Posts filed under ‘General’

Chocolate: History, Culture and Heritage (Book Review)

There are a lot of books about chocolate out there. Probably too many. Is there really that much to say about chocolate? Is our appetite for stuff really so insatiable?

So a book about chocolate has to be really extraordinary to get my attention. This one is: Chocolate: History, Culture and Heritage, edited by Louis Evan Grivetti and Howard-Yana Shapiro (Wiley, 2009).

Well, I’m being a little unfair. This is no ordinary book. This is an enormous and exhaustive compendium: nearly 1,000 pages, including 56 articles and 11 appendices. The articles are written by experts in fields ranging from food history to archeology to chemistry.

This volume is the fruit of the chocolate history group, a loose aggregation formed at UC Davis and sponsored and funded by Mars, Incorporated. In 2004 the group was expanded and a fresh infusion of Mars funding allowed for scholars and researchers from the U.S., Canada and Britain to join in the project. Using the most up-to-date research techniques, including access to newly discovered historical documents and new data bases, this team has produced incredible and original in-depth accounts of every aspect of chocolate history that you could imagine.

It is not, admittedly, a book for the casual reader. And at a list price of $99.95, it is likely to be found mostly in research libraries and very specialized private collections. But for food historians and the candy-curious,  it is a good book to know about. If you are wondering about, say, chocolate’s use in whaling voyages, or the evolution of chocolate manufacturing techniques, this is the work to consult. Here’s a link to the table of contents, fun reading in itself.

There is a lot of concern these days about corporate influence on academic research. This volume, and the enormous work of research it represents, absolutely would not exist were it not for the funding from Mars, Inc. Obviously Mars has a stake in producing more positive images of chocolate. But this research is significant in much more profound ways. The emphasis here is on the history of the making and eating of chocolate, not on the current faddish studies of chocolate’s purported health benefits. Chocolate history, like food history more generally, gives us a window on all kinds of aspects of everyday life in the past.

If Mars is benefitting from this work, it is only in the most indirect ways. So I say, thank you Mars. This is an excellent resource, and I’m very happy that Mars was willing to fund it.

 

December 1, 2010 at 10:35 am Leave a comment

Candy Confetti

An international candy fact: those sweets we call “Jordan Almonds” are known in Italian as “confetti.”

Confetti? Isn’t that the sparkly paper we throw around at weddings and birthdays?

Turns out this strange connection between almonds with colorful sugar shells and shredded paper is no coincidence.

“Comfits” is the general name given in English for the class of sweets made by panning sugar. Before machine made candies like M&Ms and jelly beans in the 20th century, comfits were a luxury item because sugar was expensive, and because the process for building up the sugar coating was laborious. A comfit would be a hard sugar shell that you could suck on, and usually at the center would be a small anise seed, grain of cinnamon, ginger, or any kind of seed or nut. Today’s jaw breakers are basically comfits built up on a grain of sugar rather than a seed.

In Europe in the 16th and 17th century, comfits became associated with parties, festivities, and banquets. If you were in the upper classes who could afford such goods, you would surely have sugared nuts or seeds at your celebrations.

In Italy, those nut comfits were called by a name that sounds a lot like comfit: confetti. If you listen, you can hear it’s really the same word. The famous German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe described one Italian banquet he witnessed in the 18th century:

Now and then a masked fair lady mischievously flings some sugar-coated almonds at her passing friend to attract his attention… But the real sugared confetti is expensive, so a cheaper substitute must be provided for this kind of petty warfare, and there are traders who specialize in plaster bonbons…

Confetti

Throwing around confetti–those sugar coated almonds or their fake plaster substitutes–evolved into our own festive practice of throwing around paper confetti. Although, since paper is not so tasty at the meal, we tend to throw paper confetti at non-meal festivities.

But we still do have one edible relic of the candy comfit associated with celebrations. What are those little colored candy sprinkles we put on cakes, especially children’s birthday cakes? There usually called “sprinkles,” (the long ones are “Jimmies” and the balls “non-pareils”), but they are obviously nothing other than candy confetti!

