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The snack that's the other flavor of fall
A brief history of caramel apples
Hello, Snackers. Candy on the outside, health food on the inside. How autumnal!
Fun fact to amuse/annoy your friends: Tarte tatin came before caramel apples. So if you want the original, authentic version of the flavor combination, you need to do more than dip an apple in caramel. Sorry!
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This is a slightly updated version of a post that originally ran in 2021.
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. (And if you’re wondering about candy corn, we’ve already covered that—kind of.)
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):
It’s well-established 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.)
The caramel + apple combo had hit American shores around the turn of the twentieth century. 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:
CARAMEL APPLES ARE GOOD.
That clip, from 1908, is from a recipe for a “dainty” sort of crustless pie, and it’s the earliest listing I’ve been able to find for the term “caramel apples.”
But…our quest today is the food that we all think of when we see that term: fresh apples dipped in caramel. So when did they originate?
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If you believe the corporate history, caramel apples as we know them started in 1950, when some guy at Kraft came up with the concept.
As we’ve discussed before, enough times that I should probably put it on a t-shirt, never trust corporate origin stories. They’re usually wrong.
This particular mythology struck me as especially 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?
That ad is for a company called Ready-Mix Products, based in Los Angeles. 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. That’s 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, by the 1950s, the media references to caramel apples made it clear that people generally viewed them as a special occasion thing, not necessarily an everyday snack. They’re Special Occasion goodie, reserved for a certain type of setting, like a street fair, or at the very least, a specific season: fall. They had the pumpkin-spice vibe before pumpkin spice was a marketed product.
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— Doug (email@example.com)