I am alive and autumnal. In this state, I read about candy corn, the seasonal candy that looks like corn kernels. And everything I read about candy corn insists that I have a strong opinion on the matter. Love it or hate it! But must I? The truth is simpler: Candy corn is not evil or good, but simply present.
I’m not going to rehearse the whole story. Candy corn is a late-19th-century confection, invented during an agrarian age that found horticultural treats endearing. Its tricolor, three-part composition was laborious to construct and novel to behold. Once perennial, it later became associated with autumn and then Halloween.
Traditions marking the passage of death, All Hallows’ Eve and its precursors have haunted the harvest season, when plant life dies to be later reborn, for millennia. But trick-or-treating emerged only in the 1920s and wasn’t popularized until after World War II, when suburbanization made it congeal like nougat—perhaps as a perversion of the indulgences begged for on All Souls Day, or as an anxious mirror of a Victorian aristocratic ritual.
Once candy was attached to Halloween, specific candies became symbolic markers of its seasonal presence. Corn, candy or otherwise, symbolizes the end of harvest, and candy corn replicates its season’s flushing foliage. To set out a bowl of candy corn invites eating less than it marks a moment on the endless calendar that hurtles you ever closer to death. To grab a handful and dominate it by ingestion is to shake that certainty, if for only a moment.
But loose, hand-grabbable candy has long since fallen out of favor. During the 1970s and ’80s, a series of Halloween candy scares spread fears of poisoned or booby-trapped treats. Spurred by the contemporaneous Tylenol murders of 1982, Americans developed an obsession with packaging; individual mints get their own cellophane today. It was inevitable that candy corn would eventually trade its gastronomic value for a purely symbolic one—an emblem for fall and Halloween, childhood’s collapse into age, and age’s decoupling from youth.
I can’t prove it to you, but I feel certain that the internet took hold of candy corn’s symbolic fragility, transporting it from the material world of use to the underworld of connotation. Yes, it is still possible to eat candy corn, but it is far preferable to consume it as #content, a sweetener for smartphones. This consumption has perhaps become the primary kind, where the soft treat is concerned.
And so it goes: “Fuck candy corn,” you tweet in rebellion, along with hundreds of other mortals who fancy the sentiment original. To trap something with purpose in the cage of emblems is to tame it, to hold dominion over it. In a seasonally famous example of the “And Yet a Trace of the True Self Exists in the False Self” meme, a corn cob begets corn syrup, which begets candy corn. Haha, you laugh, because nothing is permitted to exist except as a gag or an affront. (And to show just how connected to everything candy corn really is, I should note that I’ve done consulting for a company that produces corn syrup.) The ire for candy corn is cut from the same stalk as the online obsession with sandwich ontology. Is a hot dog a sandwich? Sure. Why not? What’s strange is that you would care so much that it shouldn’t be.
It’s difficult to discern when exactly candy corn became a punching bag. I thought I’d found a source of answers in the book The Fall of Candy Corn, but it turned out to be a Christian young-adult mystery novel (others in the series: The Summer of Cotton Candy, The Winter of Candy Canes). By 2007, The Baltimore Sun had made note of “the candy corn debate,” but with limited vitriol: Flavorlessness, not existential insult, was at issue. The same year, the NPR food commentator Bonny Wolf admitted, “I love candy corn”—a confession assumed to be a priori controversial. As she continued, it became clear that her fear was of commonness, not gastronomical affront: “I know. It’s like admitting you watch America’s Next Top Model or read trashy novels.”
But by 2013, something had changed. The internet had become mainstream, though its horrors still costumed as delights. And suddenly, candy corn was not just common but also probably evil (or good, but nothing in between). In a Today show recipe for candy-corn Rice Krispies treats, the pastry chef Kim Clifton opined, “Some people can’t stand candy corn, but I feel sorry for them.” Writing for USA Today, the humorist Bill Mann warned, “Our country is deeply divided and polarized today. And the reason for this comes to a head this week.” You guessed it: candy corn (Mann called it “the lima beans of candy”). The following year, Atlas Obscura dubbed its husk a “Cloying Kernel of Evil”—“nothing chills the bones,” wrote Eric Grundhauser (who also covered blood pancakes, pancakes made of blood), “quite as much as the piles of candy corn left at the bottom of pumpkins and pillowcases across America.” By 2015, antagonism toward this waxy treat had set hard. Smithsonian Magazine casually assumed that Americans were polarized over candy corn, beginning its seasonal trifle with the now-familiar clause “Whether you love it or hate it …”
Corn contrapuntists such as Grundhauser and Mann hint at one of the reasons this vexed treat might have fallen out of favor: No longer worthy of spilling out into a bowl as a waiting-room sampler, it doesn’t really work as a trick-or-treat giveaway anymore, either. A sealed sack of candy corn can’t hold up to a fun-size Starburst, let alone a full-size chocolate bar. But despite its apparent uselessness, candy corn continues to whelm the public—according to the National Confectioners Association, it is the second-most-popular Halloween candy, after chocolate.
Who, I ask the candy-corn haters, do you think was pining after candy corn for its sophisticated taste, like some snobbish food critic awaiting a locally sourced fresh-honeycomb-and-young-dandelion-blooms rendition of the things? No one. It was candy corn’s cultural position that perked its eaters’ ears. It is there to exist, absurdly, just like you and everything.
Thence emerges, like a phantom, my defense of candy corn. It is how 20th-century American consumerism secularized its struggle with death’s certainty, the original reason for the season. All must partake of the corn candy, even if they wish they could avoid it. Imagine the alternative! Maybe it doesn’t taste good, but it at least tastes fine—and at least you can taste it. The trashy novel and the reality TV show constitute neither apex nor nadir, but merely popularity. And to be popular is to be shared, and to be shared is to endure even after we perish. The waxiness is pleasant and, given today’s trends, even unusual. The sweetness is sweet, which is, frankly, enough. The pleasure of eating in segments, or in one go, is diverting. The cold will come for the leaves and the crops, and also for you—but not today, for you are alive and eating candy corn.