The Lucy End

It’s cold; six degrees and windy. I walk up Columbia Street, a scarf wrapped over my face. Peering from beneath my fur hat pulled low, I spy a giant yellow lollypop suspended from the front of 741 Columbia. Below the lollypop is a burgundy and gold sign, Vasilow’s.

I’m here to meet Jim Vasilow. It’s warm inside, a sweet, magical world. The aroma of chocolate is intense, my eyes widen and suddenly I’m an eight year old kid. Chocolate’s one of those things people are passionate about, endorphins or not, it’s euphoric. Good chocolate just makes you feel good.

The shelves and counters and curved glass display case are a cornucopia of confectionary delight. There are clusters and creams and caramels and cordials, non-pareils and fudge, fifty flavors of Jelly Belly jelly beans, chocolate covered pretzels and raisins, jelly rings, crackers and nuts and crunches and barks, chocolate covered licorice and potato chips, almond butter crunch, peanut brittle and Chop Suey, a specialty of Jim’s grandfather, and truffles, oh, truffles, be still my heart. I consider truffles the Lana Turner, the Hedy Lamar, the Garbo of chocolate.

Jim drags me away from the counter and we sit down for a chat in the kitchen. Jim’s grandfather opened the original Vasilow’s on Warren Street in Hudson in 1923. Vasilow’s was a landmark on Warren Street until it closed in 1969.

Young Jim once told his father he wanted to be a candy maker, but his father discouraged him, so Jim forgot about it. Jim grew up in Hudson like any other kid and went off to college, but an odd set of circumstances forced him home.

Jim’s father retired as president of V & O Press at fifty five and hired on part time at Van Tassel Tool. When Jiggs Van Tassel died, a sense of duty brought Jim home to help his father run the place. Jim learned the business under fire and learned it well. He remained there twenty-one years. “The best part was I got to know my father,” he reflects but it was not his passion. When his father died in 1996, Jim knew it was time to follow his own path, “I knew there was something else I needed to do with my life, but I didn’t know what.”

Inspiration often comes at the most unlikely moments. Jim and his wife Kate were camping and woke to pouring rain. With the day ruined they packed it in and went to the Columbia Diner for breakfast. As they left, Jim looked in the window of Suttys candy store two doors down. “It hit me right then and there, an epiphany I guess. I knew I wanted to be a candy maker.”

Jim was driven, sought out knowledge wherever people would teach him. He learned his first truffle recipe from a woman in Orwigsburg, Pennsylvania. He learned the craft, educated himself, joined the RCI, Retail Confectioners International, was even accepted to their prestigious and intensive candy school.

I mentioned Chop Suey as one of his grandfather’s specialties; peanut brittle with coconut instead of peanuts. Ribbon candy was another specialty and Jim wanted to make it every Christmas. So, he scoured the Internet until his persistence paid off and finally found the equipment he needed, a ribbon candy “former.”

Someone in Chicago was willing to teach him how to use it, so he packed up the heavy metal contraption and booked a flight. Jim was on the second flight to depart Albany after September 11. “It really is a candy maker,” he insisted and eventually cleared security.

Jim and Kate searched for the right location and once they found it spent fourteen exhausting months rehabilitating and creating Vasilow’s Confectionery, Inc.

Jim gives me a lesson in the step-by-step operation of the “Enrober,” the machine used to chocolate coat candy. “So that’s the Lucy end down there?” I ask, pointing to the far end of the apparatus. Hilarious images of Lucille Ball, her mouth bulging with bonbons, wildly battling an out of control “Enrober,” fill my head.

Jim laughs, “Yes, that’s the Lucy end.”

Quality is of utmost importance to Jim. Suppliers occasionally advise him on the practicality of using cost cutting ingredients. “It tastes ‘almost’ the same, they tell me,” Jim shakes his head and grins, “I don’t want almost!” For his truffles he uses top quality heavy cream, real butter and gets his 10 pound chocolate blocks from the same company his grandfather used. That’s why they’re so delicious.

Jim created a special valentine treat this year; molded, heart shaped chocolate boxes filled with truffles. There’re special baskets and assortments, too. So fellas, there is no reason not to “Wow” her on Valentine’s Day.

When you follow your heart doors open, dreams live. I like people who follow their dreams, for them the life force is so abundant they can barely contain it. Jim and Kate are like that.

Good luck to Vasilow’s and thanks for letting me be a kid in a candy store again.

We’ll talk next time From The Road.

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