Archive for 2010

Celebrating “Best Blog Food Writing of 2010” has named Candy Professor one of the Best of the Blogs 2010.

Today’s featured blogs are … the Shakespeares of the blog world. Let’s face it: The pictures get our attention, but it’s the writing that keeps us coming back day after day, post after post.

Thanks for this recognition, Fine Cooking. I’ll keep writing in 2011, I hope you’ll keep reading!

December 30, 2010 at 11:09 am 2 comments

Panning for Sugar Plums

I have been investigating the term sugar plum, which refers to a panned seed or nut candy (comfit or dragee) from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. Think a small jaw breaker, but with a caraway seed at the center. Sugar plum could also refer in the nineteenth century to confectionery in general, or more narrowly to the sorts of candy that are smaller and rounder. My essay on sugar plum should be appearing on The Atlantic web site shortly, but meanwhile here I wanted to share some interesting descriptions of candy manufacture that I came across in my research.

An 1868 magazine article on “Sweets and their Manufacture” introduces readers to the innovations in confectionery made possible as a result of steam heat. Here is a detailed description of the process that yields the sugar plum, in this case based on an almond:

The veritable sugar-plum, or almond-drop, is made in a very interesting manner. A number of almonds, after being coated with a little gum to catch the white sugar, are thrown into a deep pan surrounded with steam. This pan revolves sideways at an angle of forty-five degrees. As it revolves the almonds, of course, tumble over one another, and whilst they are doing so, the workman pours over them from time to time liquid white sugar, allowing a sufficient time to elapse between each supply for the sugar to harden upon the comfit. In this way it grows by the imposition of layer upon layer, until it is the proper size. By this simple motion, the sugar is deposited in the smoothest and most regular manner.

This is a description of the process confectioners call “panning,” and the finished product will be familiar to modern readers as a species of what we call “Jordan almonds.”  A similar process is the basis for the broad category of comfits.

Even with the aid of a mechanized rotating pan and steam heat, comfits are a tedious and exacting enterprise. And when it was done by hand, comfit making took days. Although the author of this 1838 recipe insists that comfits may be “easily made at home,” the extensive instructions belie this easy reassurance:

A preserving-pan must be provided with two handles, through which a string is fastened that runs across, which is connected with a pulley attached to a beam, so that at the least touch, the pan rises or falls, or swings backward and forward. … There must be, besides this pan, two saucepans, one to hold a slightly warm solution of gum arabic, the other to contain some syrup which is boiled during a quarter of an hour, when some of finest white starch of wheat is dissolved in water and mixed with it. Under the swinging-pan there is a charcoal fire at a sufficient distance to give it only a gentle heat. The seeds of which the comfits or sugar-plums are to be made, are put into the swinging-pan when it is just warm. A ladleful of the solution of gum is poured over them, and the seeds are briskly stirred and rubbed with the hands till they feel dry; a ladleful of the syrup mixed with starch is next poured in, and the seeds again rubbed and stirred till they are dry. This process is repeated until the comfits have undergone the first operation. They are then set in a stove to dry. Next day the operation is repeated, the quantity of starch being varied and the syrup made stronger; and so on every day till the comfits are of the requisite size.

… Good sugar-plums take five or six days in making. … Comfits are made with caraway seeds, cardamums, bleached almonds, and a variety of other things.

According to Laura Mason in The Prehistory of Sweets, prior to the invention of labor saving machinery the techniques for making comfits were closely guarded and few had the expertise to make them. So comfits or sugar plums were a luxury good, most likely to be found in an aristocrats pocket or between courses at a very decadent royal banquet. Isn’t it nice to think that jelly beans and M&Ms, our contemporary version of panned candies, have such a noble ancestry?

Related post: Candy Confetti

December 17, 2010 at 11:04 am 1 comment

Cockroaches for Christmas (candy of course)


If you’d like to experience a bit of Victorian Christmas this year, you might visit the David Davis Mansion in Bloomington, Indiana. Historical interpreters at this museum are re-creating some late 19th century holiday traditions for their visitors. One might surprise you: Christmas candies in the shape of cockroaches!

