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Southern-inspired sweet treats forge a new career for Patricia Shields of Worthington

Worthington resident Patricia Shields melts sugar and butter to make treats for  the business, Pecan Patti, that she runs with her mom, Susan Markush, in the commercial kitchen at R.H. Conwell Community Education Center in Worthington.
LAURA RODLEY

Worthington resident Patricia Shields melts sugar and butter to make treats for the business, Pecan Patti, that she runs with her mom, Susan Markush, in the commercial kitchen at R.H. Conwell Community Education Center in Worthington. LAURA RODLEY Purchase photo reprints »

When Patricia Shields returned to her home in Worthington last October to pursue another career — leaving behind her job in banking at Morgan Stanley in New York City — she had her reasons: dark chocolate, pecans fresh from Georgia and caramel made from honey. The job switch was also fueled by the delight she now sees on customers’ faces when they eat the nut-filled candies made from these ingredients in the Worthington-based business she now runs with her mother, Susan Markush.

After working a couple of years in finance, Shields said she realized she much preferred “working with my Mom, living in this wonderful area,” eventually relocating to her mother’s home on Starkweather Hill Road.

The business, which they dubbed Pecan Patti, aims to bring the taste of Savannah, Ga., and New Orleans to the north, she said.

Many of the recipes the pair uses followed them from Georgia, where Shields grew up until the family moved north when she was 8. Those recipes are infused with the South’s rich culinary culture and make generous use of pecans, which grow there profusely.

The business’s first creation, “Maple Craving,” is a variation on pralines, made with sugar and pecans.

Shields said pralines were first made and sold in the late 1880s by African-American women, so-called pralineres, on New Orleans street corners, where they kept the freshly minted candies cool by fanning them with palmetto leaves.

Pralines eventually became an integral part of the culture, she said, and “revolutionized candy-making in the South.”

Shields, 24, and Markush, 50, experimented with the recipe, using their homegrown maple syrup instead of sugar, and liked the results.

The mother-daughter team began producing their homemade treats at the end of Shield’s senior year at Fordham University in New York City, when the pair sold them at weekend markets in Massachusetts and New York — and their business Pecan Patti was born.

With a bachelor’s degree in psychology and business management from Fordham, Shields did some market research and discovered there was a niche for these Southern-inspired sweets.

There was “nowhere in the Northeast that offered this product,” she said.

The company’s candies include Pecan Turtles, Maple Cravings, fudge and chocolate-covered pecans, as well as pecan pies during the holidays. The extra-large Pecan Turtles sell for $4.50 each.

Part of Shield’s job involves searching for the best ingredients, she said. With that in mind, Shields spent a long time finding a pecan supplier, finally choosing a family-run, “single-source” farm outside of Athens, Ga.

“Generally people that shell and manufacture pecans pull from a variety of farms, farms from Mexico, Texas and other places. These come from one farm,” she said.

She said the business uses as many basic ingredients as possible. Shields and Markush modified the caramel, substituting honey for corn syrup, with an eye to using local sources, said Shields. They also use ingredients that are gluten-free and not genetically modified.

Pecan Patti’s label features a vivacious blonde that recalls a “1950s style, candy shop seductress and capable housewife,” she said. She’s working on another label, featuring a redhead, for a candy that includes cayenne pepper.

Since Shields’ return, Pecan Patti products have widened their retail distibution and can now be found on store shelves at Greenfield’s Market, Cornucopia and Provisions in Northampton and Big E in Easthampton. The treats will also be for sale at Boston’s Seaport Wine and Food Festival at the World Trade Center this weekend.

For Valentine’s Day, shoppers at Amherst and Greenfield farmers’ markets will find the pair’s Pecan Turtles are adorned with little hearts.

Shields’ candy-making job isn’t full-time yet, although she says she’d “love it to be.” For now, she works part-time as an analyst at Merrill Lynch in Springfield.

What does she like best?

“Coming from banking, it’s very different — the customer interaction and creativity that comes with it. People come up to you, talk to you about your product because they want to,” she said. “It’s a happy, joyful thing.”

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Fishing derby

All school-age children are invited to the free Annual Children’s Ice Fishing Derby held on Ashfield Lake Saturday from 8 a.m. to noon. Sponsored by Ashfield Rod and Gun Club, the event will award prizes for fish, including any size trout, perch, pumpkinseed or pickerel over 14 inches, caught during the Derby.

On Tuesday, the lake, now covered with a 14-inch-thick layer of ice, was stocked with over 200 trout supplied by the Berkshire National Fishery in Monterey, said Ashfield resident and organizer Joseph Miraglia.

“All kids get a prize,” he said, ranging from gift certificates donated by area stores to bait buckets, fish rulers and tackle boxes.

“The real prize is kids get the experience, which is why we keep the time short, expose them to fishing, having fun,” he said. In the past, 40 to 50 kids have participated.

After the Derby, a spaghetti dinner will be held at Sanderson Academy on Route 112. Dinner costs $5 per adult and is free for children. Following the meal, “Birds of Prey,” with wildlife rehabilitator Thomas Ricardi of Conway, will be presented. For information, call Miraglia at 628-4400 or Ken Magdycz at 634-5585.

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Friday Night Café

Singer-songwriter Sarah Stockwell Arthen of Cummington will perform Feb. 22 at the free Friday Night Cafe held from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Village Congregational Church on Main Street in Cummington. People are asked to enter through the side or back doors.

Refreshments will be provided; food offerings are welcome. For information, call 634-5084 or 634-5320.

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