Capri Cafaro Published

Potato Candy: Chasing A Taste Memory In West Virginia

Hands in latex gloves spreading peanut butter on to the rolled out potato and sugar mix.
Brenda Sandoval spreading peanut butter on to the rolled out potato and sugar mix.
Capri Cafaro/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

This story originally aired in the March 26, 2023 episode of Inside Appalachia.

Lots of recipes get passed down and shared in Appalachia through handwritten note cards. Sometimes they’re stuffed in little tin boxes, others in loose leaf cookbooks. For the recipient of such a family heirloom, the recipes can be a way to connect with the past. But some of those old recipes don’t use exact measurements. So how do you know you’re getting it right? For Brenda Sandoval in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, it involved some trial and error, and a little help from a cousin.

A few years ago, Sandoval was gifted an old recipe book filled with family recipes, including her grandmother’s recipe for potato candy. 

“It was [my grandmother’s] handwriting on a piece of paper, and it was P, period, candy. So the two P ingredients were the potato and the peanut butter…and the confectioner’s sugar, but she had a side note of things that she added, which were salt, milk and vanilla,” shared Sandoval.  

Potato candy is a food icon across Appalachia. It became popular during the Great Depression because it was cheap and easy to make. This sugary sweet confection is usually comprised of just three inexpensive ingredients: peanut butter, powdered sugar and of course, potatoes. The candy looks like a reverse pumpkin log, with a brown swirl of peanut butter wrapped in the white pasty potato mix.  When it is sliced, some people say the pieces look like pinwheels. 

Sandoval testing the consistency of the potato mixture. Credit: Capri Cafaro/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Like many heirloom recipes, Sandoval’s family potato candy recipe did not use units like cups or teaspoons. Instead, her grandmother listed her additional ingredients as a dash of vanilla, a pinch of salt and four splashes of milk.  

While Sandoval had never eaten her grandmother’s potato candy, she wanted to see if she could recreate the recipe. She was now on a mission to make her grandmother’s potato candy recipe taste like the real deal. And getting it right wasn’t easy.  

Sandoval needed to convert her grandmother’s units of measurement into something she could understand and replicate.  This took a lot of trial and error. At times, the process was frustrating. The potato candy kept missing the mark.  

Sandoval was chasing a taste memory, and it kept evading her. Eventually she enlisted her cousin Valerie Bovee in the pursuit to get this family recipe right. Unlike Sandoval, Bovee actually tasted her grandmother’s potato candy. She remembers how it tasted when she ate it on Christmas Eve.

Sandoval and Bovee work together closely, with Bovee tasting each batch and Sandoval adjusting the ingredients based on Bovee’s feedback.  

“As you’re testing it, you’re trying to match it to what grandma’s was. That’s the flavor you got to try to find…which is hard to explain exactly what that taste is, but it’s definitely that Grandma’s House Christmas Eve taste,” explains Bovee. “[Sandoval] trusts me that I know what it should taste like and when it is good.” 

Sandoval with the splashes of milk and pinch of salt. Credit: Capri Cafaro/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Their collaboration worked. Sandoval’s determination and Bovee’s taste memory led to a breakthrough. Finally, Sandoval said that Bovee exclaimed, “This, this is right. Whatever you did, keep doing this.” 

These days, Sandoval has mastered her family’s potato candy recipe. She had made it for a shop called True Treats in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia and now also sells the candy directly to the community. Yet, it is clear that potato candy is more than just a sweet treat to Sandoval. It’s about preserving tradition, and holding onto family memories.

Sandoval says making the candy can sometimes be an emotional experience for her as she reflects on her family while she’s going through the process, “I like to take my time and think about my grandmother or my ancestors as I’m baking it. And I think that’s coming from the heart.”

She also hopes people feel as nostalgic as she does when they eat her potato candy.  

“I want people to taste it, remember it, think about your grandma or your aunt that’s no longer here that did it. Or maybe they are still here and you just don’t get to visit with them, but it’s something that would take them back,” Sandoval said.

Both Sandoval and her cousin Bovee are committed to keeping their family’s potato candy taste memory alive by continuing to pass the recipe and it’s intangible feeling down to future generations.  

Bovee says now that she and her cousin have managed to perfect the candy, she wants to make sure she “gets the recipe down pat” to pass along to her children and grandchildren. “I just want us to be able to all get together, have good scenery memories, have fun making it together and enjoying it together.”


This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, a partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia and the Folklife Program of the West Virginia Humanities Council.

The Folkways Reporting Project is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts and culture.