This is the first essay Katie shared at our South Madison memoir workshop, written in Fall 2008 about her summer of 1992. With this essay “She had me at hello,” as the saying goes. I’ve been a fan of her work ever since.
By Katie Ravich
After my freshman year in college my brother and I decided to live on Martha’s Vineyard for the summer. My brother, Nick, figured out most of the details, as he had lived there the previous summer. Nick found us a space in a tiny house outside Oak Bluffs with three other college kids there for the summer. All I had to do when I got there was find myself a job.
I walked all around the little tourist towns of Vineyard Haven and Oak Bluffs (the towns I could get to on my bike) going into every shop and asking if they needed help. I was having zero luck in Vineyard Haven at the boutiques and upscale restaurants. The owners took one look at me and it was clear I didn’t have what they needed. There was a great surplus of long-limbed, blonde girls from expensive towns who had retail experience, so what did they need with me?
I had been avoiding Murdick’s Fudge Shop (there were three on Martha’s Vineyard) because basically I hate fudge. Finally, in despair and running out of cash, I went into the one in Vineyard Haven and asked to see the owner.
The owners were a couple from Mackinac Island, Michigan which is apparently the fudge capital of the world and the seat of their fudge dynasty. I was totally unfamiliar with the Midwest—its values, accents, and appearance—as I had grown up on the East Coast. Ruth and Charlie were an extreme stereotype of a Midwestern couple and they baffled me at first. They were completely different from the very East Coast scene that is much of Martha’s Vineyard.
Ruth was round and padded with a tight, short, poodle perm. She wore pantyhose every day and her voice was a soft, apologetic mumble. The most strident thing she said was a very rounded “Oh no.” Charlie was wiry and mostly grunted and gestured toward the items he wanted you to pay attention to.
Much to my youthful dismay, I must have the perfect “look” for a family-run Midwestern fudge business, because they hired me on the spot. I was outfitted with a gingham apron and a lace cap and told I would be working alone at the Oak Bluffs store until the fudge boys reported to the Oak Bluffs location when the season heated up.
According to Ruth and Charlie, fudge can only be made by boys and sold by girls in gingham aprons. Though I hate fudge, the fudge fudge-making process seemed sort of interesting. Part of the Murdick’s experience is watching the product being made, so each store had a team of three fudge boys. The boys would mix the raw ingredients in an impressive copper kettle over a gas flame and stir it with wooden paddles. When the fudge was boiling or in some complicated candy-making stage that I never fully understood, the boys would hoist the copper kettle and pour the contents onto one of three marble slabs in the fudge-making area. Then the fudge was worked for a long time with metal blades until it formed a huge snake in the middle of the table, where it was cooled and sliced. The boys also made various toffee, caramel corn, and nut brittles, which were even more complicated and involved the other two marble slabs.
The Fudge Boy system was a rigid hierarchy. The boys came from summer families who came to the island every year. They had to work their way up through the three Fudge Boy positions. Or not. Apparently some people are never cut out to be First Boy, no matter how long they apprentice. Third Boy only got to stir the pot, deal with already-made fudge, brittles, etc., and clean. Second Boy got to measure ingredients and assist First Boy. First Boy was the only one who could make decisions about when to do what, and was responsible for the look, texture, and taste of the final product.
Somehow the liquid fudge went through a delicate transformation as it was being worked with the metal scrapers on the marble tables. Scott, Oak Bluffs’ First Boy, said he could tell immediately who made what fudge when we would receive different flavors from the two other Fudge Boy teams at the other locations. He was very proud of the attractive shape of his fudge snakes and scorned the inferior product turned out by Charlie’s leering sons, who rotated the First Boy position at the Edgartown store.
No girl had ever been a Fudge Boy. The girls dealt with the customers, packaged and rang up the fudge, and cleaned the non-fudge-making areas. There was one girl, Sarena, who was an island girl and had been with Murdick’s for over five years. She made chocolate candies at the Vineyard Haven store. She would sit in a sort of glass display case, hunched over like a jeweler, crafting fondant flowers to decorate the chocolates while tourists watched from the street. I had no desire to do this kind of work. It seemed like some kind of eye-straining needlepoint or lace-making, fit for a Victorian lady.
After a few devastatingly boring weeks weighing fudge for tourists, I wanted to get in on some part of the fudge making. I was fit to stir a cauldron with a wooden spoon, wasn’t I? One day I asked Ruth if I might take a turn as a Fudge Boy.
Her eyes got huge. She turned scarlet. Her mumble became even more inaudible as she stuttered, “Oh no, no, no, I don’t think so.” I was afraid she was going to have some kind of stroke trying to deal with my revolutionary request. Finally she said, “Oh no, you might burn your fingers, and what would I tell your mother.”
Good God—that was the best she could do? She avoided me after that, and I wasn’t about to repeat my request to monosyllabic Charlie.
I had told Ruth and Charlie that I was willing to stay through September, since I was taking a year off college, but I hung up my lace cap and my gingham apron and walked out of the job in the middle of a shift in late August. I couldn’t take it anymore. I was surprised I lasted that long.
I haven’t been back to the Vineyard to see if Murdick’s is still there. I hate fudge anyway.