Birthday and brittle

Papo, Jean and the milk truck

In 1911, Amundsen’s expedition reached the South Pole, Hiram Bingham “discovered” Machu Picchu and the first Indianapolis 500 took off at the Brickyard. That same year in Paradise, Kentucky, Brucie and Coza Dee Smith welcomed a little brother—Michelle’s grandfather, R.T. Smith, born 100 years ago today.

21 years later, R.T. eloped with the daughter of a wealthy neighbor. The young couple started out sharecropping on a few acres in Hopkins County known as “The Switch Place” (as it was near a coal train transfer point), and through hard work wound up with 1,000 acres growing corn, tobacco, soybeans, wheat and cows—lots of cows.

R.T.’s dairy was the subject of a cover story in The Progressive Farmer magazine in the 1950s (an era when “progressive farming” had a different meaning than today). R.T. was always a forward-thinking man, and Michelle often wonders what kind of dairy his would be if still in existence today.

One thing Michelle does know for sure is that Papo (like his daughter and granddaughters) had a fondness for sweets. Michelle thought it would be nice to make something sweet for Papo’s 100th birthday. She chose one of Papo’s favorites, nut brittle. This recipe, adapted from “the Julia Child of Ireland,” Darina Allen, seemed particularly appropriate given R.T.’s Irish heritage—and while not quite as salty as Cheetos dipped in sorghum molasses (another Papo favorite), it was quite sweet and simple to make.



(adapted from Darina Allen’s Forgotten Skills of Cooking)

  • Unflavored oil (e.g., canola or sunflower)
  • 1 c. sugar
  • 3-1/2 TB water
  • 1 c. toasted cashews (or other nuts)

Brush a jelly roll or pizza pan with oil.  Also oil a rubber spatula.

Put sugar and water into a heavy saucepan.  Stir over low to medium heat until sugar is dissolved.  Bring to a boil.  Cook, without stirring, shaking pan occasionally, until sugar is a rich caramel color.  Add nuts, tossing to coat.

Pour the mixture onto the prepared pan.  Spread into an even layer using the oiled spatula.  Allow to cool completely.

Break the candy into pieces, using the tip of a sharp knife if needed.

NOTE:  Next time we make this, we’ll add some vanilla and some salt (preferably fleur de sel).


  1. What a wonderful old picture! I love Jean’s hat and shoes. And what a lovely way to remember your grandfather, both with the cashew brittle and this post. I never knew anyone to dip Cheetos in sorghum. I did have an uncle who put black pepper on his ice cream. Recently at Dudley’s, I had a chocolate sundae with a vinegary salt around the edges. Startling, but very good.

    • Thanks much. Jean is my mom. And, of course, one must have a nice hat for a ride in a truck! I’ve certainly never known anyone else to dip Cheetos in sorghum either, but, like you, I do like sweet/savory combinations.

  2. Libby Bacon

    Love this picture of Jean and her Dad. Jean’s face just shows how much she enjoyed being with her Dad. Check out the hat and the knees. Do you think she was digging in the dirt even at such a young age??? Jean and I share many things alike and Daddy’s girls we were….

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