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Mountain Home Magazine

How Sweet It Was

by Bob Harding 

Gus Zarvis’s hot fudge recipe was famous around Wellsboro for many years. Legend has it that when Gus Zarvis closed the Candy Kitchen in Wellsboro, he gave his secret hot fudge recipe to John Harris, who owned another local restaurant. The story implies that John was the only one who got it. Years later, my mother, Thelma P. Harding, told me that story was not totally true. She said that Gus gave her the recipe prior to his passing away. I not only have the recipe my mother claimed Gus gave her, I have many memories that Gus created for me as I was growing up.

My first encounter with the hot fudge Gus made was when my father took me into the store and lifted me up onto a tall stool near the front door. I was about four or five at the time, so that was about sixty-eight years ago. That was the beginning of many happy memories for years to come at the Candy Kitchen. I remember that Gus wore a clean white waist-high apron, dark trousers, and a long sleeve white shirt, with a tie, each day. His shirt sleeves were held up with elastic bands men wore back then. He was perhaps 5’5” tall, with dark hair that was slicked back, and he wore a long mustache. He was a friendly guy who struggled with English because he had immigrated to the United States from Europe in the early 1900s. The Candy Kitchen was a place that filled up after school most days and was open into the evening—“just in case.” Life was easier back then, and fun memories of back then can make life easier today.

There were shiny, white clean floors and a long grayish white marble soda counter at the Candy Kitchen. Under the counter, and accessible only by Gus, were all flavors of ice cream created by Gus and stored in freezer compartments. I don’t remember how many flavors there were, but there could easily have been at least ten or more. When I was a kid, my dad used to go in late Saturday afternoons and buy ice cream. Gus would scoop it from the freezer compartment and hand pack it into a heavy paper ice cream carton, making sure it was packed so that there was no air inside. Gus made sure you got what you paid for.

You could sit on tall, counter-high swivel chairs and watch Gus make funny facial expressions that told you he was working hard while he dug out hard, frozen ice cream to make banana splits, or mix a coke with cherry fizz, or add that famous chocolate fudge sauce to a scoop of homemade vanilla ice cream. It was common to hear a long-handled metal spoon clang against the glass as he stirred fizzy drinks.

There was a huge mirror on the back wall behind the counter. While you were sitting watching Gus perform his magic, you could look at the back of Gus and see a strong, stiff back where his apron was tied, and his crisply ironed white shirt, all appearing neat and trim. While looking in the mirror you could observe Gus from all angles and dimensions—front and back, with arms moving back and forth, and a slight shake as he did so.

When Gus was finished preparing your order and then set it on the counter before you, the second the glass touched the marble countertop, the distinctive sound was glass on marble. That sound, and the accompanying sights, smells, and anticipation meant that you were about to take part in an event that would send you o into another place where happiness was always found. Your heart might have skipped a beat, or even beat a little faster, and for sure a smile appeared.

In front of the huge mirror were stacked glassware of all shapes and sizes to accommodate whatever order might be made—soda glasses, coke glasses, sundae glasses, banana split glassware, and others. And, of course, there were many bottles of flavoring syrups—vanilla, cherry, grape, raspberry, lemon, lime, and others to enhance all the concoctions that Gus came up with. My favorite was cherry. The bottle looked like a tall ruby, and I often wondered how Gus was able to make such beautiful syrup.

Across from the marble soda counter and the high swivel chairs was a cabinet about twelve feet long, maybe longer, filled with Gus’s homemade candy that he created in the back room kitchen. Lining the inside of the candy cabinet were mirrors that gave the illusion of a vast amount of colorful candy in inventory.

Toward the rear of the store and about halfway back were booths lining each side wall, and old-fashioned tables with old-fashioned metal chairs down the middle and in between the booths. Of course, back then the tables and chairs were not old fashioned, but considered “of the day.” As we got older we had favorite booths, and not many wanted to sit at the tables. At times we could be territorial about our space.

There were several ceiling fans, as this was a time when there was no air conditioning in most retail stores. The store was mostly dark inside, I suppose because Gus was frugal, and the lights were down or dim most of the time. Each time the front door opened a long shaft of bright light would forcefully crowd its way down the center of the store and along the floor toward the back and make the whole place bright. If you were sitting in the far back when the door opened, you might be slightly blinded if you were looking toward the front when that happened. The whole interior smelled sweet, and the most common sounds that could be heard at almost any time were a metal spoon banging on glassware, laughter, and giggling.

I remember many friends in my age group—Gary Wilson, Bobby Stevenson, Lynn Watkins, Toni West, Max Gill, Dawne Comfort, Bob Cox, Susan West, Bobby Mosso, Terry Dunn, Kathy Lineweaver, Don Knaus, Dick Hasting, Linda Merrick, Carol Menge, Ron Comstock—and others meeting there after school from time to time. There was always an older group that sat "over there" and acted more important than we did. We laughed mostly about how serious they were, and who had tried to kiss who, or whether or not we would all go to the school dance the following Saturday night.

It seems like there was always the lone couple sitting in the back booth on the far left-hand side, beside each other and facing the front of the store. They sat tight up against each other and shared a modest coke that was flavored with Gus's hot fudge sauce and two straws, holding hands under the table top, whispering to each other and stealing a gentle kiss from time to time. Their moment in time seemed like it could or would never end; it seemed a love story in the making with a lifetime of happiness ahead. Some of the people mentioned here are gone now and are fond memories.

I am sharing the recipe my mother claimed was Gus Zarvis's hot fudge recipe. I make no claim of it's authenticity. My hope is that by doing so it will allow your past memories to live on, because memories help shift and shape our lives now and into the future.

When the Candy Kitchen closed, it was dismantled, with each piece of marble and all the mirrors, chairs, and cabinets never to be seen again. When that was complete, the only things left were memories and a recipe.

Gus Zarvis's Hot Fudge Recipe

1 cup water
1 cup sugar
2 Tbsps. cornstarch
1/3 cup cocoa (the very best, highest quality and grade you can find)
Dash of salt
1/2 tsp. vanilla
2 Tbsps. butter (the highest quality—I use Kerrygold Butter imported from Ireland)

Over a low heat melt the butter in the water. Mix the sugar, cornstarch, salt, and cocoa in a small mixing bowl. (I used a sieve and put the chocolate in the sieve so that there would be no lumps.) Once the butter is melted, begin to add the cocoa and sugar mixture into the water, and stir, stir, stir. Bring the mixture to a soft boil, stir with the whisk, and stir, stir. As the mixture thickens, add vanilla, stir, stir as it thickens. You be the judge but not too thick. Turn off heat and let cool. The whole process takes about 15-20 minutes.

Does it really matter if the recipe my mom gave me and I have shared with you is Gus Zarvis's hot fudge recipe? Probably not, because the one I share here is a great recipe, and when you taste it you will be taken back in time. I think it is the original.

What matters most is that each memory we carry with us is evidence of the butterfly effect in all we do, and knowing that every move we make and every action we take in life lasts forever. Gus was a master at putting a memory in each and every concoction he created. Thank you, Gus, wherever you are!
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