Sometimes, old family recipes come with a surprise or two.

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Betsy and grandmother
Credit: Courtesy of Betsy Cribb

When I think of my grandmother, I see her standing in the narrow kitchen of her beachfront condo, her wispy hair pulled back in an oversized, tortoise claw clip, buttering a piece of toast or chopping chives from the back-porch garden or stirring a simmering pot of something on the stove. At home, she wore a pair of shearling-lined slippers and a thin, sherbet-striped robe. She wasn’t a fussy woman, but her nails were always painted (she had a standing biweekly appointment with Miss Mona); and the only thing I liked more than watching her wrinkled hands at work in the kitchen was curling up next to her on the sofa and letting her run her soft, Bubble Bath-polished fingers through my tangled hair.

Ghee-Ghee was a fantastic cook, and everything, even toast, seemed to taste better when it came from her kitchen. The laminate flooring there was a buttery yellow, designed to look like masonry. As a child, that felt providential: At Ghee-Ghee’s, the yellow brick road led to magic—and not the manufactured smoke-and-mirrors of Oz.

Her hot dog chili was famous across Williamsburg County, South Carolina (she’d volunteered in the concessions stand for her four children’s athletic events), and a staple of our family’s Halloween festivities. Fluffy French toast marked mornings during spring break, and summertime’s thick-cut tomato sandwiches came with a pinch of salt and a sprinkle of sugar. She was constantly experimenting, inspired by things she’d sampled in her world travels or seen on Food Network, and developed in me a taste for mint jelly and roasted red peppers—though not together.

Of all the things Ghee-Ghee made, I loved her fudge best. It was dense and creamy, so piercingly sweet you felt it in your molars. She cut her fudge into tiny, smooth squares, which felt like a personal invitation to sneak a fourth or fifth piece when nobody was looking. If I close my eyes and hold my mouth just so, I can almost taste it still.

About a year after she died, I tried to make her fudge myself, consulting the recipe my mom had copied from her mother’s recipe card into a worn composition book stuffed with family favorites.

When I went to scoop the marshmallow cream from the jar, I spotted a fudge recipe printed on the label. I did a quick scan. Huh. I looked back at my own beloved grandmother’s fudge recipe. Another glance at the jar. And then, standing there in my kitchen, missing Ghee-Ghee and her fudge and lazy afternoons spent curled up together on her sofa, I started giggling.

The recipe I had long assumed was a family treasure—a sacred formula to be kept under lock and key—was actually the one straight off the jar of marshmallow fluff.

Ghee-Ghee always had surprises up her sherbet-striped sleeve.

I forged ahead with my fudge-making, leaving out the walnuts just as she had, and following every step of the directions—the ones in the composition book and the ones on the label—to a T. But despite my very best efforts and some time in the fridge, that fudge wouldn’t even think about firming up.

It might not have been her original recipe, but I'm as sure as ever that the yellow brick road in Ghee-Ghee's kitchen really did lead to a little bit of magic.