This article appeared in the December edition of The Fort Thomas Living.
By Tisha Bruemmer
As a child in the late 30’s and 40’s, when Bob Gray saw his dad clearing off his mother’s marble top dresser each fall, he knew what would happen next. It was peanut brittle time and his father would soon retrieve his “tools of the trade” – large pots and pans, a big long knife, scales, timers, thermometers and storage cans – and begin the annual ritual of making some Gray’s Peanut Brittle.
The kitchen was the center of the action where Ray Gray would cook up the syrup and other ingredients until they reached that special temperature, peanuts were next with lots of stirring. Then, at just the right time, Bob would watch his dad quickly but carefully skirt up the steps to the second floor bedroom of their Concord Avenue home to pour the boiling hot brittle mixture onto the buttered marble dresser top.
Within minutes, the feather light brittle was ready to crack into small pieces and store in the tin cans until it was boxed up for friends and family. Then one fall, when Bob was older, the brittle making stopped.
Fast forward to the early sixties, Bob and his wife Jane now owned Gray’s Delicatessen and Bar on Highland Avenue. Bob found a piece of marble, the brittle making memories came rushing back and Bob decided to become a brittle maker himself.
“I asked my dad about it and he had everything in the basement of their house that we needed to make it,” Bob remembered. “So, I started making it in the back of the store. It was turning out pretty good.”
Bob laid some of the brittle out on a plastic tray in the store. People tried it. People loved it. People wanted to buy it. Bob had become a candy maker. He and Jane began to make the candy every fall, just as his father had done years before.
“I’d have four pots going at one time – two warming up syrup and two with the candy itself cooking. We’d be stirring them constantly and then pouring them out onto three marble slabs,” Bob explained.
And at the end of the day, “I’d smell like one big peanut brittle. You couldn’t even wash that smell off,” he said.
Bob and Jane made and sold their Gray’s Peanut Brittle out of their deli to an ever-growing Northern Kentucky fan base.
Gloria Gray (not a relation to the Grays) remembers her family’s anticipating when the first batch of peanut brittle would appear in the deli each fall.
“My husband Tom was a candy lover and he would stop by the deli with any excuse he could find just to see if the peanut brittle was available. It’s different from regular dense brittle. It is light and melts in your mouth. Besides getting it for our family, Tom bought it for some of his local customers who eagerly waited for its arrival each year,” said Gloria.
The success of Gray’s Peanut Brittle spread, and soon Bob was selling 20-pound cans of the sweet, salty candy to the Becksmith Candy Company in downtown Cincinnati. Lou Really, the owner, sold it through Walgreen’s and other stores. At its peak production, Bob and Jane made more than 4,500 pounds of peanut brittle in one season.
Making Gray’s Peanut Brittle is as much an art as a science. And though Bob made thousands of batches over the years, not everyone came out perfect.
“I kicked the cans in the back a few times over the years,” Bob said. “For instance, one day I made more than 50 pounds of brittle only to find at the end of the day that I had undercooked every batch.”
He felt the candy was tough and not up to his normal standards to sell. But, a friend had an idea and took Bob’s brittle to Holly Hill Orphanage for the children to enjoy it. Bob said they didn’t seem to mind it was a little tough.
The community’s love for the tasty treat continued into the seventies and eighties. Bob remembers one drug salesman Larry who told Bob that many a doctor’s office door was opened to him when he brought the peanut brittle with him on sales calls.
Many admirers of the candy asked him for the recipe. But Bob has kept it a family secret. Though he admits much of the recipe is similar to other peanut brittle recipes, his brittle has that light, melt-in-your-mouth texture.
He’s not sure where the recipe came from originally. He remembers his Aunt making the candy and his father worked in a candy factory when he was a boy, but no one seems to know where it started.
A few years after the deli was closed, he passed the brittle recipe on to Bob Faulkner, a longtime friend who became the peanut brittle maker for a while.
Then Bob Faulkner also stopped making the brittle. In 2012, Bob and Jane’s daughter Kathy decided it was her time to continue the family’s recipe and Bob gave her all the brittle making tools including those important marble slabs. Kathy is now making her second season of brittle and selling it to friends, at craft shows and through word of mouth. She’s hoping to begin selling it through stores in Fort Thomas where she knows there is pent up demand.
“I’m thrilled Kathy is making it,” Bob said. “It’s a lot of fun talking with her about our brittle and hers has become as good as any I made.”
Kathy said she plans to continue to carry on the Gray tradition. That the turning of the leaves and chillier days means more than fall is coming. It means it’s time to get out the marble slabs and the tools of the recipe because Kathy is making Gray’s Peanut Brittle.