SOMETHING is missing this year as one leaves the Bay Bridge headed east toward the ocean.
No, I don't mean the grassy fields and homey businesses that have been replaced by ugly strips of shopping centers and fast-food outlets. I refer, rather, to the bright red and yellow signs that for over three decades announced the number of miles to Stuckey's Pecan Shoppe.
The Grasonville Stuckey's, the last in the state of Maryland, closed its doors a year ago. Those welcoming signs were always a nostalgic experience for me on vacations and getaway weekends.
It was in the early 1950s when I arrived at Stuckey's main offices in Eastman, Ga., to assume a secretarial position. In the days before computers and fax machines, but not electric typewriters, I typed orders for every ingredient, box, label, can, shipping container and everything needed to send those sugary Stuckey's confections across the country.
My office was directly behind the original Stuckey's store opened in 1937 by W.S. Stuckey Sr. It was Stuckey's hometown outlet for his wife's homemade candies and the pecans he bought from local farmers. By the time I arrived, the stores numbered in the 80s throughout the South and Eastern Seaboard.
Here the lowly pecan was king. It was halved, chopped, roasted, toasted, coated, salted, spiced, glazed and dipped. The main plant was a gastronomical delight. Large copper kettles held great batches of pecan fudge. Marble-top tables held cooling sheets of pecan brittle, while pecan halves and coconut patties passed through dripping chocolate machines and cooling tunnels. The smells of chocolate, caramel and marshmallow were exquisitely intermingled.
In days before strict insurance rules, visitors could walk right through the plant, stepping over narrow canals of icy water used for cooling the marble tables. Fresh samples were cheerfully handed out by ladies in white. It was a far cry from factories today, where the manufacturing process is viewed on videos in mini-theaters. These were the heady days after World War II, and Americans celebrated the return of sugar, gasoline and travel. Florida was the vacation place, and Stuckey's was on the main route south. Calorie-counting had not yet begun to rule our diets and lives.
A tall, imposing but unpretentious man, Stuckey was a Howard Hughes look-alike. He always had a friendly greeting and would sit and talk if the need arose. A sophisticated world traveler, he was also at home in this small town of cotton mills, shirt factories and peanut farmers.
In 1959 I moved back to Maryland with a husband and 3-year-old. My furniture arrived soon after in the back of a large tractor-trailer, compliments of Stuckey. The furniture was surrounded by cartons of pecans, candy and souvenirs. The days of magnolias, cotton fields and snowless winters were over.
Now as I head for the ocean I can no longer covet a bag of pecan log rolls on the seat beside me. Stuckey's continues to prosper in other states, but for me here it is just a sweet memory.
Barbara Sparks writes from Glen Burnie.