When my grandmother was alive, she would make rum balls every Christmas. Hers were the standard heavyweight confection: Nilla wafer crumbs and pulverized nuts, mixed with cocoa and bound with corn syrup and raw rum, then rolled into truffle-like spheres. They arrived as leaden bundles wrapped in foil, and they were always a cause for celebration, heralding as they did the holiday season, and evoking her other Christmas traditions—the jolly Santa drawn in glass wax on the bay window and the collection of little elf figurines at the center of the table.
But it must be said: they never tasted very good.
Strange, then, that I should decide to replicate them. This winter, as I pushed my cart through the market, accumulating sacks of sugar and bags of navel oranges, vats of marshmallow fluff and cans of evaporated milk, the thought came to me. My building’s super, Gilbert, had given me a bottle of strong rum. And after all, my family is lacking in traditions; shouldn’t I preserve what I could? “Oh, why not?” I said aloud, gaily, to the consternation of the nearby employee stacking bags of flour.
As Jacques Pépin would say, “I deed eet.” Pulverized the cookies and nuts, mixed in cocoa and a dribble of light Karo. Then came the rum. I decided to be lavish with it and poured in several satisfying glugs. My eyes watered from the fumes, but it seemed like in such a case generosity should rule the day. After chilling the mixture, I rolled it into balls—a messy business—and covered them in powdered sugar. The resulting lumps were sullen and unappetizing: just as I remembered. I popped one in my mouth. I gagged, then immediately went to bed.
When I woke up twenty minutes later, I decided to bring a couple to Gilbert. “They’re not for kids,” I said, trying to make a virtue of their potency. He took a bite, then unflatteringly spit it out into his hand. “There’s too much rum in these,” he said flatly. I reluctantly crossed the names of several recovering alcoholics off my gift list.
Maybe they’ll mellow as they age, I thought. It occurred to me that I had effectively created VIP, a fictional product from the Doris Day–Rock Hudson romp Lover Come Back. In that idiotic film, the ad agency promotes a vague miracle product without having any idea what it will be. In the end, they make a mint that gets people drunk really fast and cheaply. This being midcentury America, it’s a smash. So my problem was really one of marketing: if I promoted my rum balls as an edible shot, rather than a terrible cookie, maybe they, too, could change lives. Or, alternatively, I could just present them as lumps of coal—punishment for the naughty.
But just in case that didn’t happen, I’d gotten some glass wax, too, and arranged the elves in the middle of my table. There is nothing to say tradition need be sweet—just repetitive.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.