It starts off slowly. Three perfect squares of marshmallow are placed on the belt and carried under what can only be described as a waterfall of sensuous, thick, dark chocolate. Reaching out with gloved hands, I pick up each one, making sure it is fully coated and tapping off the excess before placing it on the conveyor belt that will ferry these insanely delicious confections into the next room to be boxed and gift-wrapped or placed directly in the front of the store for sale. Rose Lavorata, who has worked here for 28 years, gives me an encouraging smile.
It may sound like a dream job, but being a revered candymaker takes more than a little stamina — it takes passion.
“You ready?” she asks. I am. But when Rose switches on the second conveyor belt — the one that ferries the finished chocolates away from us — I’m suddenly living out that famous scene from I Love Lucy.
“You have to make a ‘C’ with your finger,” Rose instructs me, dabbing her finger into the chocolate waterfall and expertly marking a fancy initial on each marshmallow to indicate its variety — this one a caramel marshmallow. (“V” indicates a plain vanilla marshmallow, and so on.) I dip my own finger and try to copy her elegant workmanship, but instead I drip a blob of chocolate on top, rendering it unsalable. Before I know it, the chocolates are running away from me. I pop one in my mouth, not wanting it to go to waste. Rose switches off the conveyor belt and does her best to salvage the marshmallows, JoMart’s most famous treat. But I don’t notice. I’m lost in reverie, savoring the light and airy freshness of the marshmallow, the lusciousness of the chocolate. It’s like biting into a York Peppermint Pattie, except better because all of the sweets made at JoMart are handmade and extremely fresh. I may have failed at my first task as a JoMart candymaker for the day, but when it comes to eating the candy, I’m just getting started.
“These days, the buzzwords are artisanal and local,” Michael Rogak, owner of JoMart, says with a laugh. “When my wife and I spent two weeks in Tuscany, we never heard those words because it’s assumed that what you’re eating is handcrafted and seasonal.” The same goes for the candy he makes each day at JoMart. As the chief cook and bottle washer, there’s nothing shipped out or sold here that doesn’t pass his own quality control.
“What’s this?” he asks me, picking up a piece of his family’s famous butter crunch, which we are breaking into a large container. After pouring the hot mixture of butter, nuts and other ingredients onto the same marble table his father used, he and Lavorata used pizza wheels to cut the now-solidified mass into rows of perfect squares.
“A piece and a half?” I say, staring at the uneven chunk I’ve tossed into the pile.
“I’ll take the piece,” he says, breaking off the hangnail of his perfect confection and tossing it into a pile of other discarded scraps.
Our day started at 6:30 a.m. — Michael and his wife, Debbie, waking up at home and heading to the store, located in a neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., near Marine Park, and me leaving the morning diaper changes and Cheerios-fest to my husband, Luke. As a mom to twins, I’m used to waking up early, but this was a whole new time-to-make-the-doughnuts (or, in this case, marshmallows) kind of feeling.
“Leave the Louboutins at home,” Michael had joked to me on the phone, and so I dressed in jeans, a plain pullover and comfortable boots with flat soles. I’d be thankful to have on the sensible footwear, because in the course of a full day’s work, I never once saw Michael, 61, or Rose, 64, sit for more than two minutes total. As a freelance writer, most of my work time is spent tush in chair. Needless to say, these baby boomers have major endurance.