Halloween seems like a frighteningly appropriate time to be discussing candy ghosts. But when dishing on the topic with former Inquirer columnist and consummate Philadelphia food historian Rick Nichols, we’re not talking about the dregs of the trick-or-treating pillowcase such as slate-like Now and Laters or who-likes-’em-anyway Good & Plentys. We’re talking about the very real ghosts of this city’s candy-making past.
Nichols has been guiding tours of the city’s ethnic enclaves for years, taking intimate groups of folks on Eastertime walks around Port Richmond and shuttling eager eaters to the best roast-pork spots in town. But when First Person Arts approached him to do something on a larger scale, candy history was the topic that sprung to mind. And although it’s one that holds a real appeal, Nichols admitted, “It’s not my metier, exactly. I’m more of a small-batch kind of guy.”
In advance of Nichols’ talk on Saturday, we met up with him at Old City’s period-perfect Shane Confectionary on Halloween to talk about the sweet stuff’s place in the city’s culinary lore. While tasting our way through everything from housemade marshmallows to vanilla buttercreams to sorghum-sweetened slices of pecan pie, Nichols offered a preview of his talk. It’s safe to say that his knowledge of Philadelphia candy history is Wonka-caliber.
Chocolate-making in the city, he noted, dates back to 1757, and has been going strong ever since. Early efforts began with a Northern Liberties mustard-grinding mill formerly owned by William Penn that was sold and later used to grind cocoa beans. The early chocolate scene was further enlivened with French chocolatiers emigrating post-French Revolution and Caribbean cargo ships docking three times a week carrying loads of limes, bananas, pineapples, sea turtles and tons of cocoa beans.
Chocolate companies, in particular, thrived here. Big names like Goldenberg’s, Wilbur and the ubiquitous Hershey have been making Peanut Chews, Buds and Kisses in Pennsylvania for ages, alongside smaller confectionaries such as Asher’s and lesser-known, large, contemporary companies like Barry Callebaut.
And while you never really hear much about Philadelphia being a major chocolate destination, nearly 80 percent of the cocoa beans shipped to this country come in via Pier 84 and other Philly ports.
Although Nestle snapped up the locally created Sno-Caps, Goobers and Raisinets in the ’80s and the Grant and Roosevelt Boulevard spot that once produced boxes of Whitman’s Samplers is now the site of a Walmart, Nichols was quick to note that the city was a fertile crescent for artisanal innovation from colonial times through the 1800s. And the entrepreneurial spirit was seen not only in the confectionary department, but in beer brewing, bread making and coffee roasting: “There’s a hunger,” he explained, “a sense of ‘You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s almost gone.’” According to Nichols, it’s this sense of artisanal innovation that helped Yards fill the hole left by the shuttering of Schmidt’s beer, prompted Capogiro to pop up in place of Breyers and welcomed a new generation of chocolate-makers to a city with open arms and spaces ripe to restart production.
Nichols has plenty of insider information on Pennsylvania’s chocolate godfather, Milton Hershey, whose sweet legacy was born in an unhappy home. Hershey’s original operations were on Second Street and then Spring Garden Street, where he began his career selling not chocolate bars and Kisses, but fruit- and nut-based confections. Hershey saw promise in the wealth of chocolate coming into the harbor and moved his operation to Dauphin County, where dairy was plentiful. The results were a milk-chocolate mecca and a utopian town where Hershey constructed his own proto-Michael Jackson Neverland, complete with a Boys Town-type orphanage and a house representing Hershey’s failed attempt to reunite his estranged parents. It’s a story that’s “Rosebud-y” to Nichols, one that conjures up images of Charles Foster Kane dying alone in his mansion.
Nichols has mixed feelings about Hershey’s democratization of chocolate, a one-time luxury that he helped make accessible to the general public. “I get so mad when I stop at the gas station and the ads say, ‘Come on in and get a Snickers,’ and I think, ‘Oh, man, leave me alone.’ But Hershey started that crap — it’s for the common man.”
For the event Saturday, Nichols will be joined by a cast of candy-savvy guests, including Ryan Berley, the former antiquarian, who, with his brother Eric, took over Shane Confectionary and made sure that every aspect was exactly right, from the shop’s windows to the copper pots in which sugar is boiled to the marble counters on which candies are hand-dipped.
Audience members at the talk, titled “Candyland,” will get more than just fascinating history. Everyone will be sent on their way with goodie bags filled with local sweets from John & Kira’s, do-good chocolate bars from LoveBar and treats from Éclat.
And maybe, if they’re lucky, some of Nichols’ other local favorites — perhaps a Peanut Chew, a Zitner’s Butter Krak Egg or maybe a pouch of Wilbur Buds. While these little dark-chocolate drops aren’t exactly small-batch, Nichols considers them to be mini-mass-produced — the VW of chocolates, if you will. He has an obvious affection for them: “They’re little things of beauty made to look like little buds,” he exclaimed. “And I don’t know how they do it, but they have this little curl, like on a Dairy Queen cone. And there’s daylight [that shines] through that curl on each one of these little chocolates.”
Sat., Nov. 10, 4 p.m., $25, Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 N. American St., 267-402-2055, firstpersonarts.org.