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Brenda Gantt’s Sweet Southern Christmas Memories

The social media star shares how both her mother and her mother-in-law influenced her family’s holiday celebrations.

Author and social media star Brenda Gantt; photo courtesy Brenda Gantt

Nothing heralds the coming of the holiday season for me like cooking up a batch of peanut brittle. Long before my family is due for our Christmas meal, I get to work in the kitchen—alone. Alone with Jesus and the memory of my precious mother, who handed down her recipe. I like it that way, since peanut brittle can’t be prepared with the grandchildren underfoot. It’s simply not safe to have them anywhere near the sticky, boiling hot liquid.

I wasn’t allowed in the kitchen while Mama made her peanut brittle until I was a full-grown adult. She added the peanuts to that rolling boil of sugar syrup, stirring and stirring, until it was time to test a drop in a cup of tap water. If the cooled drop tasted hard and crunchy, the mixture was ready. If not, Mama kept up the boil, talking about Jesus all the while, which was Mama’s way.

“When you hear the sound of the peanuts popping,” she’d remind me, “you know you’re getting close.” After a successful taste test, Mama poured the mixture onto a well-buttered pan. “If you don’t butter that pan, you might as well throw it away,” she warned, “because that brittle ain’t never coming off!”

Mama taught me all kinds of things about cooking—things I used to think everybody’s mama had taught them. But a few years ago, there was a big fuss over the biscuits I brought to a “nighttime breakfast” fundraiser at our church. My husband, George, and I and our Sunday school class thought biscuits would be perfect. We served 900 biscuits, not one left!

The whole congregation wanted to know how to make biscuits like mine. They kept on asking until I posted a how-to video on my Facebook page. Would you believe that video was shared two million times? Now I’ve become what they call a “viral sensation,” and let me tell you, nobody’s more surprised than I am! Really, all I do is share wisdom that was passed on to me.

After our son, Dallas, and our daughter, Hannah, were born, George and I decided to alternate between our families for the Christmas gathering. One year, we’d stay in Andalusia with his parents, and the next, we’d travel the three hours to Tuscaloosa to be with mine. George’s mama and mine were as different as night and day, and so was the way they did Christmas. What “MeMama” (as the children called my mother) and “Granny,” my mother-in-law, did have in common was an abiding love for the Lord.

Granny had raised five children—four of them hungry boys. She worked outside the home as well, as a schoolteacher. There was hardly time to make a big to-do in the kitchen, and she wasn’t much for a fancy table, even at Christmastime. But she did go all out with one dessert among the store-bought Christmas candies—her glorious orange slice cake.

George grew up with this holiday confection chock-full of pecans, coconut, sugared dates and orange slice candy, topped off with an orange juice glaze. Granny probably favored the cake because it was practical: She could make it ahead and freeze it, the glaze keeping it fresh. A cup of black coffee and a slice of her cake was simply perfection.

I loved George’s mother so much because she treated me like a daughter. Once, I broke a beautiful crystal bowl that had belonged to her mother. I was heartbroken. “Don’t you worry!” Granny said. “It’s just a bowl.” She was good-hearted like that, with never an unkind word for anyone. And if you admired something in her house, she’d say, “Oh, please take it. I’m tired of dusting that thing!”

She was just as generous about sharing her recipes. When I asked Granny how to make George’s favorite cake, she was more than happy to walk me through it.

Doing Christmas with my mother and daddy, though, was a completely different experience. Mama’s long dining room table was set with red cloth napkins, white china and an elaborate holly berry centerpiece. Her dessert table offered homemade cakes, fudge, date nut balls, divinity and my favorite peanut brittle.

Unlike George’s mother, Mama was kind of secretive about her recipes, especially the cakes. She never told me every ingredient she put in them, and mine have never looked or tasted as good as hers. But how I wish we could have another conversation about Jesus while waiting for our peanut brittle to be ready to pour!

Mama found Jesus’ place in everything she did. I try to imitate that for the folks who enjoy my videos, because I think people come for more than my recipes. “How sweet are your words unto my taste!” says Psalm 119. “Yes, sweeter than honey in my mouth.”

Stirring my peanut brittle syrup on the stove, I ask the Lord to help me to be sweet with my words. When I break the cooled sheet of candy into pieces, I remember that unkind words can break hearts, and I pray never to do that.

Gathered at my house for Christmas, my children and grandchildren find a spiritual legacy on the dessert table: MeMama’s peanut brittle and Granny’s orange slice cake. In this way, I honor these very different but very loving women, and I thank the good Lord for the influence they had on me.

Try Brenda’s Peanut Brittle at home!

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