The snack that was the other Necco treat

The story of Boston Baked Beans

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Boston Baked Beans

One of the recurring themes of this newsletter is that a lot of corporate food origin stories are false. I wasn’t expecting this but in retrospect, it’s not surprising, origin stories being an essential part of marketing and therefore eternally open to some fact-blurring, much like the claims that every candy bar or “juice drink” is health food (LOL). Kraft didn’t invent caramel apples; Baker Cheese didn’t invent string cheese; Spanky’s didn’t invent chicken fingers. Today, we have another example of this.

Sort of.

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My interest in Boston Baked Beans goes way back, an entire week. I was reading the excellent (just-launched) newsletter The Sword and the Sandwich, by Talia Bracha Lavin, which alternates between thoughtful discussions of white nationalism and equally insightful essays on sandwiches. Last Friday’s post was about the baked bean sandwich, and included many delightful and intriguing digressions (Pythagoras, the history of New England cookery), along with one particular aside that caught my attention:

While simmering beanpots are not necessarily tourist-friendly in themselves, absolutely wretched “Boston baked bean” candy, which I can only describe as like peanut M&Ms, but bereft of both joy and chocolate

The post goes deep on baked beans and you should read it (seriously, so good) but I got to wondering, as I do, about the story of the candy.

So. Here it is.

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The conventional wisdom of Boston Baked Beans, the coated peanut version, is that they were invented in 1924 by a candymaker in Chicago named Salvatore Ferrara—or that, if it wasn’t necessarily him, well, the candy definitely started or got popular (if we’re really hedging) sometime in the 1920s, most likely in Chicago.

Here’s a typical version of the tale, from Serious Eats:

In the ‘old country,’ Salvatore Ferrara learned the art of making confetti, or sugared almonds, so it's no wonder they branched out into an all-American nut like the peanut.

This is the story I found when I first idly googled “Boston Baked Beans candy” last week. Seemed interesting—maybe I could learn more about ol’ Salvatore and figure out what else was going on in Chicago and why they’d want to name something for those East Coast punks. (I’m from the Midwest; I’m quite familiar with our inferiority complex.)

Then I opened up ProQuest, where I quickly found something else—actually, a lot of things, and they all looked something like this (please see the fourth item on the product list):

That’s an ad from the Richwood, Ohio Gazette, published in 1916, which you will note is not in Chicago or the 1920s.

And take a look at the brand name: Necco, best known as the manufacturer of those little coin-sized wafers that taste like dried-out paste (one story I found said, with sincerity, that the wafers were great because they could be used as board game pieces, which is a weird selling point for a food; no one’s going, “I think I’ll buy a pint of Cherry Garcia so I can use it instead of the thimble next time I play Monopoly”). Anyway!

Necco Wafers—which were just reintroduced last year, after being discontinued in 2018—date to 1847, nearly 50 years before Hershey’s arrived on the scene. Necco was a big deal in American candy for more than a century (they’re also responsible for the Sweethearts Conversation Hearts). And as far as I can tell, they’re the ones who started marketing candy-coated peanuts as “Boston Baked Beans,” around 1875.

All of which is to say: The standard corporate history, which you can read here on the Ferrara website, is completely wrong. But—and this is where the story gets absurd—an entirely different corporation did come up with the name! Necco absolutely could have laid claim to that mythology if they were so inclined—but it appears they never bothered to do so, at least not loudly enough to stick around and be included in the internet’s many histories of the candy.

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If all you care about is the roots of the name, you can stop there. I, of course, wanted to know even more. Namely: where did the candied peanut come from? What’s the broader context? I’ve written other posts about similar snacks—here’s the candied peanuts garrapiñada from Uruguay and Argentina; here’s the more savory cacahuates japonéses from Mexico—so I know that the basic concept is nothing new, and certainly not developed by Necco or Salvatore Ferrara.

While peanuts are a New World plant, first found in South America, candied peanuts, as we know them today, likely originated in France—the French burnt peanut, still available today, is the clear precursor to Boston Baked Beans, as food historian Dann Woeller documented in post on his blog in 2019 (Woeller says that the burnt peanut itself is based on a similar recipe from German holiday markets). The recipe is slightly different, as any true connoisseur can tell you, but the basic concept is the same.

And when you go looking through newspaper archives for stories about candied peanuts in the USA, you quickly find out that they were an especially popular product for immigrant vendors from Europe, who sold them on the streets of major cities.

Here, for example, is a wildly—but not atypically—xenophobic story about Greek candied peanut vendors in New Orleans in 1889:

I found similar accounts from other cities. One from Boston, also in 1889, lauded the arrest of vendors from Italy, Portugal, and Greece for breaking forbidding food carts from operating in one spot for more than 20 minutes. Another, from Pittsburgh in 1901 and more sympathetic in tone, featured a long interview with “a gentleman of Teutonic persuasion” who had been selling candied peanuts for five or six years, running one of the dozen or so such stands around the city’s downtown; one of his competitors had recently switched to the nuts after giving up on wienerwurst, which just didn’t sell as well.

Once you know that candied peanuts were a popular snack sold all over American cities, you can see how the story likely played out: Someone at Necco saw the popularity of the treat and decided to make a packaged version to add to their line-up. It’s also worth noting that making candies in the shape of other things was (and remains!) a popular move by manufacturers—see, for example, lemon drops or candy corn (which dates to the 1880s), or its predecessor, corn candy, or the original candy apples, which were, in fact, apple-shaped candies. Necco was based in the Boston area, and presumably someone at the company was looking around for a product name and thought it would be clever to give a nod to the area’s famous beans.

It’s also possible that the company came up with the name as a way to get away from candied peanuts’ association with immigrant vendors and/or to tie in with the trend, in that time and place, for creating a specific, whitewashed mythology of regional cuisine. Here’s Lavin again, in her post on the original baked beans:

Our ideas about what “New England food” means are extremely narrow and inaccurate. This was a deliberate choice by a bunch of stuffy Victorians who were concerned at the erosion of WASP supremacy in the region. Around the centennial celebrations of the U.S. in 1876, these fancy Yankees came down with a case of Colonial fever.

Was Necco, in 1875, working from the same mindset? There’s no way of knowing, of course, but given the data points, it sure seems possible.

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One last thing before we go: While I was researching all this, I kept coming across information about canned baked beans. The very first version widely available in the USA, apparently, was Heinz; depending on your sources, it debuted in 1886 or 1901. But either way, it arrived after Necco launched its own baked beans—as a nationally-distributed packaged product, the candy Boston Baked Beans was available before actual baked beans.

Happy snacking!

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