Marcia Young of the museum explained to a reporter for the Illinois Times:

“Candy was a big deal to kids. Getting candy only happened on very special occasions,” says Young. For Christmas, Victorians gave them lots of candy in stockings or as gifts. Some of that candy was made to look like items in nature. “This was a time in which a lot of exploration is occurring all over the globe,” Young says. “Victorians are very excited about what they’re finding. They’re fascinated by the natural world, even the smallest parts, like insects.” That fascination inspired their candy-making, so they created [candies] that looked like carrots, lobsters, rabbits, beetles, spiders, and even cockroaches.

Today the Davis Mansion is offering a modern interpretation of those Christmas Cockroaches, made of molded chocolate.  But the candies the Davis children received long ago would not likely have been made of chocolate. The museum has a letter received by Sarah Davis that describes a “sugar cockroach” received by a young friend in Massachusetts.

A “sugar cockroach” would be a molded fondant candy, similar to the inside of a Peppermint Patty.  Candy corn was invented around the same time; like cockroaches, corn was another of the plants, animals and insects that were popular shapes for the candy of the day (see my article on the history of candy corn at Now, I wonder why candy corn was so popular, and candy cockroaches just didn’t catch on? And what about candy bedbugs?

December 14, 2010 at 8:59 am 1 comment

Chicken Dinner is not for Dinner

Chicken Dinner.

Of all the “jazzy” candy bars from the 1920s, this one still seems the most strange. Candy and chicken seem about as far apart as you can get. What were they thinking?

Sperry Candy Company of Milwaukee WI introduced the bar in 1923 with the slogan “Candy Made Good.” Good like candy, but also good like chicken dinner. An ad to the trade explained the reasoning behind the name: “A name which suggests the best of something good to eat, and known to every child.” These children of 1923, I’d love to meet them. Sperry seemed to think that a big roast chicken was the best lure for the kiddie market.

Trade ad, 1924 Confectioners Journal



Chicken Dinner originally sold for 10 cents, the high end of the candy piece market. Sperry described it as “an expensive, high grade candy, put up in convenient 10 cent packages.” Neither in the ads nor on the package did they say much about what was actually in the candy bar. The innovation and excitement of Chicken Dinner wasn’t nuts or nougat, it was the name.

Chicken Dinner meant quality and goodness. What it did not mean, at least not directly, was meal replacement. I’ve read in more than one account of candy during the Depression that bars like Chicken Dinner and Denver Sandwich were popular in part because they promised a kind of imaginary substitute for more expensive real meals. Now I’m beginning to doubt that story. For one, both those bars were first marketed before the Depression, so the context of empty pockets and hungry bellies doesn’t explain these names’ origins. Candy bars in this period had all kinds of outlandish names. Choosing to call your candy bar something so unlike candy, but still appealing, seems a great way to get a second look in a crowded field. But more than that:  the idea that a candy bar might be contemplated as somehow equivalent to chicken or a sandwich sounds much more like our contemporary “anything goes” food culture.

I suspect a candy bar named “Pizza Dinner” today might not take off the way Chicken Dinner did. It was one of the best selling candy bars in its day, and remained on the market for some 50 years. It wasn’t just that everybody loved a good chicken dinner. And it probably didn’t have too much to do with the bar itself.  It was advertising.

In the 1920s, not everyone realized that advertising was the secret to success. Candy bars that were heavily advertised from their inception would go on to bigger and bigger shares (anyone could have realized in the early 1920s that Milky Way and O, Henry! would be the ones to watch). There was no TV in those days. Radio advertising wouldn’t really catch on until the 1930s. So live interactions with the candy-buying public were the only way to get the word out.

Chicken Dinner billboards were a common sight around the land. But Sperry wasn’t just waiting around for potential customers to pass by to see the sign. In 1926, Sperry’s advertising experts came up with the idea of putting  Chicken Dinner signs, and big colorful chickens, on automobiles and driving them around cities drumming up excitement. Back up was provided by teams of window trimmers, artists, and even circus clowns. Behind the scenes, Sperry was assigning advertising staff to work permanently in the field to support distribution and sales. This was a new idea; most companies sent their goods off with jobbers who made the distribution rounds in different locations and didn’t stick around to provide marketing support.

The best think about Chicken Dinner besides the name was the chicken cars, which became quite elaborate. Fleets of Chicken Dinner cars or trucks would arrive in town to deliver the candy goods. Here you can see an image from the mid 1930s; here’s a later model. What did people think the first time they saw one?



