wanted in the first few shipments,” he says. “Now I’ve exhausted the ones of my own experience.”

That sent him on a search for candy importers and new product. He found them in Chicago and New York.

“Now I can buy in quantity, and I’m dealing with people who have been doing it for years and years and are importing all these cool candies,” he says. “Every day I learn something more about how to run this business.”

Research is a big part of Knoblock’s days. It’s put him on international calls to candy shops and factories and in possession of factoid fodder for Facebook posts and Tweets.

Did you know World War II soldiers were given Tootsie Rolls with their rations because they held up over time and in all kinds of weather? Or that Oregon can claim the most searches for gluten-free candy; Alabama the most for candy corn? Knoblock has made it his mission to educate his candy lovin’ customers.

Is there a downside to running a candy business? Depends on your point of view.

“Inevitably,” Knoblock says, “I will have leftovers.”

Few people actually make candy, but here’s a very easy recipe you can make at home.