Hint: It’s the sexiest plant around and the source of one of the most revered flavorings.
It’s the vanilla orchid, known more formally as the Vanilla planifolia. A native of Mesoamerica, it winds its way up other plants, embracing, rather than clinging, as it does. The pod accentuates its intrinsically sexual – and sensual – nature, as it resembles a vagina. Even the name “vanilla” reflects this fact: the Spaniards, who “discovered” the orchid in the early 1500s, compared it to a sheath or “vaina,” derived from the Latin “vagina.” No surprise, the vanilla was long considered an aphrodisiac and, as the flavoring became more bountiful, a comfort food.
Bridge was a popular card game in the early to mid-1900s: it was strategic and engaging, where partners played against other partners, for hours on end. Besides, what better way to escape the horrors of the Depression, the Second World War, and the Cold War? Naturally, the players grew hungry so candy-makers, among others, served as the perfect finger foods where players could nibble away using one hand while holding the cards with another.
Soon, the candies found homes in movie theaters, Halloween collections, grandmother’s candy bowls and just about any other candy-friendly places. So here’s the back story to a few of these shiny little wonders:
Bridge Mix: A compilation of chocolate covered nuts and fruits, this was the ultimate bridge players’ sweet snack. Also comes in licorice, reminiscent of the 19th century licorice allsorts, still available today.
Malted Milk Balls: The malted milk was invented by a British food-maker living in Wisconsin as infant formula. It was a dud with parents but a hit with explorers who took it to the North and South Poles, among other places. Later, it was encased with chocolate and appeared in the less dangerous living rooms of American homes.
Chocolate Covered Raisins: To me, the perfect companion to the ultra-sweet chocolate, with a hint of tart. These guys also became popular in movie theaters in the mid-20th century in ultra-big movie theater sizes…still there today.
Milk Duds. Candy-makers at the F. Hoffman Company of Chicago wanted the chocolate treat to have the malted milk balls shiny finish but the chocolate kept denting the caramels, making the balls wobbly and misshapen. The balls were, in fact, duds. So, savvy marketers called the result “Milk Duds.”
I have found the answer as to why chocolate is so loved. It comes down to this: its versatility. In fact, so accommodating and versatile is the chocolate, it could be a metaphor, if not symbol, for world peace. We have a number of new chocolates that prove the point beyond reason:
Chocolate covered ginger patties. The Mesoamerican chocolate merged with the Asian ginger plant for a perfect balance of spicy, bitter and sweet. All the better as these are hand-dipped in a shop that opened generations ago.
Chocolate covered apricot glace´. The cultivated apricot originated in the Mideast and Mediterranean, where, exactly, no one knows. So did the process of coating fruit in a sugar glaze aka glace´ – this goes back to the 1300s, probably earlier. The sugar tasted good, acted as a preservative, and had health-benefits. Naturally, chocolate, with its Mesoamerican roots, accommodates it nicely.
Chocolate-covered coconut Needhams. This one is the oldest of our new selections, a favorite of a Reverend George Needham in the 1870s. The authentic ingredients include potatoes. We know how the European potatoes got to Maine but how about the coconut? Maine was a hub for whaling ships who traveled the world in search of whale meat and oils…and returned with other exotic prizes, the coconut among them.
As always, if you have any great examples of chocolate merging with other fruits, let us know. Something passed along from your family? Even better!
In the news today, I read that federal agents were arresting Mexican immigrants in sanctuary cities. It reminded me of my own experience with Mexican immigrants about a year ago. This is it:
Last year, I decided we would make fresh popcorn at True Treats, my candy store. It seemed a natural fit: like candy, popcorn is associated with good times – movie theaters, carnivals, state fairs. In fact, the early popcorn machine was invented by Charles Cretors and showcased at the illustrious Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. What could be better?
The attempt didn’t go as well as expected: even though the old-fashioned looking machine was right at the door, exuding delicious waves of popcorn scent onto the street, we had relatively few takers. By the end of the day, we would have a stack of bags in the silent machine, awaiting unlikely purchase or disposal.
One evening, as I was starting to shut down the store, a family paused by the door. I heard kids’ voices, four of them, it turned out (and a baby held by the mother), all excited about – you got it – popcorn. The parents were young, likely in their late 20s, and, as I soon learned, originally from Mexico. The connection didn’t dawn on me then but popcorn originated in their homeland, dating back to 3600 BC. What I did notice was the excitement in the kids’ faces.
When I reached the doorway, the kids were conferring with their parents about buying a bag. Then, after some discussion, the mother paused to ask the price of a bag. I told them and from the parent’s expression, I saw the answer wasn’t good news. More discussion, the kids’ anticipation almost palpable. The parents and kids came to an agreement and asked for one bag. One bag – for all those kids? Tell you what, I told them, I won’t charge you – you can have it.
I’m not sure what they thought I said, but the kids ran down the stairs all at once, with that kind of excited running happy kids get, and lined up in an eager row. I handed the smallest kid a bag of popcorn and the others waited in place for one of their own. Which was not what I had planned on doing, but the oldest kid, a chubby boy, was so excited he was doing a little dance, smiling, smiling, looking right at me.
So, seizing the moment, I handed out the bags with great ceremony, one at a time, taking a bag, turning the paper at the top a little so the contents wouldn’t spill out, and handing it to the next child in line. Then they thanked me and raced up the stairs, back to the father and the mother holding the baby, all of them very, very happy.
And I knew right then that giving them the popcorn wasn’t a handout but a gift, a gift that was available and wonderful, and, as they were kids and all, rightfully theirs.