December 9, 2010 at 3:59 pm 6 comments

Jazzy Names for Candy Bars

The late 1920s and early 1930s were the Golden Era of the candy bar. Candy nostalgists talk a lot about those good old days. How many candy bars do you think were introduced between the world wars? A couple hundred? A thousand?

I don’t know the absolute answer. But ponder this: in 1927, a Milwaukee printer who was churning out wrappers for all those bars estimated that there were 15,000 new bars coming out every year. Fifteen thousand a year!

First off, obviously that did not mean there were 15,000 different new kinds of candy being invented every year. These bars were made by different companies, and they had different names, but there were popular formulas that were copied: nut bars, marshmallow bars, nougat bars, combine and repeat. Some were national products, but many more were local or regional with limited distribution, so the 15,000 new products each year would not all have arrived in the same place.

The variation and the multiplication of these candy bars was mostly happening on the surface: branding and packaging. A catchy name was just as important as a yummy bar. But when there are 15,000 new bars a year coming out, figuring out a new name for your bar gets a little tricky. A candy bar needs a name that is snappy and easy to remember. It needs to be original and distinctive, but  it also has to be easy to read and pronounce.

I always figured that the wacky candy bar names of the 1920s and 1930s were a reflection of the peculiar sense of humor in the old days. But there was a real problem: they just didn’t have enough traditional candy words to name all the new candy bars. So you get all those crazy names that are fun to dig up, like these that were sold around 1926-1928: Snirkles, Cold Turkey, Nut Pattikins, Wild Oats, Toasted Waffel, Sunny Jim, Old Nick, Old King Tut, Sphinx, Kid Boots. And some clever puns, like Damfino

Who really cares what a candy bar is called, right? The funny thing was, some people cared a lot.

Of course, big sucessful candy bar makers cared when little upstarts tried to steal their good will by copying their brands. Lots of trademark infringement litigation ensued.

But the other kind of name that got some people in a tizzy was the “jazzy” names.  Candy bars were coming out with names like: Red Hot Liza, Big Dick, The Jazz Hound, Fat Susie, Sloppy Sally, Fat Emma.  These slang names seemed to ooze out of dance halls and speak-easies. One proper citizen dismissed these as a vulgar  affront to her sensibilities:

“This style of name perhaps will meet popular favor amongst the flappers and the cake-eaters; on the other hand it sounds repulsive to a modest and refined customer.”

Repulsive or not, these names were risky: hot today, not so much tomorrow. Notice how you’ve never seen a “Fat Emma”? One of the top sellers of 1926, but it’s hard to imagine a candy bar with that name taking off in 2010.


December 7, 2010 at 10:46 am 5 comments

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 from Thin Air

I don’t know whether to file this one under “Willy Wonka” or “Star Trek.”

In 1928 a report came out of Frankfort-on-Main that German chemists were working on the synthetic production of sugar. The idea was to take the carbon, oxygen, and hydogen that make up our atmosphere, and somehow combine them in the lab to create sugar. In theory it makes sense: sugar is a carobohydrate, a combination of carbon, oxygen and hydrogen. But it sounds a lot like those food replicators on Star Trek where you punch in your favorite pie and the computer assembles it out of atoms. Great in theory, but probably not gonna happen.

An unnamed scientist is quoted by way of explanation for this futuristic research: “Since we are deprived of the sources of raw products, we have been compelled in view of our crowded condition of population to resort to scientific research in our national fight for physical existence.” That is to say, if the scientists succeeded in extracting caloric food from thin air, the nation’s food problems would be solved.

Knowing how Germany’s “national fight for physical existence” played out in the following decades, this remark is a little chilling.

As for candy, I do not think the scientists succeeded in creating sugar out of air. Plants can do it, that’s what photosynthesis is. But this scientist was correct to predict “a series of revolutionary discoveries in food chemistry in the next few years.” The “green revolution” used chemistry to increase crop yields: if the scientists couldn’t replicate photosynthesis in the lab, they did manage to leverage photosynthesis in the field to produce more usable food calories per acre.

Industrial farming efficiencies have made corn an increasingly important (and cheap) source of starches and sugars. And cheap corn is part of what has kept candy so cheap and plentiful.  So if we think of the effects of chemistry on transforming crop yields, maybe we did end up with a sort of candy from thin air.

