A seasonal sensation
CARROLL – When Dave Nelson reported that there were only 10 caramel apples left at Hy-Vee in Carroll, his family let out a collective gasp, followed by a sigh of relief that he delivered a new batch just in time.
As three generations of the family gathered to catch up on the news, the buttery, sweet aroma of caramel wafted up from the basement candy kitchen to the front porch of their home in Carroll.
“The caramel apples are a great tradition in this community,” said Nelson’s wife, Gina, whose family has been making this seasonal treat for 76 years. “People truly love them and look forward to them each fall.”
There will be no shortage of Pokey’s apples this year, thanks to the Nelsons who rely on a secret family recipe to make thousands of the creamy-sweet treats to meet the tremendous demand each fall.
While Pokey’s products are only available at Hy-Vee grocery stores in Carroll and Denison, people who’ve had a taste of this rich local history share their love of Pokey’s Caramel Apples throughout social media well beyond those communities.
A quick Google search reveals Facebook posts and blogs with statements like “BEST caramel apple you can imagine … times 1000,” and “Homecoming smells like Pokey’s Caramel Apples.”
One fan even made a YouTube video to capture the moment when her young son savored his first taste of this Carroll County phenomenon.
Pokey’s apples highlight the appeal of local foods, said Jason Sheridan, the Hy-Vee store director in Carroll. “Food is more personal today.
“Many consumers want a connection to the people who produce their food, so we like to showcase local products.
“When Pokey’s season arrives, it’s almost like the kickoff to fall around here.”
After Sheridan’s team added a photo of Pokey’s Caramel Apples to the store’s Facebook page in early September, the post generated a tremendous amount of feedback.
“We even shipped the caramel apples to Georgia for some former local residents who contacted us,” Sheridan said. “Special traditions like Pokey’s make people homesick for Iowa.”
A taste of Tuscany
The tradition of Pokey’s Caramel Apples dates to 1938, when Gina Nelson’s grandfather, Ottavio Pollastrini, began operating a candy kitchen in Carroll.
It was a natural fit for Pollastrini, who was raised in Collodi in northern Italy – a region known for candy and Chianti.
“Candy making is a tradition in Tuscany,” said Gina Nelson, who noted that Pollastrini came to America as a boy and later worked with his older brothers in Chicago and Clinton, where his brother, Amos, ran a candy kitchen, before starting his own business.
Shortly after purchasing the Carroll Candy Kitchen from the Marcucci family, Pollastrini introduced western Iowa to caramel apples in the fall of 1938.
Caramel apples weren’t a big seller right away, said Betty Pollastrini, who married Ottavio’s son, Ray, in 1954.
“The farmers thought it was crazy to ‘ruin’ a perfectly good apple with caramel.
“As people began to taste them, however, they thought caramel apples were the best treat they could buy.”
Through the years, the family’s candy kitchen evolved into a downtown cafe.
After Ray and Betty Pollastrini began running the business in 1957, the cafe was renamed in honor of the family patriarch, who was affectionately called “Pokey.”
“Grandpa Ottavio was known for poking around town and visiting friends when he should have been making candy,” said Gina Nelson. It’s Pokey’s copper kettle that continues to be fired every fall to usher in the caramel apple season, she said.
Caramel apples continued to grow in popularity, thanks to events like Band Day, which was held each fall in Carroll. Pokey’s Cafe was located midway through the downtown parade route, where high school marching bands from West Des Moines and beyond performed.
“Band Day was by far the biggest-selling day of the year for our caramel apples,” said Pollastrini, who recalled that the apples cost customers $1.25 back then, compared to $2.75 today.
A family tradition
After the Pollastrinis decided to sell their business in 1997, the new buyer wanted the cafe, but not the caramel apple equipment.
However, the Pollastrinis’ daughter Gina and her husband, Dave Nelson, did, and took over the caramel apple business.
Along with the secret recipe, they acquired the large copper kettle, wooden paddle, gas stove, candy thermometer and marble table that the family had used to make caramel apples since 1938.
Ray Pollastrini guided the Nelsons every step of the way during the transition.
“We still use all this same equipment and follow the same caramel recipe,” said Dave Nelson, who makes the caramel in a small kitchen in the corner of the family’s basement at their home in Carroll.
Like the Pollastrini family before him, the Nelsons use apples from Deal’s Orchard in Jefferson.
Caramel apple production kicks into high gear in early September, once the Jonathan apples are ripe.
“Jonathans are firm and sweet, but not too sweet,” said Nelson, who has worked full-time at the Pella Corp.’s Carroll manufacturing facility for more than 31 years. “A little tartness with the caramel is a good combination.”
The caramel apples highlight a unique example of value-added agriculture, said Jerald Deal, who is the third generation to run his family’s orchard. “The Nelsons are great to work with, and I appreciate that they use a lot of our apples.”
Timing is key
Producing Pokey’s Caramel Apples is a team effort involving Dave Nelson, Gina Nelson and their daughter, Anna.
Timing is everything to make Pokey’s famous caramel with just the right flavor and texture.
“You have to watch it continuously,” Nelson said, as he stirs a batch of the bubbling, golden liquid that will coat about 200 apples.
“Once the caramel starts boiling, you must stir it for about an hour.”
The Nelsons sometimes produce a batch or two a day during the caramel apple season, which runs from early September through late October or early November.
“Our apples are tailgating favorites with local Iowa State and Iowa Hawkeye football fans,” said Gina Nelson. Their apples have also been shipped to members of the U.S. military serving in Iraq.
The Nelsons sell squares of their classic caramel at the local Hy-Vee store during the fall. After apple season ends, the Nelsons turn to another treasured family recipe to make red anise hard candy at Christmas.
The Nelsons have no plans to slow down or scale back their part-time candy business, even though he works full-time and she serves as executive director of Gentiva Hospice in western and north-central Iowa.
“People’s gratitude means a lot, and we want to keep making the treats they love,” Gina Nelson said.
That’s good news for Betty Pollastrini.
“It’s a thrill to see this family tradition carry on,” she said.
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