The animated Betty Boop began life in 1932 as a flapper, a relic of the gay ‘20s when women did as they pleased from the kitchen to the Speakeasy. Gradually Betty became more proper, due to the Hays Code, which restricted unseemly content in movies.
Getcha Candy Here!
The ‘30s were a bad time for the nation but movies were a great escape. And to sweeten the occasion, movie theaters started adding candies in the increasingly popular concession stands. Among the leading sweets were Jujubes, Milk Duds, chocolate covered raisins and malted milk balls.
The Max Fleischer/Helen Kane/ “Baby” Esther Jones Controversy
Max Fleischer, a Jewish immigrant from Krakow, created Betty Boop. Singer Helen Kane claimed Fleischer based the character on her – and ruined her career in the process. They had a show-down in court and just as Fleischer appeared to be losing, a sound test surfaced revealing “Baby” Esther Jones, an African American singer, as the true Betty Boop.
Billie Holiday, born Eleanora Fagan Gough in 1915, lived a remarkable, ground-breaking, and tragic life. She was raised in an impoverished section of Baltimore by her mother, her jazz guitarist father rarely around. After spending two years in reform school, she moved to Harlem with her mother where she ran errands in a brothel and later worked as a prostitute. Eventually, she went to a speakeasy looking for work as a dancer, but wound up singing instead. This launched a remarkable, international career where she appeared with Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Artie Shaw and other greats. At a time of segregation, she broke barriers – a black woman working with an all-white orchestra.
Tragically, throughout her remarkable life, Holiday suffered from alcohol and drug addiction. In 1947, she was arrested for heroin possession and sent to jail. When released months later, talent agent Ed Fishman convinced her to give a comeback concert at Carnegie Hall. Holiday thought no one would come. Instead, the concert was sold out.
Eventually, addiction was Holiday’s undoing. While laying on her hospital death bed suffering from related heart and liver failure, she was arrested for drug possession. The police raided her room and were stationed at the door. She died there in 1959.
Billie Holiday: Struggle and Fame
Perhaps one of Holiday’s greatest recordings was “Strange Fruit.” Based on a poem about lynching in the South by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish schoolteacher, it underscores Holiday’s power and brilliance.
Grammy Hall of Fame
Billie Holiday was posthumously inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, which is a special Grammy award established in 1973 to honor recordings that are at least twenty-five years old, and that have “qualitative or historical significance.”
Billie Holiday: Grammy Hall of Fame Awards
Year Recorded Title Genre Label Year Inducted Notes
1944 “Embraceable You” Jazz (single) Commodore 2005
1958 Lady in Satin Jazz (album) Columbia 2000
1945 “Lover Man (Oh, Where Can You Be?)” Jazz (single) Decca 1989
1939 “Strange Fruit” Jazz (single) Commodore 1978 Listed also in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress in 2002
1941 “God Bless the Child” Jazz (single) Okeh 1976
Grammy Best Historical Album
The Grammy Award for Best Historical Album has been presented since 1979.
2002 Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday Columbia 1933-1944 Winner
1994 The Complete Billie Holiday Verve 1945-1959 Winner
1992 Billie Holiday — The Complete Decca Recordings Verve 1944-1950 Winner
1980 Billie Holiday — Giants of Jazz Time-Life Winner
When Billie Holiday got her start in a speakeasy, candy was celebrating the speakeasy life. Here’s why: Many of the prohibition crowd were also anti-candy for a variety of reasons. Some had to do with class and the unwarranted power candy bestowed on poor kids and some with sugar’s role in fermentation (think: the popular saloon drink Rock n’ Rye made with rock candy) among many other reasons. So, candy-makers had some fun and named their candy after popular speakeasy cocktails. Here are a few:
Squirrel Nut Zipper: Made by the Squirrel Nut company and named for the favorite speakeasy cocktail, the Zipper.
Nik L Nips: The whiskey bottle-shaped sugar-water filled candy named “Nik” – the cost was a nickel and “Nip” for a nip of whiskey.
Charleston Chew: Named for the dance, a favorite in speakeasies and movies about the Flapper/speak-easy, free-wheeling life.
Mint Julep: Yup, this toffee was likely made for the sweet and spiked Southern drink by the same name.
What is the connection between iconic silent screen actor Charlie Chaplin and a favorite retro candy?
The year was 1925 and Charlie Chaplin was making a movie that would later be renowned as a silent movie classic. The film was called “The Gold Rush” and in it he played a poor, starving gold miner, so starving, in fact, he was forced to eat his boot. This put Chaplin in a bind: he needed an edible boot. What to do? What to do? Chaplin called the American Licorice company who had just settled into their San Francisco home. The company filled the order with what is likely the world’s first licorice boot with licorice laces as shoe laces! The company invented Snaps® in 1930 and a new, non-licorice licorice aka “red licorice” in the 1950s, which goes by the name of Red Vines® and today sells more than black.
“Sweet as Sin: the Unwrapped Story of How Candy Became America’s Favorite Pleasure” (Prometheus, 2016) by Susan Benjamin
Ok – I don’t get why Americans hate corn syrup. It’s sugar. I know, the whole corn-taking-over-the-nation fear and the GMO problem. But these aren’t really about corn: they’re about our agro-economy. Don’t like GMOs, there’s plenty of non-GMO corn syrup – in fact, we sell some at True Treats.
As for the invented part? That’s the best thing! Unlike many other sugars on the market today, corn syrup is an North American original, made by the Native Americans living in various parts of the land. They also candied the cob, probably by boiling it and allowing the sugar to crystallize.
“Sweet as Sin: the Unwrapped Story of How Candy Became America’s Favorite Pleasure” (Prometheus, 2016) by Susan Benjamin