The snack that's the other flavor of fall

A brief history of caramel apples

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Caramel Apples

The basics

Apples dipped in caramel. Sometimes rolled in nuts or chocolate chips or other candy. Tooth-grabbing sweetness on the outside, crispy wholesomeness on the inside.

The place

The USA, mostly.

The story

I’m staying out of the pumpkin spice discourse, this year and every year. There’s beer, there’s wine, there’s hot sauce, there’s endless coffee, there’s a history going back centuries, there’s everything, it’s everywhere, and so are the deep analyses. I welcome you to enjoy them, both the flavors and the discussions. I do. But it’s all just so much, the lower-stakes version of perennial seasonal cultural phenomena like the War on Christmas or the song of the summer.

So let’s talk about caramel apples instead. Everyone loves apples, right? I mean, just look at this ad and its enthusiasm (and/or attempt to hypnotize you through word repetition):

Now, it’s well-established that humans like apples and that apples originated in what’s now Kazakhstan and that caramel has been around in some form for centuries or maybe millennia and that caramelized apples, as a food, have been a beloved thing since at least the 1880s, when tarte tatin arrived on the scene in France, most likely the result of a fortuitous accident on the part of sisters Caroline and Stéphanie Tatin (there’s an entire book and website about it.)

By 1908, the caramel + apple combo had hit American shores. The earliest version I’ve found is a caramel apple pudding recipe published in 1901, and soon restaurants and newspaper recipe sections were offering all manner of caramel apple pies and toasts and cakes and soufflés, and even an actual apple with the name Caramel, introduced around 1919. The consensus was:

That’s actually a recipe, published in 1909, for a baked good with our two featured ingredients, but it’s also the earliest listing I’ve been able to find for the term “caramel apples.”

If you believe the corporate history, the thing we’re looking for today, fresh apples dipped in caramel, didn’t originate until 1950, when some guy at Kraft come up with the concept. But this struck me as unlikely: Are we really to believe that humanity discovered the delights of this specific food pairing and then never got around to trying the most elemental version until seventy or more years later? Really?

A bit of research shows that this timeline is, in fact, incorrect. Here’s proof, in the form of an ad from Billboard magazine in 1948:

That ad is for a company called Ready-Mix Products, based in Los Angeles, and you’ll note that it’s not billed as a new product—it appears to be a well-established, popular item for sale at fairs and festivals and the like: “You get about 50 delicious caramel apples … Sell ’em fresh—dipped only as you need ’em.” (Incidentally, while Kraft may have introduced its own ready-to-dip caramel in the 1950s, a company called Burke claimed it had come up with the concept in 1950. So even for that specific category of caramel apple, the corporate history is suspect.)

The same sort of thing happens when you fact-check the claim—made by Food & Wine, among others—that candy apples, a precursor to caramel apples, originated in 1908 with a specific candymaker in Newark. Also untrue, as evidenced by their mention in, well, a bunch of places, including a play called The Court of King Christmas, published in 1888 and a short story from 1896 published in the Ohio Farmer 1896 by Emma L. Dickie titled, “The Fate of the Candy Apple.” In every instance I found from the nineteenth century, candy apples were part of Christmas celebrations, and mentioned nonchalantly, as just the sort of thing that of course kids eat on that festive occasion, everyone knows that. A party treat, just like the caramel apples in that ad from 1948, which lists them alongside taffy and caramel corn (included in the ad but cropped for space) as something you’d prepare for, and eat at, a public event like a fair or festival.

After a lot of digging, the earliest mention of caramel apples that I’ve been able to find is a recipe published in 1933 in The Waterbury Democrat:

All the recipes for apple-with-caramel things before this, many of which are billed as “caramel apples,” are variations on the baked goods mentioned above, or dishes with cooked apples soaked in caramel. But in 1933, here are the sticks.

Last thing. While this early recipe suggests making the treat at home, for your family, later recipes, and the general vibe of later coverage, make it clear that that people generally viewed caramel apples as a special occasion thing, not necessarily an everyday snack. While some “fancy” snacks we’ve covered, like Chex Mix, have evolved over the years, I think it’s fair to say that caramel apples largely (not exclusively, but largely) remain in the realm of Special Occasion goodie, reserved for a specific season or a certain type of setting, like a street fair or whatever tourist-town or day-at-the-mall experience is represented by Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory.

So while it’s still not clear precisely where or when caramel apples originated, they’ve been around for much longer than anyone realizes, and serving a remarkably similar cultural role that whole time.

Notes and stray thoughts

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And! If you liked this, you’ll probably also enjoy this post about string cheese:

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The stringy snack with a mysterious past
Hello and welcome to Snack Stack, the newsletter that explores the history, origins, and cultural significance of snacks. If you like it, please subscribe! There’s a free snack every Wednesday (like this one!) and paid subscribers also get snacks on Monday and Friday…
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