Homemade Hard Candy Baskets

Food,Made in America,Traditions
November 24, 2010

Ratliff Candy Co. carries on three-generation candy-making tradition in hills of Tennessee

ratliff-candy-cane-basket-1Mike starts with a coil of peppermint and forms the base of the basket over the bottom of an empty pickle jar.Braided peppermint strips will become the basket handle.The handle is stretched over a circular plastic mold and attached to the base to solidify.Ken spins the candy while Mike shapes the warm peppermint rope.Ken Ratliff and his son, Mike, carry on a sweet family tradition, making candy baskets at Ratliff Candy Co. in Bristol, Tenn.Finished baskets await packaging and shipment across America.
Mark Boughton Photography
Marta W. Aldrich
Marta W. Aldrich
Marta W. Aldrich
Marta W. Aldrich
Marta W. Aldrich
Marta W. Aldrich
Mike starts with a coil of peppermint and forms the base of the basket over the bottom of an empty pickle jar.
Braided peppermint strips will become the basket handle.
The handle is stretched over a circular plastic mold and attached to the base to solidify.
Ken spins the candy while Mike shapes the warm peppermint rope.
Ken Ratliff and his son, Mike, carry on a sweet family tradition, making candy baskets at Ratliff Candy Co. in Bristol, Tenn.
Finished baskets await packaging and shipment across America.
http://pgoaamericanprofile2.files.wordpress.com/2010/11/ratliff-candy-cane-basket-1.jpg

Third-generation candy maker Mike Ratliff, 35, coils a long rope of warm peppermint candy, then shapes the circular confection against the base of an empty one-gallon pickle jar until he creates a three-dimensional basket that looks too pretty to eat.

"Every one of these is a little different because we make them all by hand," he says about the unique baskets that have become the signature product of Ratliff Candy Co. in Bristol, Tenn. (pop. 24,821).

"Each basket has its own personality," chimes in Ken Ratliff, 65, who hand-spins the malleable candy into a uniform roll as fast as his son can shape it.

Timing is everything for the father-son duo, who have about a minute to sculpt an edible basket before the candy cools and solidifies.

"If I work too fast, the candy will be too hot and the basket will fall," says Mike, who stretches the peppermint at 95 degrees.

Adds Ken: "But if you get it too cool, the candy will have hairline cracks when you try to shape it."

After more than half a century, the Ratliffs have mastered the creation of candy cane baskets. They had to. Beginning each September, they have less than four months to produce 7,000 large baskets and 5,000 smaller ones—in both peppermint and wintergreen—for shipment to customers across the United States in time for Christmas.

"These baskets are really our business now," says Ken, who also makes stick candy in other flavors. "There's just not many hand spinners left in America because machines make most stick candy now."

Hand-spun stick candy was the family's primary product when Ken's parents, Lewis and Hattie Ratliff, started the business in 1952 in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Theirs was one of nine candy manufacturers in the Bristol area throughout most of the 20th century.

"The climate and barometric pressure here are perfect for making sugar candy," Ken says. "Candy making is a chemical process, and we have just the right altitude and humidity."

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