Tradition says that long ago there was a woman named Catherine who was executed around the year 307AD for refusing to marry the Roman Emperor Maxentius. In the 12th century, St. Catherine was named the patron of unmarried women (in commemoration, this is why Montreal’s St. Catherine Street is riddled with strip clubs). So on her Feast Day, November 25, it was customary to expose her statue in all the churches of Paris. The oldest of the marriageable women would place a starched cap on her head, while all the unmarried female workers would wear paper bonnets in their hair. This gave rise to the French saying, common in France and French Canada, “to do St. Catherine’s hair,” meaning “to remain an old maid.” The same custom was found in Brittany and Normandy where the statue was dressed up in the local style.
The tradition was brought to New France with the first settlers, but it is to Marguerite Bourgeois (1620-1700), a teaching sister who was an important figure in the young colony, that we owe “St. Catherine’s Taffy.” To attract the attention of her little Native American students, she decided to make some taffy. She had opened her first school in Montreal on November 25, 1658 and she commemorated the anniversary each year by making taffy, thereby immortalizing this date in Quebec history as “Taffy Day.” Eventually, it became customary for marriageable girls to make taffy and give some to all the eligible young men in the area to show off their cooking skill. In English Canada and the United States, the sweets became known as “kisses” (yes, this is the origin of the Hershey’s trademark name), since whoever kissed the girl would win her heart.
Every year my friend Martin makes St. Catherine’s Taffy for his colleagues at the bank where he works, and last night was the big cook off. Peter and I helped out once the boiling sugar hit 260ºF (the “hard ball stage” of candy making) by getting our hands lubed up with butter and pulling the taffy until it becomes stiff with a mother of pearl iridescent shine (wait until it has cooled, otherwise you will end up with emergency room doctors removing hardened St. Catherine Taffy off of your skin). Then we snipped the long, stretched-out golden tails with scissors into perfect little bon bon-sized candies and twisted them up into wax papers. I can testify these are some of the best candies I’ve ever tasted. I’m sucking on one right now as a matter of fact. They’re even superior to the Werther’s taffy candies, I’m not even joking. If you want the recipe just email me.
What’s more, Martin lives in the shadow of the Notre Dame de Bon Secours chapel, the very church that Saint Marguerite had organized the construction of way back in 1658 here in Montreal. It is the oldest chapel in the city, and was rebuilt in 1771 on the ruins of St. Marguerite’s original building. Worth noting is the fact that Marguerite spent her last few years praying and writing an autobiography. On December 31, 1699, as a much young sister lay dying, Mother Marguerite asked God to take her life in exchange. By the very next morning of January 1, 1700 the younger sister was completely well, but Mother Marguerite had a raging fever. She suffered for 12 days and died on January 12, 1700 at 80-years-old.