"We don't really do things like those sugar skulls you see everywhere," says 22-year-old Vicente (Vince) Mendez Jr., a soft-spoken Cal State Long Beach senior, as he pulls out a sheet pan filled with sugar-coated tarugos, tamarind pulp candies rolled into small balls.
The Mexican American Mendez family prefers to pay homage to tradition by making candy the old-fashioned way — by hand, using recipes passed down through generations.
But staying in the jamoncillo game for more than 50 years has required more than just long hours and some great family recipes. Vince's father, 53-year-old Vicente Mendez, installed most of the modern candy-making equipment in the factory, including a clever slicer that he made with guitar strings. Those upgrades have kept up the milk fudge status quo, but it will be up to the youngest confitero to keep the family's candy-making heritage alive in an increasingly competitive global economy.
But first, Vince has a few things to learn about making tarugos.
"Papá, qué es?" Vince asks, pointing to the crimson-colored spices coating the tamarind balls. He often serves as translator for his father, who in return offers his candy-making knowledge (the tarugos are coated in a paprika, chile de árbol and cayenne spice blend). "I'm just getting into the candy making, that's really more my father's side," Vince explains.
The family business began in 1957 when José Mendez immigrated to Los Angeles from Zamora de Hidalgo in Michoacán, a state still regarded as the candy capital of Mexico. "My grandfather was from a generation where you learned to do everything," says 28-year-old Enrique Mendez, Vince's brother, via telephone from his home in Las Vegas, where he works as a strategic planning administrator. "You make shoes, candy, any little thing to get work and get things started."
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Hitting the streets of East L.A. with a basket of creamy jamoncillo and coconut-flavored rosquilla proved to be the most viable business plan for José, who tweaked recipes he'd learned from his father, a candy and bread maker.
Within three years, curbside sales had picked up enough for José to rent a small commercial facility. By the mid-1970s, Vicente was peeling sweet potatoes for camote and squash for calabaza alongside his father. "Dad is the one who has been the pioneer in mechanizing things," Vince says. His grandfather and grandmother recently passed away.
At La Zamorana, "mechanizing" applies more to improving the quality of those cocadas horneadas (baked macaroon-like coconut candies) than increasing production yield. Some of Vicente's improvements involved installing a handful of modern appliances, such as a small convection oven that helps give those coconut candies a consistently golden-brown crust.
The most innovative technology at the factory is homemade. When hand-slicing large quantities of jamoncillo became tricky, Vicente tinkered around to make a hand-operated press that cuts each slab into dozens of straight-edged pieces. The contraption works like an egg slicer, only here the slicing "blades" are steel guitar strings secured to a rectangular metal frame with adjustable tuning pegs for easy tightening.
"We picked these up at the guitar shop for Dad when he was trying to figure out what might work," Vince says. "They thought we were crazy."
But even with all the upgrades, much of the equipment at La Zamorana has remained the same over the years. "These are cazos de cobre," says Vince, pointing to several copper caldrons from Santa Clara de Cobre. Since the 16th century, coppersmiths in the small Michoacán town have been hammering the pots for making candy and large batches of carnitas.
This time of year, the pots are usually filled with boiling sugar syrup to meet the holiday demand for camote and calabaza candies. Knobby chunks of hand-peeled sweet potatoes and banana squash or Mac pumpkins (when farmer-direct supplies of squash are low), require four dips in the boiling syrup followed by several hours of drying time each time. A little slaked lime (calcium hydroxide), the same ingredient used in masa, helps prevent the vegetables from breaking apart as they cook.
It's a laborious and time-consuming process that yields a delicately flavored candy with a jewel-toned complexion and a slightly gummy texture when sliced. They also come with a bonus prize — leftover sweet potato and squash-scented sugar syrup that gets boiled down to a solid for piloncillo.
"We can never meet customer demand because we just boil down whatever syrup we have left over" from making camote and calabaza, Vince says. The classic molded sugar candy is typically made from boiled fresh sugarcane juice and slaked lime.
Behind him, two employees heave a copper caldron from a large gas burner and carefully pour the bubbling caramel into dozens of conical-shaped molds that Vicente carved from planks of wood. Ten minutes later, they stand on either side of the table and lift the molds, clapping them together so the hard cones of caramelized sugar tumble out.
It's a beautiful dance that, like so much of the candy production at La Zamorana, requires the helping hands of several factory workers. That's something that Vicente's children, even those who aren't so keen on going into such a sticky business, have learned from their father. "We're pretty much all socialists, trying to help out when we can," Enrique jokes.
Enrique recently set up La Zamorana's new website and persuaded his father to swap his old Rolodex-driven business communications model for e-mail. His sister Mary works part-time between college classes to help her father with accounting and administrative work.
But it is their younger brother, Vince, who looks like he'll be taking over piloncillo quality management.
"Working here wasn't what I thought I'd be doing," says Vince, an operations management major who decided to come back to the family business after one too many classroom case studies turned him off to the corporate world.
When he graduates in December, he says he will tackle new challenges such as competition from the increasing number of similar Mexican candies available locally at lower prices. "As an American company making Mexican products, we're paying more for ingredients, for following regulations, so we have to charge more.
"But right now, I'm really just trying to learn from my father," Vince says. That commitment to the family business at such a young age feels like a particularly sweet homage on Día de los Muertos, a day set aside to commemorate those loved and lost souls — and maybe that first bite of perfectly sliced jamoncillo.
La Zamorana Candy is available at well-stocked Latin supermarkets such as Vallarta (www.vallartasupermarket.com for locations) and many small markets. For additional locations, visit zamoranacandy.com, or call (323) 261-1817.