The snack that's the *other* candy corn
A brief history of *corn candy* that has nothing to do with that other stuff.
Hello, Snackers. Today we’re having …
Not candy in the shape of corn kernels but actual corn made into a type of candy or candy that tastes like corn.
Maybe Peru? Maybe somewhere else in the Americas? Maybe the USA?
I’ve been avoiding candy corn as a topic because it seems so overdone—candy corn, like pumpkin spice latte, has to be one of the most popular topics for writers in search of a “history of [FOOD]” story. All the versions rehash the same facts over and over and over and over and over, namely, that this particular sweet was invented “sometime in the 1880s” by one George Renninger, who worked at the Wunderle Candy Company in Philadelphia.
Now, I have my doubts about that origin because, as we’ve learned before in this here newsletter, you should never trust corporate history. It was wrong about caramel apples and string cheese and six-foot heroes; it’s probably wrong here, too. Candymakers have been making sugary things in the shape of non-sugary foods since forever (in fact, one of the things I kept finding when researching caramel apples is that “candy apples,” as a concept, seem to have originated with small candies that look like apples).
However. Dig as I might, I couldn’t find any definitive proof of earlier origins of candy corn as we know it now, in the waxy-texture form that has also somehow morphed into this:
Since everyone else has already told the rest of the story, connecting dots from that apparent moment of inspiration to the 9 billion pieces of the stuff sold every year (seriously, 9 billion), and Snack Stack isn’t interested in giving you the same old factoids, we’ll focus our attention somewhere else. Specifically, we’re going to investigate (pay attention to the word order!) corn candy.
Because as I was digging through the archives, this is what kept popping up in the years before the 1880s:
As you can see here, corn candy, in different forms, has been around since the first half of the nineteenth century, maybe earlier.
There were candies made with ground corn, as appears to be the case in the first two examples (the top one, from 1848, is listed directly below an ad for filbert—hazelnut—candy, which makes me think both things are being used here as flavorings). My best guess is that this is also the case for the last example, “Wild’s Indian Corn Candy,” Indian corn being simply, well, corn. (Yes, I looked for that brand in a million other places; no, I couldn’t find it listed anywhere else; yes, more scholars should pursue this important matter.)
There were also sweetened popcorn balls, which is the recipe from 1872, with molasses.
Now. Popcorn, as I’m sure you know, dates back thousands of years, originating in South America—in 2012, archaeologists in Peru found cobs with popped corn, presumably from one of the earliest movie nights. And sugar, of course, has a whole horrifying history unto itself that is heavily tangled up in the terrible, bloody history of the colonization of the Americas and the building of vast economic systems on the forced labor of enslaved Africans. The archaeological record is notably blank on the matter of when someone dreamed up the idea of combining sugar (or honey or molasses or anything sweet) with corn or popcorn. We don’t know!
All of that said: We do know, definitively, that corn candy, in various forms, predates candy corn. And let’s be honest, it probably tastes better, too. (Rimshot!) See important update at the bottom of this post.
You can still buy corn-flavored candy, of course. Here’s a father and daughter trying some. Their assessment: “It does taste like corn.”
Get it here
Here’s some corn-flavored candy:
Also, this is a bit of a technicality, but as any old-timey sweet-maker can tell you, lots of candy has corn in it, if you’re counting glucose made with corn:
Will you like it?
Notes and stray thoughts
Please take note of the news items listed directly below that 1868 tidbit about a guy being swindled when he thought he was buying corn candy. Seems like this political news should be at the top of the page! (NB: here’s the 14th Amendment, it’s kind of a big deal.)
My friend Mike points out that candy corn looks like teeth from an archaeological dig (that tweet is also what led to this post):
Important Update (October 29, 2021):
Multiple people sent this to me, which means I should probably share it with you, too. Corn candy forever!