The beginning of the 20th century was a big time for the Goelitz family. Brothers Gustav and Albert, having set up a successful candy operation in Belleville, Illinois, passed the reins of the business to their sons in 1898. Somewhere between then and two years later, the company started selling the hottest new thing in American confectionery, and it'd become so popular the family would have trouble keeping it on the shelves.
That candy was candy corn, at the time a remarkable innovation in candy-making technique, and it helped propel the Goelitzes into becoming one of the most successful candy companies in America. You may know their brand by its current name: Jelly Belly.
Today, candy corn is Halloween's Rodney Dangerfield. But as someone who earnestly loves the stuff, I think it's worth taking a moment to consider just how much we owe those humble kernels.
In a recent candy corn hit piece, Slate describes just how labor-intensive candy corn was to make in the early days:
After mixing a cavity cocktail of sugar, corn syrup, fondant, marshmallow, and water, the slurry would be dyed one of the three candy corn hues: orange, yellow, or white. Laborers would then take 45-pound buckets of the hot liquid candy and pour it into long rows of trays of kernel forms, making three passes, one for each color of the corn. Once this back-breaking work was complete, the molds would cool and candy corn was unleashed upon an autumnal population.
This was heavy stuff, and thoroughly modern for the time. The recipe for candy corn dates back only to the 1880s, and its components—sugar, corn syrup, carnuba wax, marshmallows, and fondant—were each their own small revolution in the processed food world. Put them together and you have a miraculous substance called mellowcreme: a buttery yet butter-free boiled candy that takes on a chewy, fudgy texture before melting into itty bitty sugar crystals on the tongue.
The Wunderle candy company was the first reported mass-manufacturer of candy corn, but the Goelitzes made it a star. Actually, they had trouble keeping it on the shelves, and had to turn down orders that exceeded their factory's capacity.
Candy-lovers back then didn't need wasabi caramels and chocolate-coated bacon nubs to be happy with their sweets. Refined sugar as a remotely affordable product was still a novelty, and as Samira Kawash puts it in Candy: A Century of Panic and Pleasure, "Even 50 years earlier, simple sweets like candy sticks and lozenges were something special...[Earlier,] around 1800, most Americans lived and died having never eaten any manufactured candy at all."
Candy corn didn't just feed the Goelitz company's bottom line. It also helped lay the foundation for the idea of seasonal, Halloween-specific candy. Kawash pins the 1950s as the decade where candy officially took over the growing holiday. Prior, "coins, nuts, fruit, cookies, cakes, and toys were as likely as candy" to make their way into trick or treat baskets. And small candies like candy corn and jelly beans led the candy industry's charge to capitalize on the fall sales opportunity.
I'd say we have something to learn from our 19th and 20th century sweets-lovers: that even simple, hyper-sweet candies like candy corn still have the capacity to delight us. Even—perhaps especially—in a time when sugar is dirt-cheap and ubiquitous in the American diet, slugged into everything from microwaveable burritos to big-gulp sodas, there's something special and pure about a simple candy made from sugar alone. Its uninterrupted sweetness is worth appreciating—in small doses, like it used to be—as a reminder of the presence and power sugar holds over us all.
The most common charge levied against today's besieged candy corn is its unpalatable gritty texture. To which I ask: are you sure you've ever had really fresh candy corn? Like Sour Patch Kids, not all candy corn is created equal. Stale corn develops a leathery crust that wrinkles and clings to the teeth.
But fresh candy corn—well-sealed in an airtight container, and not too old—is softer and creamier than any fudge. Freshness lets its honey flavor come through all the more clearly. Yes, some candy corn is flavored with real honey! It's right there on the Brach's ingredient list. (Not the case for Jelly Belly candy corn.)
Though to be honest, I've always had more love for candy pumpkins than candy corn. While they tend to be firmer and drier than their kernel cousins, their added girth makes for a more satisfying bite and rich, sugary chew. Yes, I'm the guy who steals all the pumpkins out the Autumn Mix bag.
And I'm not the only one with strong feelings for candy corn. That Slate story quotes a 2013 National Confectioners Association survey that points out how 72% of respondents list chocolate as their favorite Halloween candy, compared to a mere 12% for candy corn. What the author fails to mention is how that data puts candy corn in second place among all other candies for October 31st—almost as high a response as gummies, hard candies, mints, and more put together!
Sure, chocolate may get top billing these days, but that hardly makes candy corn the "consolation prize of confections." That's okay, though. Not everyone has what it takes to appreciate the good stuff in life.