Sources: Jan. 10, 1928 AP story as reported in Confectioners Journal Feb. 1928, p. 70. Star Trek card uploaded to Flikr by Jimmy Tyler.

November 29, 2010 at 9:35 am Leave a comment

Candyman on the Documentary Channel

The Documentary Channel will air Candyman: The David Klein Story on Saturday, November 27 at 8 p.m. ET/PT.

I got a chance to preview the film. David Klein is the inventor who came up with the idea of intensely flavored, gourmet jelly beans: the Jelly Belly. The Jelly Belly craze of the 1970s was a huge candy phenomenon. One of the things I love about the film is the inside look at the workings of the candy business and the impact of Jelly Belly as a new candy idea.

It’s a great documentary: moving, suspenseful, sad. But the David Klein story actually doesn’t have so much to do with candy. It’s really a story about business: the little guy vs. the big rapacious company, the nice guy vs. the sharks.  The candy business, it turns out, is just like every other business.

The set up is a little ironic, since the company that is now Jelly Belly is, in relation to Hershey and Mars and the like, the little fish swimming with the barracudas. But in David Klein’s story, Goelitz/Jelly Belly is the corporate face of greed. In fact, in David Klein’s world, every other business or business partner is sneaky and devious and out to steal. In contrast, Klein just gives stuff away. Sure, he’s a nice guy, but it’s not a very successful business model.

Klein was a small candy and nut distributor. When he came up with the Jelly Belly concept, he contracted with Goelitz to formulate and manufacture the product. As Jelly Bean exploded, Klein gradually lost control, first by taking on partners, then by selling the trademark to Goelitz. Today, Klein has no stake in Jelly Belly. He continues to invent candy novelties but it is unlikely that “Alien Urine” or “Chocolate Turd” will bring him back to the top of the candy heap.

The film tries very hard to depict Klein as a sort of Candy Lear, blinded by his faith in the good will of others and brought down by his childlike generosity. But the story also is a bit of 3 Stooges do David and Goliath: David shows up, but he forgets his slingshot and bends down to tie his shoes.

Weird Al Yankovic also makes an appearance as a candy commentator. Between Weird Al and oddball Dave the film brings a spirit of goofy fun to the story. But in the end, it is a sad tale of one man brought low by either the badness of the world or by his own inability to understand and control his interests.

Tragic hero or comic bumbler? Lear or Falstaff? Come back and let me know what you think.

November 24, 2010 at 9:53 am 1 comment

American Heritage Chocolate

Mars, Inc. has got some interesting stuff going on. Not just the M&Ms and the Snickers. Mars also runs a Historic Division. One of the projects of this division has been to reconstruct what chocolate from the Colonial era would have tasted like. After several years of top secret research, a product has come to market: American Heritage Chocolate.

How do we know what chocolate tasted like 200 years ago? Well, unless you can transport your tongue in a time machine, you’re out of luck. The next best thing is to try to reconstruct how food was made, and then taste the result.

So researchers dug into old records, letters, recipe books and inventories to figure out what sort of chocolate colonial Americans might have been able to make: what kind of tools they would use, what kind of things would be added.

First off, no chemicals. Colonial chocolate is by default “all-natural.” So just chocolate, sugar, salt to start with. No milk; milk chocolate won’t be invented for quite some time.

And what about the tools? For chocolate, the difference in tools between the colonial era and today is what makes the biggest difference.

Chocolate beans in colonial America would have been ground on a stone similar to a Mexican metate. Today this grinding is done by powerful machines, making the grain of the chocolate bean infinitesimally small. That is what makes chocolate so smooth. But grinding by hand on a stone would make the chocolate much more grainy, with tiny bits of chocolate nibs.

So this is Mars version of the “heritage chocolate”: dark chocolate, about the sweetness of semi-sweet baking chips. But more gritty, you definitely notice the coarser grind of the chocolate. There is also a strong spicy flavor: chile and cinnamon, primarily.  Did colonial chocolate taste spicy? Many different flavors were added to chocolate in the 18th century: amber, musk, pepper, cloves, and vanilla are among the various flavorings mentioned in 18th century recipes. For the particular combination in American Heritage Chocolate, the  researchers imagined what other sorts of spices might have been ground on the chocolate stone, giving the chocolate extra flavors when it was ground.