Source: The story of confetti is told in Laura Mason, Sugar Plums and Sherbet: The Prehistory of Sweets (1998). Image: “Assorted Jordan Almonds” by Nutsinbulk on Flikr

April 12, 2010 at 12:44 pm Leave a comment

Poets and Candymakers: Louis Untermeyer

Louis UntermeyerCandy has no doubt inspired plenty of poetry. While I can’t think of any particular odes to candy’s beauty, a candy dish surely must have fueled many a fire of poetic stamina. And as it turns out, one of the U.S.’s most beloved and influential poets of the twentieth century was a candy lover too.

Louis Untermeyer will be known to any college English major as the editor of numerous anthologies of English and American poetry used in classrooms across the country. He was also a poet, essayist, and literary personality in his own right, publishing over 100 books and anthologies.

Untermeyer lived from 1885 to 1977, nearly a century. Those were the decades when America set its claim to be a “nation of candy eaters,” decades of candy passion on the part of ordinary people, met with incredible variety, creativity, and deliciousness in the candy industry. A poet and a candy enthusiast, he was the perfect choice to write the book on candy at mid-century. In fact, had Untermeyer’s poetic ambitions been less successful, he might have found a career in the candy business:

Being born with the proverbial sweet tooth, I have always found myself lingering in the vicinity of some candy store or other. … Sweets have always changed my disposition and altered my metabolism for the better. As the sugared flavors trickle past my palate, my heart leaps up, the blood courses with a livelier rhythm and my pulse beats with a happier throb. … I have never outgrown my youthful dream of working as chief sampler in a candy factory. (9)

Untermeyer’s book is called: A Century of Candymaking, 1847-1947: The Story of the Origin and Growth of the New England Confectionery Company Which Parallels that of the Candy Industry in America. Published in 1947, the volume marked the centenary anniversary of the invention of the first candy making machine in America: the lozenge-cutting machine, invented by Oliver Chase. Chase’s little candy enterprise would eventually grow into the New England Confectionery Company, one of the biggest and most important candy companies of the twentieth century.

The book was commissioned by the New England Confectionery Company as an official corporate history. The volume includes Untermeyer’s essay, illustrative color plates, a pictorial “trip through the modern factory,” maps of Boston’s historic candy sites and of the global origins of candy ingredients, and a chronology of major candy events from 1847 to 1947. Given the absence of any scholarly or popular history of the candy business in this period, A Century of Candymaking is, all in all, a quite useful little book.

It was not entirely Untermeyer’s work. Historian Marion F.Lansing did all the research and collecting, as Untermeyer acknowledges. But Untermeyer wrote the text. His unique voice and his boyish love of candy bring the stories of American candy heroes to life. There are such notables as Oliver Chase, of the famous lozenge machine; Daniel Fobes, who patented “mocha” in 1867; and Abner Moody, who used his whittling skills to carve fantastical novelty candy molds in the 1870s.

The best of the writing is a Valentine to the candy itself: Gibralters and Pralines and motto wafers and the boggling “array of color, perfection of shape and variety of flavors” that fascinated at the candy shop. Untermeyer indulges his nostalgia for the good old days when he would run to the candy shop, nickel in hand, and while away the afternoon imagining the possibilities. Candy shops, and candies, alas long gone. We’re fortunate to have A Century of Candymaking to show us what’s been lost.

September 21, 2009 at 6:50 am 2 comments


Candy: A Century of Panic and Pleasure

Welcome to Candy Professor

Candy in American Culture What is it about candy? Here you'll find the forgotten, the strange, the curious, the surprising. Our candy story, one post at a time.

Samira Kawash, PhD
Professor Emerita,
Rutgers University

(C) Samira Kawash

All written contents protected by copyright. Except where noted, Candy Professor is my original research, based on archives, journals, magazines, newspapers, and other historical artifacts. You do not have permission to copy or re-post my content. If you want to refer to my work, please create a link from the blog entry and also write out the citation:
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