A recent trip to my home state of Wisconsin held a touch of sadness as well as the usual pleasure I feel when seeing old friends and family. In the past, these visits would always end with a trip to a candy store — in the old days, it was one called Buddy Squirrel, I suppose because fragrantly roasting nuts were the main draw. But, more recently, I was able to stop at a candy store right at the Milwaukee airport where I would always find what I was looking for: Wisconsin Candy Raisins, for me, the Holy Grail of confections. But, alas, I will never have them again, for the local factory that made them has been shut down, and the parent company has moved production to Massachusetts and discontinued that particular treat. While Steve Almond talks about this kind of pain in “Candyfreak,” until now such heartache had never hit home.
To call Wisconsin Candy Raisins “raisins” is a misnomer, for these candies did not contain real raisins nor were they enrobed in chocolate. In fact, they weren’t much to look at — yellowy-tan, maybe a half-inch in size with a wrinkled top (the reason why they were called raisins). They were a kind of stiff gum drop that when bitten into released a flavor some describe as perfumy, others say gingered honey, and I say pure heaven. I have never come across a taste that is anything like it (and I never miss an opportunity to bite into a new candy) so comparisons are impossible. I only know that something I dearly loved is gone, and that I now bear a new grudge against corporate America.
And, I am not alone. As soon as I recovered from the shock that my favorite candy had disappeared, I checked online to see if I could locate a supply, for I harbored a fantasy that I would be able to eat them one last time. No luck. Instead I found a website established by another Wisconsinite who had organized a petition to be sent to the New England Confectionery Company (NECCO) for the purpose of persuading them to bring back our beloved candy. I signed, and so did more than 7,000 others, all of us fighting on the side of innocent pleasure. We also were asked to comment, and the testimonials produced are enough to break your heart: “NO!! Tell me it isn’t so!!!” said one anguished writer. Another echoed, “Say it isn’t so!” and went on to complain, “First I have to move to Boise, Idaho, and now this!” I was reminded of the first of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ seven stages of grief: shock and denial.
One mourner appealed to our sense of history, stating that “taking away the candy raisin is like tearing up the Declaration of Independence,” while another suggested that the product be protected by putting it on the historic register. One man declared them vital to education, saying, “I learned math skills at the corner store figuring how many Candy Raisins I could buy with 25 cents.” But most of the statements evoked nostalgia and loss, one person informing us that the candy was served at grandpa’s funeral because they were his favorite, while another confessed, “These candies have helped me get through some rough times and boring meetings. Don’t take away my sanity during these trying times.”
What really caught my attention, however, was the writer who said, “If we lose Candy Raisins, the terrorists have won,” making me realize that the trauma of this loss reflects the current zeitgeist.
Like so many others, I contacted customer service at NECCO hoping to hear that production of our beloved candy was being considered, but soon learned that the company had no plans to bring back the product, which led me to ask for the recipe. The customer-service lady immediately took on an “are you out of your mind?” tone with me, and I have to admit, our conversation got a little heated after that since I recall muttering something negative about their dusty wafers. Because the NECCO factory is not far from where I now live, I thought about mobilizing an angry protest, but soon realized that kindred spirits were many miles away and sympathetic local friends who might have joined me had never known a Wisconsin Candy Raisin and therefore lacked appropriate passion. Instead of picketing with a sign, I fell into a reverie about the sad disappearance of many favorite candies, including such brands as the Powerhouse, Chicken Dinner and Caravelle bars, and local favorites which, like my candy raisins, most of us have never heard of: Cherry Humps; Pecan Petes; Whiz Bars, and Snirkles. Most likely these brands were purchased by corporations, then snuffed out as unnecessary competing products, showing no consideration for the bereaved.
This sad state of affairs is in sharp contrast to the origins of many candies that were created by optimistic immigrants who, with a copper pot, wooden spoon and some imagination, were able to invent treats and then establish candy shops that attracted a local following. Some that began in this way — Tootsie Rolls and Almond Joys, for examples — are now part of big candy conglomerates, but at least they still exist. However, the fate of small, family-owned candy companies has been bleak. Not able to get their products into large supermarkets because of exorbitant fees charged for shelf space, and with small local groceries just about gone, these businesses cannot compete and have either sold out or shut down. See for yourself. The candy aisles of most supermarkets and drugstores display piles of the same old stuff produced by just a handful of huge companies — Hershey’s, Mars, Nestle and Brach’s. The goal of these corporations is to get bigger and bigger and compete for the largest share of the market. But from the standpoint of the consumer who feels the loss of old-time favorites, this corporate reach for more and more has led to less and less.
Barbara Haber is a food historian and the former curator of books at Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library at Harvard University where she built a major collection of cookbooks and other books related to food, and influenced the recognition of food history as a viable field of academic and professional study. She founded the Radcliffe Culinary Friends, which supported the library’s culinary collection and provided a forum for food writers from across the country to present their work to an appreciative audience. She also held monthly gatherings, called “First Monday,” where local chefs and writers came together to hear talks on timely food-related topics.
Barbara’s books include “From Hardtack to Home Fries: An Uncommon History of American Cooks and Meals” and “From Betty Crocker to Feminist Food Studies: Critical Perspectives on Women and Food,” which she co-edited. She has written numerous articles and reviews including “Home Cooking in the White House” published in “White House History.” She is currently working on a book about food and World War II in the Pacific tentatively called “Cooking in Captivity.”
She is a former director of the International Association of Culinary Professionals and currently serves on the awards committee and chairs the Who’s Who Committee of the James Beard Foundation. She is a frequent speaker on topics related to the history of food as well as popular food topics, and has appeared on television’s “The Today Show,” “Martha Stewart Living” and The Cooking Channel. Barbara was elected to the James Beard Foundation’s “Who’s Who’s in Food and Beverages” and received the M.F.K. Fisher Award from Les Dames d’Escofier.
Photo: Candy. Credit: Sondra P.