When I was a little boy, I loved the beach. The idea of the beach, I mean. When I finally got a chance to visit one for the first time, I was overwhelmed by the sounds, sights and smells, especially the smell of a decomposed sea bird, which is particularly strong when you accidentally lay your towel down on top of it.
Needless to say, one of the things I had always wanted to do at the beach was make sand candles. Other kids were more interested in sand castles but that seemed to me like a project fraught with frustration and hopeless despair. How many sand castles survive the next tide? No, sand castles are nothing more than an exercise in futility. Sand candles, on the other hand, shed light and hope.
Thanks to my grandmother, I already knew how to make regular candles: carry a bushel of winter apples down the road to the Patterson’s, trade the apples for deer or elk fat, bring the fat home, clean it, melt it, strain it, melt it again, soften it with stearic acid, pour it into molds, sink wicks into it, and voila, you have natural light by which to read, eat, or even hold the Bible straight-armed over your head all night to atone for being misunderstood for saying something that sounded like the Lord’s name taken in vain but actually wasn’t!
Also thanks to my grandmother — who used to say that the beach is where fat-cat Jews go to smoke cigars and fornicate with mermaids — I was a bit ignorant about the “sand” part of making sand candles. An early attempt to mold sand into a candle-like form and sink a wick in it proved largely unsuccessful: dry sand is extremely difficult to mold, and wet sand, while easier to mold, is extremely difficult to set on fire.
This was my grandmother’s great gift: she would give me enough information to make me curious but not so much information that I would succeed too easily. “Failure is the best teacher,” is the kind of thing she might have said if she were a bit more articulate.
I am delighted to report, however, that after much consultation and experimentation, I now know how to make beautiful, long-lasting sand candles. And I can’t wait to share my simple “recipe” with you!
First, a quick safety warning: ALWAYS make sand candles with an adult. And if you are a child, always make these with TWO adults: one to make the candles, and one to call the fire department if something goes very wrong. Which it is likely to do your first time out — Rome wasn’t built in a day (although it was burned down in a matter of hours – Thanks, Nero!!!)
- Bring two pounds of cleaned animal fat to the beach. Sheep or cow fat are fine if that’s all you have, but deer, goat and elk fats make the hardest, most slow-burning candles. The Pattersons have excellent elk fat, if they are still alive, which—wait, no, I just remembered, they’re not.
- Dig a small pit in the sand and build a charcoal fire. Alternatively, if your beach has a “barbeque area,” you can light a fire on one of grills there. (NOTE: If any of the other people in the “barbeque area” ask if you are a Raiders fan, just say yes.)
- When the coals are grey, place a shallow pan over them and add the cleaned fat along with a half-cup of water.
- Melt the water and fat. This should take six hours or so, and requires constant attention.
- Once the fat is melted, strain it through cheesecloth into a smaller pan; skim off the tallow from the top and place it back into the larger pan.
- Repeat step four. (NOTE: Remember to hydrate! Sometimes when we are having fun we forget to pay attention to our bodies’ needs.)
- When you have strained and skimmed the tallow a second time, you are ready to make sand candles! (NOTE: If you have started this process later than seven a.m., it is likely to be night now, and your beach is likely to be closed till the morning. If so, throw away your freshly-made tallow and start over again earlier tomorrow, you lazy bones!)
- Plunge a glass jar of your preferred shape and size into the sand.
- Remove the glass jar. You will now see a hole in the sand which is the same shape and size as the jar you used. Resist the overwhelming urge to urinate in said hole. (But good for you for hydrating!)
- Pour your hot tallow into the hole. When it has hardened just a bit, sink a wick into it.
- When the tallow is hard to the touch, dig up your freshly made sand candle!
That’s all there is to it. Happy candling! (NOTE: “Candling” actually technically refers to the process of holding an egg up to the light to judge its freshness or fertility.)