I went back to my beloved Kentucky home this weekend, for the first time since December. I was there for a family friend’s wedding, and for Father’s Day, and spent a glorious 72 hours eating doughnuts and barbecue, hitting up my favorite bookstore, dancing in a garden, and doing yoga and watching John Oliver and laughing so hard I cried with four-fifths of my immediate family (my sister, sadly, was stuck in D.C.). It was a much-needed break from the stress of daily life. For three days, I looked at the stars instead of my Twitter feed and did my best to tune out the news, focusing on Sherlock, Cars 3, and old friends instead. There’s a particular sweetness to that feeling of comfort and safety, a warm fuzzy joy that only comes when you are home and safe and loved. I wanted to wrap it up and bring it back with me, at least a small piece, to infuse into my everyday New York life. And in this case, as is often my way, that little morsel of home took the form of a caramel, marshmallow confection known as the modjeska.
Now if you’re not from Louisville, you are probably wondering: “What on god’s green earth is that funky, vaguely-Slavic-sounding term Zelda just threw out?” I can picture the look on your face exactly, because I’ve seen it on roommates and coworkers when I return from the Bluegrass State bearing a slim white box full of neatly wrapped treats nestled in paper beds. “A mo-what-now?” they say, picking up a piece and holding it a safe distance from their mouths, unsure if they dare test it. Now, if I were a more selfish person, I would leave them to their confusion and guard this secret delight for myself. But despite my better judgement, I find myself enlightening them. After all, I have made it an unofficial life mission of mine to spread the word of Louisville’s underappreciated glory to the world — culinary or otherwise (see: this blog). And so, I explain.
The modjeska, in its simplest form, is a candy consisting of a marshmallow dipped in caramel. It was invented in Louisville in 1883 by Anton Busath, a French confectioner who had immigrated to the Ohio River town. Busath slaved away for years, perfecting his “caramel biscuit.” Around this time, a Polish actress also made her way to Louisville. Busath saw her perform at the McCauley Theater, near his downtown shop, in the debut U.S. production of Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House.” He was so enamored with her that he wanted to give his crowning achievement her name. He asked her for permission, she granted it, and thus, Helena Modjeska found herself the inspiration for a Kentucky classic. She was so tickled, she sent Busath an autographed portrait, which he hung in his shop.
When Busath Candies was destroyed by a fire in 1947, Busath asked his friend and fellow candy-maker Rudy Muth if he could use his kitchen to produce the caramel treats, as Christmas gifts for his friends and family. Muth agreed, sharing his space, and in gratitude Busath gave him the recipe after deciding he couldn’t reopen his own shop. Another local confectioner — Bauer’s Candies — renamed their own caramel biscuit in a tribute to Busath after they closed. Both Bauer’s and Muth’s Candies continue to produce their own versions of the modjeska in Kentucky today (in traditional and chocolate varieties), shipping them all over the world.
I discovered the glory of the modjeska when I moved to Louisville at age 11. There was a small market across the street from Scout’s and my school called Burger’s (RIP sniff sniff), and there was a jar of the candies (Muth’s version) right by the register. I still remember biting into it for the first time — the sticky caramel yielding to a soft cloud of marshmallow — and thinking that I had found the perfect dessert. I had always been a caramel lover, but this was on a whole other level. Some people are turned off by the marshmallow, thinking it will be weird when wrapped in a non-chocolate coat. But trust me: It is magic.
Nowadays, I’m partial to Bauer’s; their marshmallow and caramel are denser, with a richer flavor to the caramel. And every time I go home, I find myself hauling a box back with me. Sometimes I share with my office, or with Scout. Sometimes I hog the whole thing to myself, rationing out the treats so as to savor the experience. For a dangerous stretch of last year’s election, I had a box in my desk drawer for “emergencies,” which proved to be more frequent and not at all far between, resulting in my plowing through the whole batch at an alarming rate. It is a quality candy, to be sure, made the old-fashioned way that follows a now 100+ year tradition. But I think the real reason I love modjeskas so much, and why they hold a particular place in my heart that no other food does, is that they taste like home.