Kage Baker loved candy. This is hardly unusual, nor portentous – but Kage took great pride in never, ever forgetting a sweet she had once loved. Even if it no longer appealed to her adult taste, though this was vanishingly rare for Kage, she recalled in exquisite detail whatever had enthralled her at age 4 or 11 or 19.
She could talk about it for hours. And she did. We both did. It was an especially entertaining version of “Do you remember?”, especially after Kage discovered the internet in general, and eBay in particular. You can get anything there. And you know what? Absolutely no incarnation of circus peanuts – marshmallow apparently made out of frog scum, and coloured in Day-Glo orange and yellow – Has. Ever. Been. Edible.
However. there are lots of other venerable sweeties that are still delicious. At least, there are lots that be lovingly recalled, and sometimes still re-discovered. In today’s market, chocolate is King. And Queen. And the Crown Prince, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Taoiseach, depending on your loyalties. Nor did Kage ever neglect her appreciation of theobromos. But, despite the delights of solid chocolate – See’s, Cadbury’s, Ghiardelli, Lindt or Toberlone; and not to neglect the homegrown joys of Hershey and Russell Stover – Kage actually did have some sweeties she liked almost as much as chocolate. Especially during this last season of the year.
Holiday candy, most particularly for Halloween and Christmas, is the best. And frequently, the weirdest.There were and are treats you only found in your Trick or Treat bags: Chick O Sticks and Abba Zabba were among my favourites – the former being a peanut nougat in a hard candy shell, and the latter being a crumbly peanut butter jam in a coating of white toffee. Kage welcomed them for their rarity, but didn’t like eating them. She did like Charms Pops and Safety Pops, and a kind whose name I do not remember – but they were large suckers, and one side was patterned like tuck and roll upholstery. Kage loved them, especially since the odd one came with a token for a free sucker – if you could locate somewhere they were still sold. And who doesn’t like Tootsie Pops? Very satisfying for breaking teeth and/or extracting fillings.
There were Smarties and Sweet Tarts and Sour Worms. Chuckles. Tootsie Roll Fudge (which did not taste like a Tootsie Roll OR fudge). Bit O’Honey, Black Cow, and Look bars. Now and Laters – which, except at Halloween, could only be found in grape (good) and banana (deadly); at Halloween, you could get cherry or raspberry or apple. Nowadays, they come in what are apparently GMO versions – two or three unlikely flavours at once, which are frankly horrifying. And Starbursts just do not compare …
Full-sized brand name chocolate bars were always rare, and so much the better to get in your bag. What you mostly got, and still get, were either Hershey’s Miniatures (with an abnormal weighting toward the loathly Mr. Good Bars); and the outright lies called “Fun Versions” of good stuff like 3 Musketeers and Mars Bars. Who the hell ever thought a chocolate nubbin the size of a 6-year old’s thumb was fun? Mind you, we ate all we could keep out of our parents’ hands, but most of the fun was in complaining how teeny weeny and not fun they really were … that, and seeing how many you could get in your mouth at one time without throwing up.
I liked raisins and apples; Kage felt they were cheating. During the last days of our Trick or Treating, when I was still getting candy because I was shorter than Kage’s youngest sister Jenny, Kage was often offered a cocktail or a glass of wine by hosts who reasonably figured she was the adult. I protested; Kage was smug. She ate my candy, though.
Kage’s absolute favourite Halloween treat was wax shapes filled with coloured sugar syrup. These days, about all you can find – except in huge, specialty candy stores like Chocolate Heaven* on Pier 39 in San Francisco – are Nickle Nips, 5 little wax bottles in a pack and assorted colours. But when we were young! … You could get skulls, and arm and leg bones, and witches, and broomsticks and pumpkins and cats. They were expensive – the big ones were as much as a quarter apiece, which was outrageous! But they were great, and with a little cleverness and care could be drained and still left amazingly intact. One year, Kimberly had an entire necklace made of skulls to go with her ghoul costume.
Those things were the best, for Kage. She got them in season in Morro Bay and Pea Soup Anderson’s and Pier 39. But every year they got harder to find, and she spent more time balefully sucking the juice out of Nickle Nips and lamenting the fallen glories of our youth …
My mother had made fantastic divinity, caramel apples, and popcorn balls – but in these benighted days, no parent in their right mind would let their kids eat homemade treats. Come to think of it, my own mother put the kibosh on those somewhere in my teens. I never knew anyone personally who was poisoned on Halloween, or got a razor blade or broken glass in their loot; but it certainly would have been a bummer if I had.
Of course, our parents always went through the bags before we could eat any – but we always figured that was just to score the good candy bars. God He knows, Kage and I and our grown sisters always checked the little ones’ bags first – and not just to make sure we got some Hershey bars and Smarties.
Today, Kimberly and Michael stopped at a local See’s store on their afternoon errands. We have Halloween candy to last through All Soul’s Day, now. They got Sour Stars for me, chocolate marshmallow jack o’lanterns for all, solid chocolate ghosties, teeny foil-wrapped chocolate pumpkins: and also the ultimate non plus ultra of See’s Halloween treats: orange fondant wafers drizzled with milk chocolate. Those are THE BEST. You cannot find them every year – last year, we never scored, and the three shops closest to us claimed they never got them in at all. Kage and I ate them one at a time, with many eldritch toasts and commemoratives, and cherished every crispy-soft nibble of them. And so will Kimberly and Michael and I.
Each and all of you, Dear Readers, must have your own favourites. Maybe you have a secret letch for Violet Crumbles or licorice bats or – quelle horreur! – Boston Beans. (What are those things, anyway? Boiled peanuts? Mummified nougat? Rat bones?) It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as you remember it with love, and go out of your way to find it in this season of remembrance.
The honoured dead must include loved books, loved songs and – maybe most of all – loved and peculiar candies in this dark end of the year.