Written and Photographed by Lynn Orgryzlo
It didn’t all start with the great fire of Chicago (1871), but when candy factories burned to the ground, the people of Chicago fought back with a vengeance.
Chicago is the candy capital of North America and it’s easy to see why. Here is a short list of candies that were invented in Chicago: Baby Ruth, Big Red, 3 Musketeers, Bit-O-Honey, Jelly Belly, Junior Mints, Mar’s Bar, Milk Duds, Milky Way, Oh Henry, Snickers, Butter Fingers, Tootsie Rolls, Whoppers, Malted Milk, Wrigley’s Gum, Juicy Fruit Gum, Fanny May Chocolates, Cracker Jack, M & M’s, and Vosges Haut-Chocolat.
Before the great fire, there were 46 candy companies in Chicago. After the great fire, there were 69 candy companies that quickly grew to more than 1,000 by the early 1900’s.
When prohibition (1920-1933) hit and Chicagans could no longer drink, they turned to candy – yeah, they did! Schlitz Brewery quickly converted their taverns into candy and soda shops. Bars closed and ice cream shops and candy parlors opened in their place. They were places to socialize and feed Chicago’s insatiable sweet tooth. Beer companies, unable to manufacture lager, turned to making chocolate and candy. Brewing ingredients like malt made its way into milk shakes and candy popularizing malted milk balls. Americans turned from liquor and got their fix instead with confections – who would have guessed?
Today Chicago is considered the Candy Capital of the World, with new candy companies opening and the preservation of the nostalgic brands as well – thank goodness.
There are artisan candy crafters the likes of Margie’s Candy, Garrett Popcorn, Spin Spun and Terry’s Toffee. Small, personal and proud, family run candy companies like Jelly Belly’s – yes, Jelly Belly’s are still family owned and operated boasting six generations still manufacturing in Chicago along with large manufacturers like Bloomers. Bloomers is considered by many to be an American chocolate institution. The factory is downtown Chicago and on production day the streets of Chicago are filled with the mesmerizing aromas of melting chocolate. “It makes you want to jump out of your skin the smells are so exciting,” says Terese Lang McDonald, founder and owner of Candyality.
And Terese should know, she is the candy queen of the sweetest place on earth. Candyality prides itself on carrying North Americas greatest collection of retro candy. Inside the 2,000-square foot store are thousands of bulk candy items including 21 colours of M & M’s to 30 flavours of Jelly Belly’s including their newest flavour, Draft Beer. If that wasn’t dizzying enough for a candy lover, they have Chicago’s only Black Licorice Bar. While red licorice is relegated to the bulk bins, Terese claims, “a true licorice lover is only interested in black.” She stocks black licorice from Germany, Australia, America and other far reaches of the world in flavours like anise, molasses, malt and the one she just can’t keep in stock, Dr. Pepper.
I walked into Candyality and filled my stash-bag with my favourites. I’m a traditionalist so there was red licorice whips, chunks of thick milk chocolate and squares of chewy caramel; all the things I love most. To my surprise, every purchase comes with a personality profile. That’s right, Candyality is creating personality profiles based on the candy you like to eat giving credibility to the old adage, you are what you eat.
So who am I? I have a durable personality and a matter of fact approach to life, I’m a force to be reckoned with and am super loyal. While I thought the assessment is pretty accurate, Terese laughs “We’re more connected to Willy Wonka than Albert Einstein, but people love it and we’re all having fun with it.”
Terese talks with passion about the history of candy in Chicago. “Everyone loves candy, it bridges the gap between ages, races, religions and backgrounds. It’s a huge part of Chicago’s DNA, past, present and future.” But when she’s asked about the future of the candy industry she replies, “I’m only a candy personality reader not a fortune teller.”
We all agree that Chicago’s candy future is bright and brimming with new levels of sweetness. If you stay at The Ritz Carlton Hotel you can order candy via room-service and it will be delivered by The Candy Man. The Candy Man, dressed in a candy-striped jacket, will come to your room with a traveling candy cart stocked full of candy invented in Chicago.
