While Lebanon County, Pennsylvania’s best-known contribution to the culinary scene is arguably its bologna, another lesser-known delicacy also hails from the same location. If you’ve never heard of opera fudge, this candy is a hidden gem best known to the lucky few in central Pennsylvania.
Oddly enough, the opera fudge is neither a fudge, nor does it have any established connection with the opera. These are small pieces of deliciously smooth and creamy fondant coated in chocolate. Some say opera fudge dates back to when it was considered un-feminine to be seen chewing in public, which isn’t a problem with this melt-in-your-mouth candy. Others attribute the candy’s name to a bygone era when local operas weren’t heated, so opera fudge – which melts quickly in hot weather – made a perfect winter snack while attending a performance.
With nearly 60 years of experience, the Lebanese Van Winkle family is one of the most well-known providers of homemade opera fudge. From its founding as a ‘mom and pop operation’ to the 28,000 pounds a year produced these days, Van Winkle’s Candies is leading the way for the production of this special treat in the epicenter of opera country. fudge.
It all started in 1962 when Nancy Van Winkle was looking for a way to become a stay-at-home mom while also generating income for the household. She turned to her friend and neighbor, Catherine Bowman, who occupied the other half of the same duplex on Guilford Street in northern Lebanon. Catherine had an opera fudge recipe from their mutual friend, Irene Eberly, and taught Nancy how to prepare it.
After some trial and error, Nancy perfected her technique and started making opera fudge for family and friends. Her husband, Fred Van Winkle, would assist her after a day’s work at the nearby Lebanon Steel Foundry. Their product developed a local audience, and in the early 1980s they were licensed to practice from the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.
In addition to taking orders from their homes, the Van Winkles began handing out opera fudge to several small local stores, such as the old Grimes grocery store just two blocks from their home, as well as the Southwest Corner. Store, located in southern Lebanon. The Van Winkles also began hiring several friends and neighbors to help them with the labor-intensive opera fudge making process.
A sweet tradition
Making opera fudge only requires five ingredients: sugar, cream, butter, and flavoring, plus unsweetened chocolate to coat each piece. The first four ingredients are cooked together, taking about half an hour per batch of fondant, using eight kettles on two standard stoves. The cooked mixture is then poured into large cake pan shaped containers to cool. After cooling, the mixture is transferred to larger saucepans, where it is stirred until its texture changes. There’s an art to this step: under-stirring results in a grainy sugar texture, while over-stirring results in a watery mixture.
The smooth filling is hand rolled into bite-sized balls and refrigerated again before dipping each ball into melted chocolate using a cake tester. After further cooling, the opera fudge is placed in boxes, which are then wrapped in transparent cellophane.
Van Winkle’s original flavors were peanut butter, as well as vanilla, which is still called âplainâ. They then expanded their flavor options to include coconut, chocolate, peppermint, and finally Nancy’s favorite strawberry. The candies were – and still are – sold in 7- and 14-ounce cans for individual flavors or in assorted 14-ounce packaging.
Fourteen ounces may seem like a downsizing of the typical one-pound candy boxes; However, Nancy and Fred’s son Kirk, who got involved in the business after graduating from college in 1987, explains otherwise. He notes that his mother was so concerned with weighing candy that she felt more comfortable selling 14-ounce cans that weighed a little more, rather than risking underweight cans.
Nancy and Fred Van Winkle died within days of each other in February 2019. Kirk, who had gradually taken on more of the operation of the business as his parents grew older, feels lucky to have the services of a dozen of loyal and long-standing employees. , many of whom live nearby. Kirk is proud to note that, even during the current tough times to hire, Van Winkle’s never had to advertise when there was a position. Typically, one of the existing staff will have a friend or relative to recommend.
Kirk praises his dedicated staff, led since 1999 by his neighbor Louise Battistelli. He notes, âThese people – everyone here is so awesome. They are as concerned with doing everything right as I am. The dedication of the employees reflects their years of experience and provides integrated quality control. Continuous and good-natured jokes can be heard between the workers, who clearly love their jobs and each other.
Kirk also never had to advertise their product, as the rich flavor of Van Winkle’s opera fudge and word of mouth attracts many customers. Even their manufacturing location – the same duplex Kirk grew up in, plus the addition of the attached house that once belonged to Catherine Bowman – barely gets publicized in her residential neighborhood. Keen-eyed passers-by will notice a small sign in the front window proclaiming “Homemade Opera Fudge by N. Van Winkle”
The company’s only customer contact is a small basket full of free ballpoint pens and 2022 pocket calendars with Van Winkle’s contact details. âWe’re very low-tech,â Kirk says, noting that they don’t have a website. They also do not accept credit or debit cards, only accepting payment by cash or check. While Kirk recognizes that there is sufficient demand to grow his business, it’s not in the cards. He doesn’t want to mechanize to increase production because, as he says, âwhat I love about this business is the peopleâ and he wouldn’t want to lose that personal touch.
In fact, it’s often Kirk himself who drives his old Ford Focus to deliver orders to stores that lack opera fudge. Further deliveries are made by several of its employees who live near outlets selling Van Winkle candies. Due to excessive delays in mailings last Christmas, 2021 is the first holiday season Van Winkle’s will not ship orders; they will resume shipping after January 1st. Business has also been affected by delays in supply lines for some ingredients lately.
Since making opera fudge requires cool conditions, Van Winkle’s typically only operates between Labor Day and Remembrance Day, using seven or eight fridges and freezers, as well as shelves on an enclosed porch. to provide cooling capacity. The time between Thanksgiving and Christmas is so busy that the amount of opera fudge sold is almost equal to the total amount made the rest of the season. “These are long days,” Kirk says, noting that they start at 5 a.m. and usually end around 6 p.m. He calls his wife Dawn “a fudge opera widow” during the holidays. Nonetheless, he said, âWe are happy with what we have. I love to do this. Its customers are obviously also satisfied.
Van Winkle’s opera fudge can be found at small Lebanon County stores like Blouch’s Mini-Market, Zweier’s, Laudermilch’s Meats, and Smith’s Candies. Lancaster County customers can visit Stauffer’s of Kissel Hill, while Karns Foods and Pronio’s Market serve Dauphin County.