The other think I notice about this historical chocolate is that it sort of crumbles in your mouth, rather than the mooshy melty mouth feel of expensive modern chocolate. Modern chocolate is carefully tempered, repeatedly warmed and cooled within very precise parameters. This what gives chocolate its velvety texture. The colonial chocolate makers didn’t temper their chocolate, so the heritage chocolate is more brittle.

Heritage Chocolate is sold in eating sticks which look sort of rustic, unevenly shaped and dusted with cocoa powder and cinnamon. Mars has spared no expense in re-creating the authentic look of the past with modern methods; evidently a machine has been fabricated that makes the chocolate look like it is formed by hand. It is not clear whether Colonial Americans would actually have eaten their chocolate this way. In the 18th century chocolate was enjoyed as a beverage, melted into water or milk, although uses in cooking and baking began to appear in the second part of the century. But the stick form certainly appeals to modern chocolate snackers. You can also purchase Heritage Chocolate in a cake form for baking or drinking if you want to feel more authentically colonial.

For now, you can only buy Heritage Chocolate in the gift shops of select history museums and heritage sites. It may be very popular in those shops, but it seems a pretty limited market.

Which brings me to the big question about American Heritage Chocolate: Why? It is difficult to comprehend a company like Mars, super competitive in the snacking marketplace, would invest huge sums of money in this kind of geeky project, which has involved not only researching this chocolate, but a whole host of other very un-lucrative historical chocolate research.

I have a theory. It’s about bragging rights. Mars and Hersheys are rivals for America’s chocolate heart. Hershey got there first: the Hershey was making chocolate before 1900; Mars didn’t come along until the 1920s. So when the Mars Historic Division declares the goal of “becoming the undisputed leader in chocolate history,” its about claiming the present by taking over the past. It’s just a theory, mind you. I actually prefer the alternative explanation: with all that money and all those resources, Mars just decided to do something good in the world. It’s possible!

More at Mars also has another research division working on the chocolate genome and related chocolate biology; see my post Coming Soon: Glow in the Dark Chocolate

Disclosure: I received samples of American Heritage Chocolate from the manufacturer.

November 22, 2010 at 10:00 am 3 comments

What else is in Candy? 1926 version

We think of candy as being all sugar. That’s what is so bad about candy, I’ve heard.

In 1926, an Ohio candy manufacturer put together this display after his customers complained too much about the price of his goods. Sugar prices were falling, but those candy makers still expected to be paid! The point of this display is to show the various and expensive ingredients that a candy maker uses.

Some variation of this “many ingredients of candy” was also a popular defense when candy makers sought to prove that candy was food: the milk, eggs, butter, nuts and fruit gave evidence that candy was made of the same wholesome ingredients as every other kind of food.

To me, looking at this from the vantage point of our over-chocolated present, it is refreshing to imagine the varieties of candies that once could have been concocted from these fruits, nuts and flavors:

Chocolate liquor, malted milk chocolate, vanilla chocolate, Swiss milk chocolate, light sweet chocolate, dark sweet chocolate, turpenless lemon, turpenless orange, raspberries, pineapple wedges, grenadine cherries, essence raspberry, arome grapes, oil orange, oil clove, spearmint oil, oil bergamot, oil cinnamon, essence maple, malted milk, evaporated milk, oil lemon, corn syrup, essence cherry, oil banana, strawberry fruit flavor, vanillin, menthol crystals, essence strawberry, essence pineapple, oil lime, pineapple, butterscotch bouquet, oil sassafras, vanilla, oil anise, peppermint oil, pineapple cubes, grated pineapple, carmine red color, vegetable color yellow, cocoanut, oil, G. P. glycerine, nucomoline, peanut butter, vegetable color green, vegetable color pink, macaroon cocoanut, toasted macaroon cocoanut, chip cocoanut, vegetable color orange, brazil nuts, pure licorice, pineapple fritters, citric acid, seedless raisins, muscat seeded raisins, cocoa butter, cream of tartar, thin boiling starch, agar agar, pure cane sugar, egg albumen, cane powdered sugar, granulated gelatin, cocoa powder, powdered milk, horehound herb, peanuts, gum Arabic, Valencia almonds, chicle, threaded cocoanut, walnuts, filberts, pecans, black walnuts.

November 19, 2010 at 9:10 am 1 comment

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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.

(C) Samira Kawash

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