By Christine Rucker
We haven’t even cleaned the Thanksgiving dishes, and Christmas is fast on our heels. I will know it’s Christmas when the smell of butter and peppermint fills the house each night.
It’s this time of year I feel I’ve married my grandmother. Except my grandmother didn’t know the craft of making Southern butter mints.
My husband Ken Putnam’s mother (Mrs. Putnam) learned to make butter mints from her mother and tried to teach each of her three daughters the art of making them. Only one of her daughters and my husband carry on the tradition. It is difficult to learn. There’s the precise science of the temperature of boiling water, sugar and butter, the amount of humidity in the air, and the temperature outside. It’s also physical.
Mrs. Putnam was a tiny woman. Barely 5 feet tall and frail, with a weak back. That she could pull these mints for hours each day is inspiring. When Ken tells people the story of his mother’s butter mints, it’s always preceded by “the governor of North Carolina would send someone to my parents' house every Christmas to pick up mom’s butter mints for the Christmas table.”
My husband also expounds on how these mints were born in the South. I haven’t told him yet, but I Googled the history of butter mints, and I read, “Thomas Richardson made the melt-in-your-mouth mint in 1893, where it was sold at the counter of a Philadelphia department store.”
But I’ve been married long enough to pick my battles.
There are many recipes out there, made with cream cheese, with milk, confectioners' sugar, heavy cream, mint extract. But they all have water, butter, sugar, and oil of peppermint as common ingredients, and those are the only ingredients in Mrs. Putnam’s butter mints.
If you saw my husband, you would never peg him for this hidden talent. He’s a big guy, so the physical part comes easier. By day, he runs Ken’s Bike Shop, selling bicycles at his shop in Winston-Salem, and by night, he’s buttering his marble slabs and cranking out more candy than Santa’s elves.
Butter-slathered pieces of marble take over every inch of our countertops, and dozens of tins filled with little pieces of heaven will soon stack up. I’ve learned over the years I can take just a few pieces out of each tin for a few days before my husband notices and tapes the lids shut.
The telltale sign of the perfect batch is how they hold tiny air bubbles, not visible to the eyes, but felt on the palate as they melt in your mouth.
As the official taste tester in the house, I get to taste them when they are more like taffy. “Don’t chew them, or they’ll pull your fillings out,” Ken says each time he drops one in my mouth.
I’m sure that’s the line he heard from his mom, but I haven’t lost a filling yet, so I still prefer them warm and chewy.
Of course, the Southern butter mint is not solely a Christmas candy. I heard this at many a Putnam Christmas dinner: “No Southern wedding would be proper without these mints on the dessert table.” But as a hybrid Southern-Yankee kid, I never experienced them growing up.
What is most endearing is the continuing of tradition. Mrs. Putnam has been gone now for over a decade, but I can still hear her asking how many pounds of mints Ken made. I can still see her face as she tastes the ones he brings home for Christmas, inspecting them for the perfect texture and smiling with pride. I can still hear her telling the story of how the governor would send someone to her house to collect the mints for Christmas dinner, and I know now it isn’t a proper Southern Christmas without them.