October 26 2014
Halloween night in the American suburbs. We paraded about, a cavalcade of tots waddling in endless streams down the sidewalks, dressed as tiny grim reapers, walking baby Jack-O-Lanterns, and mini pop divas. Guises that ranged from the macabre to the innocuously pop-referential. In this autumnal haze, the days already grown shorter, we bounced from house to house ringing doorbells and tapping doorknockers, soliciting goodies with the infamous binary ransom: trick or treat.
The annual frenzy was a phantasmagoria of confectionary indulgence, with every manner of branded chocolate bar up for grabs. Mass-market taffies were doled out left and right. Gum filled lollipops were flung far and wide. And chocolate-caramel chews were plunked dully into the bottoms of our plastic carrying buckets. But amongst the crazed revelry of Big-Candy’s night out, there was one house, nestled at the end of our block, that we could never forget. It was inhabited by an elderly neighbor who excused herself from the fray with an eclectic treat that stuck in our minds the way the gummy morsels she served us stuck to our molars. A delicious treasure that harkened back to the early days of candy making, when candy was a delicacy not so willingly shared with the begging masses. This treasure was fruit jellies.
Tracing the evolution of candy back to its earliest beginnings is a perilous research experiment, with the early consumption of roots and sweet tree saps blurring into a widespread indulgence in honey, which centuries later was replaced by the newly global availability of sugar. But nestled somewhere in there, like the old ladies’ house at the end of the the block, is the development of the chewy fruit jelly. Evolving from an English proclivity for preserved fruit (an Eastern import) in the late medieval period, the expensive and exotic delicacy transformed into the saccharine chews we see today over the course of several centuries.
In his book Sweets, author Tim Richardson describes the once laborious process of candying fruit preserves to illustrate its status as an unnecessary indulgence, “The process of candying is an investiture that makes even an apple majestic. The fruit is repeatedly bathed in an increasingly strong mixture of glutinous syrup – perhaps augmented with the fruit’s pulp, or a white wine – until it is entirely suffused with sweetness. Then it is basted with sparkling sugar that hardens into a frosty coat, or else a shiny, smooth patina. The colour of the fruit deepens, and its flavour is enriched and transformed by the sugar. The friable flesh of a crunchy confection is the result of this sugary transubstantiation.”
Later on, in the 19th century, these once expensive indulgences became popularized and reproduced for mass market consumption, evolving gradually into the hard fruit candy of today. “The sucket was the humblest member of the noble family of fruit preserves.” Richardson explains, “These little sweets, known as succade in France and succata or zuccata in Italy (where they were most often made with pumpkin), were usually shards of orange and lemon peel, boiled in water, reboiled in sugary syrup, sometimes with rosewater, and then coated in sugar. The name survives as sucette, modern French for a lollipop.” Thus alongside side the evolution of the cavity-causing treats, we can now trace the linguistic leaps that bring us from the Italian zucca (pumpkin) to succette.
Looking back on it now, it’s hard to put a finger on what made the fruity Halloween encounters so remarkable. Perhaps it was their sheer contrast against our so heavily branded expectations of candy deliverance. Or perhaps it was the shock of biting into a piece that tasted altogether alien. Deep down though, when we recall the sugar coated escape from our regular trick-or-treating routes, it’s as if the flavors themselves and the textures therein ignited an imaginative spark within us. If sugar was the medium by which ordinary fruit was elevated to strange and exotic new heights, what else could we candy?