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.”
THANK YOU MEXICO! Without Mexico we would be chocolate-less. Of course, early on Mexico was home to the Olmecs, known for their large head sculptures, the Mayans, and the Aztecs.
In 1521 explorer Hernán Cortés landed in Mesoamerica and saw a mesmerizing sight: the great Aztec leader Montezuma, bedecked in jewels and feathers, and attended to by 200 wives. And in his regal hand he cupped a golden chalice filled with the cacao drink. This inspired Cortés, largely to overthrow him, which he did with a devastating, bloody blow.
As for the cacao – the bean which is the essence of chocolate today? The Spanish carried that back to Spain and kept their delicious secret hidden for over a hundred years. Gradually, word spread, thanks to the intermarriage of royalty, each secretly sharing their treasured cacao with their betrothed.
Eventually, the Europeans brought their taste for cacao to North America where the likes of Thomas Adams promoted it as a superior drink to the British controlled tea. The Revolutionary War soldiers ate it, a Massachusetts company (now known as Baker’s Chocolate) processed it, and the well-to-do enjoyed it as a hot morning drink, frequently adding the flavors once enjoyed by Montezuma.
When you go to an amusement park, you may notice that there are two types of roller coaster riders: one has hands flung in the air, faces broad with animated expressions, plenty of laughter, and plenty of screaming. Fun screaming. The other is white-knuckled, fingers so tightly wrapped around the bars, you’d think they’d make an imprint. Their eyes are closed – rigor mortis seems to have set in.
Same is true with candy. When the fun-loving visitors come into the True Treats shop, they are excited about the variety, the color and the stories. When they get to the retro-ish stuff, they practically swoon with memories of their childhoods, their grandparents, their vacations and on and on. They ferret out the most unusual candies or the ones with the highest degree of memory per bite.
As for the white-knuckled contingent – they walked hesitantly around the shop with cautious interest. If they have kids, the kids can pick one candy only. For the kids, this is not a fun decision. The parents watch with stern consternation, as if enabling them to view sexy pictures. Not quite porn but not exactly appropriate. Some kids get nothing. They insult my staff – and think nothing of it: they would never eat our candy, never have candy at home. Candy, they inform us, will kill you.
OK, so we know candy won’t kill you. And, we know people don’t eat enough to ruin their health. They just don’t. But candy is about fun and Americans have a trouble with fun. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Americans work 8.8 hours a day, in aggregate per week, more than any other activity, even sleep. Of that amount, only 30% are engaged or inspired at work whereas, yes, 70% dislike their jobs. On weekends they shop, mow the lawn, clean the house, not exactly work but not exactly fun. As for vacation, more than a quarter of Americans take no vacation time, and of those who do, the average is four days a year. As for those four days – 61% actually do some work. As for fun? Huh?
Now – more about candy. Poor lonely, misunderstood candy. The multi-billion dollar pleasure food accounts for roughly 5% of the sugar and roughly 3% of calories Americans consume today. We know how to eat it. A little per day. Maybe a few pieces per week. It’s a gift, a reward, a bit of fun. Which isn’t…well, us. My view: get your fingers off the bar America!! Enjoy the damn things. It won’t kill you. It might even help.
Want to try a sampling of retro candy? Might we suggest: