SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. — Chalky, gritty, funny-shaped candies of old are Susan Benjamin's windows into history.
And history never tasted so sweet.
"Put this in your mouth and close your eyes," said Benjamin, an author, former journalist and, more recently, a candy researcher. "Now imagine you're very cold and you're fighting in the Civil War. You're in a ditch somewhere. This is what you may have been eating when you felt bad or needed some energy. That's the real flavor."
"How often do you get that?" Benjamin asked hypothetically during an interview from the kitchen of her historic home in Shepherdstown.
The Tri-State region had front row seats to several major events in American history, including the Civil War. And these historic sites are still a major tourist attraction in Washington County and the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia. According to data from the National Park Service, there were more than a million visits to Antietam National Battlefield, the Washington County portion of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park and Harpers Ferry (W.Va.) National Historical Park this year.
But what if you took things a step further? What if you could literally get a taste of history?
Six months ago, Benjamin, a communications strategist by trade, launched Cool Confectioneries in an attempt to do just that. She tracks down American old-fashioned candy makers who still create and sell candy from original recipes and then sells them to museums, boutiques and to visitors of her website, CoolConfectionaries.com.
This is a business model that Benjamin hopes has legs.
"If you say to somebody, 'This was eaten by Civil War soldiers,' they look at it, they put it in their mouths, and they eat it very slowly," Benjamin said. Her kitchen table was covered with an array of old-fashioned candies, some whose recipes were more than 200 years old.
"They're thinking about it," she said.
In this case, she was talking about spicy horehound candies and sweet wafers made by the New England Confectionery Company (NECCO), which Civil War soldiers were believed to have eaten throughout the war. Horehounds are brown hard candies made from the horehound herb, a mint plant relative that the Pilgrims brought over when they came to America. Early doctors believed the herb had medicinal properties. Medicine was also an initial use for NECCO wafers, a precursor to Valentine's Sweethearts. You can still purchase NECCO wafers made from the original recipe, Benjamin said.
The day prior to an interview with The Herald-Mail, Benjamin hosted a candy tasting for the Sharpsburg Historical Society. About 20 attendees munched on candy sticks made of black-strap molasses, clumps of rock candy and an amber-hued "toy" candy that German settlers to Pennsylvania carried from the Mother Country during the 1700s.
Sharpsburg historian Brad Toole said he had records of a Sharpsburg woman who made candy in her home during the 1800s.
One of the first things you notice — aside the faint, dull color of old-school candies — is the texture. Candies of old were grittier and chalky in texture.
"Highly manufactured candies of today are sharper, and they're harder on the palate," said Benjamin's business associate, Elizabeth Brown. "It's always more glassy and too sweet. They're way too sweet."
That isn't to say the candies of old were bland. "They were more flavor pure," Brown said. "A molasses stick actually tasted like molasses."
Candy battles centuries' old PR problems
During the lecture, Benjamin spoke about the not-so-sweet history of candy in the United States.
Abolitionists called for the boycott of sugar and sugar products such as candy and rum, Benjamin said. They tried to sour the reputation of sugar — a product of slave labor — by associating its consumption with implied support of slavery.
Meanwhile, class disputes were brewing over the availability of candy. New technology of the Industrial Revolution made it possible to mass-produce candy on the cheap, much to the chagrin of the elites. Suddenly, what was once an exclusive treat for children of the upper class had become accessible to all.
"There were things written in the 1800s talking about the children of the working class not being able to handle sugars, that they shouldn't be able to have it," Benjamin said.
Candy also tapped into 19th-century gender politics.
Despite the fact that the origins of many of the candies we enjoy today took root in the kitchens of women in the 18th and 19th centuries — these were given to children and loved ones as treats or as medicine — it would be men who ultimately assumed the role as the business leaders once the Industrial Revolution made it possible to mass-produce candy, Benjamin said.
But candy making did open some doors for women. Benjamin likes to tell people about Ye Olde Pepper Candy Companie, formed by a woman whose last name was Spencer in 1806. Mrs. Spencer and her son were immigrants of England en route to America, but they shipwrecked in Salem, Mass. Destitute, they turned to candy making. Mrs. Spencer made and sold "Salem Gibralters" from her Massachusetts home. The candies were similar to large, irregularly shaped dinner mints. After she died, her son sold the business to John William Pepper in the 1830s — hence its present name Ye Olde Pepper Candy Companie, according to the company's bio.
Ye Olde Peper Candy Companie still sells the Gibralters and uses the original recipe. A box sells for $14.98 on the company's website, PepperCandy.net.
"I get these from her store," Benjamin said. "It never closed."