Sugar and Spice

Reinventing old-fashioned candy, naturally

Sugar is my caffeine. I require daily infusions. Whether that makes me an addict is a matter of dispute. In her The Taste of Sweet, Joanne Chen relied on the official definitions: compulsively seeking a fix and resorting to destructive behavior to get it. David Kessler, author of the recent The End of Overeating, would say that my brain is a tool of the food industry, which rewires people to crave ever more of the sugar, salt, and fat it pumps into everything. Luckily, I have a sugar threshold, however startlingly high.

I feed my own, shall we say, need by looking for good sugar. In sodas, the trend toward using cane syrup in place of high-fructose corn syrup and natural versus synthetic flavors is well under way, even if higher-priced boutique sodas remain a niche market (and even if Thomas Frieden, the new head of the CDC, says that sodas lie at the heart of the country’s obesity epidemic). Premium ice cream and chocolate remain “affordable luxuries” in the bad economy, and national candy sales are growing fast. You’d think there would be a parallel trend toward artisanal, non-chocolate candy, using better sugar and non-synthesized flavorings. There hasn’t been.

I was delighted when a Boston-based company with the whimsical name of Tiny Trapeze starting making old-fashioned candy on old-fashioned candy machines but using organic sugar and all-natural ingredients. Alas, after buying the company, Whole Foods closed it last April. No more cocoa marshmallows! As for the regional candy companies that blanketed the country during the first Depression, the few remaining ones—which Steve Almond entertainingly toured for his 2004 Candy­freak—are still struggling to survive, and unlikely to put organic sugar and hard-to-get-right natural flavors and colors into embattled business plans.

But I did find heartening Halloween news: Necco wafers, a roll of which I try always to have in my jacket pocket, are just now changing from artificial flavors and neon colors to toned-down natural flavors and lovely, muted colors.

I pay attention to the color of Necco wafers the way others do M&M’s, which don’t even change flavor by color. Necco flavors are proudly peculiar. “It’s a very odd combination, fruit and spice,” Jeff Green, who has been in charge of production and innovation at Necco for more than 25 years, told me. His favorite is clove: “Who makes clove?”

The candy business is notoriously secretive. I wasn’t allowed to see the old machinery that Jim Greenberg, the fourth-generation equipment salesman who is the country’s real Candy Man, told me about; his family sold it to Necco, and he sold Tiny Trapeze its vintage machines. (Union Confectionery Machinery, his Bronx warehouse, is a true Island of Lost Toys, in which decrepit old machinery gets beautifully refurbished and buffed.) But at Necco, Green was generous in describing ingredients during a long, old-versus-new tasting that left me dizzy from a sugar rush.

Jackie Hague, the vice president of marketing, told me that Necco is a Boomer candy; all-natural flavors and colors, the company thought, would draw young mothers concerned about their children’s diet. But non-synthetic colors are fugitive, and natural flavors can’t be easily ratcheted up or down. Cinnamon, for example, made the thin sheet of sugar dough fall apart when the machines stamped out the wafers.

But Green persevered. The flavors he gave me were much, much subtler than the ones I was used to: cinnamon less like Red Hots, lemon less like paper candy dots and more like lemon-meringue-pie filling. And the colors: I was certain that Martha Stewart, who had recently featured Necco wafers on a wedding cake (historically apt; the pièces montées that made Marie-Antoine Carême perhaps the first star chef, in the early 19th century, were made of gum tragacanth, the base of Necco wafers and still the base of many wedding-cake decorations), would be designing a line of paints around them.

The biggest change by far was the chocolate, which went from what Green admitted was really vanilla with a hint of chocolate flavoring to all-cocoa, in four flavors yet. I tried the dark, which was so much more potent and less sugary-seeming that it was an outlier—but an outlier that will, I think, win over grown-ups who have long been uninterested in Neccos. And probably a fair number of trick-or-treaters, too.