If candy is part of Chicago’s DNA, then Frango Mints is embedded into every cell. Frango Mints are a brand of chocolate truffles invented before World War II, widely popularized by the Marshall Field department store and now produced and distributed by Macy’s, including Chicago’s own historic Macy’s on State Street. It’s a long lineage of quality mint chocolate.
Chicago is not only home to retro and historic candy manufacturers but creative and modern candypreneurs as well. Spin-Spun is an all-natural confections company that specializes in one fat-free, gluten-free, nut and dairy free treat: cotton candy. Using organic sugar and either organic or natural flavors, founder Seth Bankier spins the treat in nearly 20 flavors including bacon salt, salted caramel, lemon-coconut, and truffle oil. Because Pin-Spun is all natural, the candy floss is all white, a bit boring if Seth didn’t use brightly colored, nontoxic glow sticks as cones. The glow sticks have strings tied into their ends so that candy lovers can wear them as necklaces after they’ve finished their cotton candy.
A Chicago tradition for more than half a century (yet still considered a newby by Chicago’s candy standards) is Garrett Popcorn. This gourmet popcorn is popped in small batches in old-fashioned copper kettles. You can get fresh popcorn from their little shops that are scattered throughout the city and for your convenience, at the airport departure gates. You must try The Chicago Mix. It’s a blend of their crispy caramel and cheese corn. Ask for it and they blend it right in front of you – a scoop of one and a scoop of the other, shake the bag and – you got it! All ingredients are natural, buy it in their collectable tins from small sizes all the way up to a gallon! Yeah, I know what you’re thinking but I guarantee, one bite of this gourmet popcorn and you’ll be going for the gallon!
As a chocolate lover I have to say that chocolate is definitely the beating heart of Chicago’s candy culture but don’t take my word for it. Go to Chicago and taste your own delicious experience. Take a tour with Fern Bogot of the Sweet Home Chicago Treats Tour. I did, she’s amazing!
Stay at The Peninsula Hotel, they have the city’s only weekend Chocolate Bar (www.chicago.peninsula.com) offering everything chocolate from delicious martinis to truffles, crepes and of course, decadent hot chocolate. There is a hot chocolate list at Hot Chocolate Restaurant the size of some wine lists and the windy city is home to many chocolate tours.
Valerie Beck of Chicago Chocolate Tours (www.chicagochocolatetours.com) is the best chocolate tour company. She is full of historical and educational information for every dark morsel you’ll put in your mouth. She is also founder of the Chocolate Travel Club (www.onwardandupwardtravelclub.com), leading groups to other chocolate destinations around the world like Paris, New York and Montreal once you’ve graduated from Chicago.
Vosges Haut-Chocolate (www.vosgeschocolate.com) is a premium chocolate company owned by Katrina Markoff. The impressive 64,000 square foot, sterile white, spanking clean, Gold LEEDS certified chocolate temple houses a chocolate innovation laboratory, a flavours apothecary and a production facility crafting 150,000 pieces of chocolate a day by a staff of 200 for nine boutiques. It’s enough to give any chocoholic an attack of the sweet kind.
Oh yeah, besides candy and chocolate Chicago has amazing architecture, museums, distinctively different neighbourhoods to explore and an excitingly delicious food culture. It’s all the great stuff you do in between exploring their sweet side. As I put this story to bed I’m munching on the last Turtle in my bag – and yes, Turtles were also invented in Chicago, the sweetest place on earth.
For Lynn Ogryzlo’s food tour of Chicago go to http://www.pinterest.com/ontariotable/food-tour-of-chicago/
Lynn Ogryzlo is a food, wine and travel writer, international award winning author and regular contributor to REV Publications. She can be reached for questions or comments at www.lynnogryzlo.com.
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HOW TO GET THERE
8 hours from Niagara,
9 from Toronto
Amtrak: direct 4-hour train from Toronto to Chicago
Porter Airlines from Billy Bishop Airport: 1 hr 45 min flight
Air Canada from Pearson Airport: 1 hr 30 min flight[/box]