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Sweet Talkin' Blog

The Heart at the Heart of Valentine’s Day Candy

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Yes, hearts are at the Heart of Valentine’s Day cards and candy.  Charming, yes, but the origin of the heart is intriguing and well-deserving of its place in Valentine’s Day today. In fact, the heart originated with the silphium plant used by the ancients as an aphrodisiac, medicine, spice and, even, birth control measure. The plant contained a heart-shaped flower and was so celebrated it appeared in artwork, including coins, such as this example dated 510-470 BCE. and this coin from 550-500 BCE: Unfortunately, the silphium was so popular the ancient Romans used it into extinction…but the image lived on,…

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Time in a Glass – Cheers to That!

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Candy and alcohol—delicious, romantic, satisfying. Sugar is the basis of their existence. Both originated as medicine. And both have long been enjoyed at celebrations, rituals, and private intrigues. Wine goes back to 10,000 BCE and evolved through the ages. Around 1531, monks  accidentally created sparkling wine, deemed a flaw until the finer varieties became popular 300 years later. Meanwhile, a 16th century Dutch trader removed water from wine to make shipping cheaper, creating, in the process, brandy. For early Irish and  Scottish immigrants, wine grapes were nonexistent so they turned to grains instead, making bourbon and rye, later mixed with…

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New Years Eve is the Time for Almonds!

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New Years is a time for almonds! And why? Because it’s a time of new beginnings. A time when the light starts to come back and promises of a happier time start to form. SO WHY THE ALMOND? Well…The almond is the first tree to flower in the spring in the Middle East and Mediterranean. For that reason, it has been a symbol of good beginnings for thousands of years, including in the Bible. Sugar coated almonds have been among the favorites and still appear at weddings, Easter baskets, and other events – such as New Years EVE! – welcoming…

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Sugar Plum – Sugar What?

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So what is a sugar plum? Actually, they go back to the 1500s – maybe even earlier.  To make sugar plums, skilled craftsmen apprenticed for years, absorbing the nuances of a trade that makes Julia Child look like a scullery maid in comparison. First, he coated seeds or nuts with gum Arabic, then put them in a “balancing pan,” suspended over a large, low fire, and rolled them in sugar syrup. To keep the coating even and the sugar from crystallizing, he kept the seeds and nuts in constant motion, stirring them with one hand and moving the pan with…

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Who Is That Stately Man?

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Who is this stately man? You’ve know about him since you were a kid. He plays a part, one way or another, in your life. And he has a strange, unlikely, connection to a favorite penny candy. The stately man is none other than Paul Revere. You probably didn’t think he looked like that, right? More likely dashingly lean with a flowing ponytail. But Revere was so much more than that: he was a gold and silversmith, who created surgical instruments, replaced missing teeth, and engraved copper plates that reflect history with precision. Eventually, Revere became a successful industrialist, as…

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The Mystery of Watergate (Salad)

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What on earth is Watergate salad? Who invented it? Why? And why call it Watergate? These questions are circulating around DC these days, and I was fortunate enough to be invited to WAMU, DC’s Public Radio affiliate to weigh in on the matter. So, allow me: Watergate is a dessert made of pistachio pudding, nuts, whipped cream, pineapple, and above all, marshmallows. It first appeared in 1975– a concoction supposedly invented in the kitchens of General Foods – now Kraft – and has since appeared at picnics, church get-togethers, and other family events. Its origin, however, is not in the…

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Yesterday’s Medicines, Today’s Delights: Three Fascinating Flowers

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 Throughout history, people used roots, barks, flowers and seeds as medicines. Today, we recognize them as delights – tasty, relaxing or pleasant pick-me-ups.  I want to tell you about all of them…but there are simply too many to review in one blog. So, let’s start with three flowers: the rose, lavender and marigold. All  are popular today,  typically for their scent and good looks. Through most of history, they’ve been used for many other reasons. Roses Roses have inhabited the earth for 35 million years. The Chinese first cultivated them 5,000 years ago and they have held a place in…

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The Unexpected Origin of the Marshmallow: from Ancient Medicines to the Steam Locomotive

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Yes, the marshmallow really is from the marshmallow plant.  The marshmallow plant, or Althaea officinalis, is a relative of the hollyhock, with pastel-colored, papery flowers.[i] The plant, especially its roots, have a sticky substance that once gave the marshmallow its taste and texture. Today, the root is available as a tea: the mucilage is like a syrup in hot water but thickens into a strangely sweet gel when cool. The plant originated in Europe and West Asia where the ancients used it to treat coughs and sore throats. The marshmallow was also a sweet where the Ancient Egyptians boiled with…

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The Slow and Quick Rise of the Peppermint Plant

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I recently got a call from a reporter at the Wall Street Journal, asking about the background of peppermint in the U.S.: Was it a breath freshener? A medicine? A treat?  The answer is “yes.” Peppermint was all this and more. The peppermint originated as a naturally occurring  hybrid of water mint and spearmint. The exact date of this union is unknown, but the ancient Egyptians and likely, the Greeks, did use it. In Europe, the peppermint appeared in John Ray’s book Methodus Plantarum Nova in 1682 and was listed in the London Pharmacopceia in 1721.   From there, the…

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The Chocolate Tasters Have Spoken!

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And the winner is….Hostess Mints! We sent our official candy tasters a variety of chocolates to try …and the verdict is in! Out of two cordials – Irish cream and peach – chocolate covered figs, milk Wilbur Buds, chocolate cayenne pepper balls, hostess mints, and the great outlier of them all chocolate covered gummy bears…the winner is the Hostess Mints!! So what about the Hostess Mints? They’re a classic treat with chocolate enrobed or sandwiched mint. and a favorite of bridge players from the 1920s through 1950s… Among the positive reviews were that the hostess mint was “GREAT! Much better…

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The Strawberry, a Spy, and a Happy Accident

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Taken, in part, from “Sweet as Sin” (Prometheus, 2016) Strawberry is one of the most popular candy flavors in the nation. It’s in chewing gum, hard candies, jelly beans, taffy, Caramel Creams. Strawberry leaves make a healthy and delicious tea and chocolate covered strawberries are unbeatable. Yet, the most intriguing aspect of the strawberry is its story, involving three continents, international spies, life at the high seas, and science. Humble Beginnings Originally, North American strawberries were tiny little nuggets, a humble yet wild plant. They held special meaning for Native Americans because they were the first to produce fruit in…

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The Remarkable Life and Times of the Jelly Bean

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The story of the  jelly bean is remarkable, spanning cultures and centuries, involving sultans and ancient apothecaries, wars and great literary figures. It began around 226-652 CE in the Persian Empire where the ruling power, the Sasanids, enjoyed a sweet called “abhisa” made of honey, fruit syrups, and starch.  By the 9th century, it appeared in the Arab apothecaries as a remedy for sore throats called “rahat ul-hulküm,” later shortened to “lokum,” meaning “throats ease” which many still use today. The sweet had a more or less humble life until the 1750’s when Sultan Abdul Hamid I fell in love…

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