The candy man can, or the candy woman. I was in my glory a few weeks ago when I spent 2 1/2 delectable days at the Sweets and Snacks Expo at McCormick Place. It was a smorgasbord of colors, tastes, and treats that could have easily caused a 5-pound weight gain. I managed to avoid this malady due to all the walking at the convention as well as back and forth to the train station. As a lifelong candy addict, this amazing expo sent me into a sweet-tooth stratosphere. I was delighted to find tried and true candy favorites, discover wonderful new companies, and meet passionate candymakers that rivaled Willy Wonka with their unbridled enthusiasm.
One of the secrets I uncovered is that the behemoth companies such as Wrigley (part of Mars since 2008), Kraft, Mars, Nutella, Ferrara Pan, and Hershey’s were incredibly stingy in giving away product samples. Wrigley was giving away diminutive packets of gum that were new on the market – kind of cool, but with just 6 pieces of gum, a rip-off at the suggested retail price of 69 cents. Necco was an exception to this rule and had full-size rolls for the taking. Many of the smaller companies were very generous and gave away full-size products if you asked nicely.
Tripping Down Nostalgia Lane – One Delicious Bite at a Time
I will start with Necco, since this a longtime favorite. Now part of American Capital Strategies, Ltd, these wonderful wafers were invented in 1847. I have always loved the sensational assortment of flavors, the lovely pastel colors, and the powdery sugar on the surface. If it was available, I would proudly wear a t-shirt with a picture of a giant Necco roll to advertise what has been one of my favorite candies since I was a youngster. The company has many other treats in its candy portfolio such as Mary Janes, Sky Bars, and Clark Bars, but somehow the marvelous Necco stands head and heels above the rest. I actually used to like Clark Bars as a kid, but they aren’t as good as Butterfingers and I was disappointed when I tried one a few years ago. In any case, I think the Catholic church should contract with Necco to replace the tasteless Eucharist wafers with Necco wafers. The only problem is the congregants would interrupt the priest with the wonderful noise Neccos make when you rattle them on the roof of your mouth and teeth – en masse that would cause quite a cacophony.
C. Howard Company Inc., started by Charles Howard in the early 1930s in New York City, is maker of the wonderfully odd and fragrant confectionary mint called Choward’s Violet. They also manufacture gum which is unique, but as with all non-peppermint gums, it loses its taste too quickly. Always striving to be creatively different, I first discovered these oddities when I was 11 or 12, but didn’t appreciate them until I was 18 – definitely an acquired taste. They are an elusive candy, only available online, in old-fashioned pharmacies with candy counters, and stores that have nostalgic candy sections. I have never seen the other varieties such as lemon, guava, spearmint, and peppermint, and in fact, didn’t even know of their existence until this show. I heard some fellow tell the two gentleman manning the booth that his tote bag smelled lovely due to Choward’s Violet. I agree – I had to segregate the mints because everything else in my bag including chocolate samples absorbed this distinctive scent.
First introduced in Austria 85 years ago, Pez is now manufactured in Orange, Connecticut by Pez Candy, Inc. Pez had a very intriguing display with a lot of special cool dispensers and a motorcycle, but they were very stingy with samples. It wasn’t until the last day that they had full-size packets in little bowls sitting on a few tables inside their massive display booth. Prior to this, they were giving out tiny Pez samples that were 1/2 size of the regular packets. The flavor of Pez is delightfully subtle and nearly as nice as Necco wafers. That, plus the fact that many of the footless Pez dispensers bring big bucks, gives this company a decidedly hip credo.
Classy Fine Candy – Two Wonderful Toffee Companies – Head to Head
One of the sweetest, most affable people I met at this show was George Cohn of Nashville Toffee. His personality matched his wonderful product. I had never heard of this brand of toffee since it is not yet sold in Illinois, but I quickly became a devotee. The great, great-grandson of Meier Werthan, a Nashville businessman in the 19th Century, George and his wife Christina – who uses her grandmother’s candy recipes – opened Nashville Toffee in 2003. Everything is made by hand, in small batches, using only the finest, all natural ingredients and this is evident in the toffee’s exquisite taste. I have to say that in my head to head test, Nashville Toffee slightly outperformed Enstrom’s because of the bounty of crushed almonds on the chocolate coating as well as the thinner pieces. George gave me a 1/2-pound box to take home with me which I will slowly eat, savoring every little bite.
I first discovered Enstrom Almond Toffee when my former company received a gift basket from the Denver Convention and Visitors Bureau prior to its annual meeting being held there in 2011. I only ate one piece since any goodies placed in the staff lunchroom were demolished very quickly, but I was impressed by the pure, smooth flavor and thick chocolate coating. Launched as the Jones-Enstrom Ice Cream Company by Chester K. “Chet” Enstrom in 1929, Chet decided to dabble in creating wonderful candy confections in addition to ice cream. By 1960, his almond toffee had taken off and he founded Enstrom Candies. The Grand Junction, Colorado company makes both dark and milk chocolate almond toffee in several sizes. At the show they gave out an enormous number of Almond Toffee Petites and Almond Toffee Bars. This was one of the most popular booths at the show in the gourmet section and I came home with enough samples to satisfy my Enstrom habit for a while.
Chocolate Peppermint Patties – From So-So to Sublime
I grew up with a dad who didn’t leave any stones unturned in the pursuit of the perfect chocolate peppermint pattie. His tastes ranged from the cheap Junior Mints and York Peppermint Patties to the finest British chocolates from the likes of Fortnum & Mason and Bendicks. And American companies such as Martha’s Candies (a defunct Ma & Pa shop in Chicago) and Bissinger’s, but interestingly, not Frango Mints which are synonymous with Chicago. It is with this pedigree that I flung myself mouth open at the expo in pursuit of the perfect chocolate mint pattie.
Heavenly Organics makes the smoothest, creamiest mint patties on earth – or perhaps in heaven. I discovered these blissful mints sold in singles at Fruitful Yield and have never seen them anywhere else, although I believe some Whole Foods carry them. The original Honey Pattie Chocolate Mint is made with just three ingredients: Raw Organic White Honey, Organic Italian Slow-Roast Dark Chocolate liquor (Unsweetened Chocolate), and Natural Peppermint Oil. I was in heaven when I sampled their new products: Honey chocolate patties with pomegranate, ginger, and almond. While these three patties are incredibly delicious, I still like the mint patties the best. My dad gave these a thumbs up which is quite an endorsement.
On the last day I discovered another delicious chocolate mint pattie that I had never heard of before. Sanders Fine Chocolatiers was offering a Dark Chocolate Peppermint Pattie which was very creamy and tasty. However, in looking at the ingredients, these are not pure – nor organic – containing soy lecithin, corn syrup, artificial flavor, and traces of peanuts and tree nuts. My dad has not yet tasted these so the jury is out in that regard.
A Candy for Every Taste – Child – Adult – and Season
- Dracula Drool – sour liquid candy in test tubes
- Face Twisters Ginormous Sour Tower of Taffy – jump rope size lengths of brightly colored, super sour, sticky taffy
- chocoMe – stunning works of art from Hungary in the form of chocolate with very special toppings
- Gummies galore from many countries in a Pantone palette of colors and delightful shapes
- A Mini automobile painted in a Tic Tac motif filled with – you guessed it – Tic Tacs
- Pop-art like sculptures rivaling Claes Oldenburg – in particular the giant Goetze’s Caramel Cream and huge Smarties roll