FREEPORT, Ill. — The smell outside of the Miller's home is faint, but enough to lift your feet from the ground and drag you by your nose to the front door. Once inside, cinnamon fills the air and the heat from the stove warms everything.
This is the norm for Kathie Miller and her husband, Rich, during this time of the year. For three months every year, Miller makes Bonny's Brittle and pumpkin logs. And it's not just about creating a product loved by many in the community, but also about honoring the work and memory of a dear friend.
Friday, as Miller baked her final pumpkin logs of the season, it was bittersweet for her. On Dec. 15, she is retiring from the business.
Miller has been running Bonny's Brittle since 1998, but it has been around much longer. The small business was started by Bonny Short — who originally worked out of her trailer — in 1986. Bonny passed away in 1998, but not before sharing her trade secrets with her good friend, Kathie.
In 1993, when Bonny was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, she enlisted the help of Miller; teaching her the recipe that was passed on to her by her mother-in-law, Zula Short.
"We had a blast, she was so funny," Miller said of Bonny. "She was one of those people who, I think, a lot of people thought that she was their best friend. She was just one of those people."
After Bonny's passing in 1998, her husband, Connie, sold the business to Miller.
"I said, 'it's a lot of work,'" Miller said. "But he's a convincer, they were great sales people."
There is a fence post outside where Miller used to dump all of her "mistakes." The fence post doesn't get much use anymore.
"No more happy squirrels," Rich laughed.
Friday, watching her bake, it is easy to see that Miller is a pro. She quickly cracked eggs open against each other, measured and mixed the other ingredients, and poured the batter onto a baking sheet just in time to get them in the oven and pull out a cooked one. Without missing a beat, or her point, Miller talked as she flipped the cake onto sugar and rolled the pumpkin log up.
Surprisingly, Miller said that she doesn't really "bake." Her process is exactly the way that Bonny taught her — right down to the vanilla extract imported from Mexico.
"This is all about Bonny," Miller said. "This is a high-quality business, and we both tried to keep it that way. Everything I do is the way Bonny did it."
Miller's kitchen is licensed by the state, which means that the three months of the year that she bakes, she can't really use the space for anything else.
"We don't eat in the kitchen and mostly don't cook in there, either," Miller said, adding that they "grill a lot."
The brittle is very thin and melts quickly in your mouth with every loud crunch. Miller said that it speaks for itself. At craft shows, she gives out samples — that's how you hook them.
"They'll take one and walk about 20 feet, then turn around and buy some," Miller said. "It's fun because it's something that sells itself. A lot of people come back year after year."
Miller said that people ask for it all year round. It's a testament to her work, and for her, what it's all about.
"I'll miss the people most," Miller said. "Knowing that you are giving them pleasure makes it all worth it."
Miller produces about 100 bags of brittle a day in five flavors: peanut, cashew, pecan, chop suey (a combination of coconut and peanuts), and butter rum (no nuts). She also makes pumpkin logs (with pecans and without). In a season, she makes around 2,000 pounds of brittle and 400 pumpkin logs. She usually goes through 120 dozen eggs, about 800 pounds of nuts, 72 cans of pumpkin, and 400 packages of cream cheese — and that's just a few of the numbers.
On Dec. 15, Miller will officially be done with the business — she is happy to get back her kitchen and dining room (which is used to store the finished confections). She said that she is looking to sell the business and will train its new owner.
When asked why she is retiring, Miller quickly responded: "Arizona." One of her sons lives out there, and the couple want to see their grandkids and just enjoy retirement — well, maybe. Miller said that she is considering starting a smaller brittle business out west. If she does, she said it will be called "Kathie's Candies." She said that Bonny's Brittle belongs in Freeport.
Information from: The Journal-Standard, http://www.journalstandard.com/jshome.taf