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Hard, Unpopular Cob Corn Couldn't Hold a Kernel to Candy Corn in Its Beginnings

October 30 marks National Candy Corn Day: a guilt-free excuse to indulge in this autumnal candy before trick-or-treating begins. But, the success of this century-old candy may have been inspired by something Americans weren’t actually too keen on chowing down on—hard, coarse field corn.

Candy corn first appeared around the turn of the 20th century, but it's hard to pin down who first molded and sold it, though history points to George Renninger, a Philadelphia confectioner, as the likely creator. The candy maker created a butter cream concoction in 1888 that was soft enough for shaping into a variety of figures, like turnips and pea pods (we’re sensing a theme here). The recipe was simple: sugar, corn syrup and wax. The Wunderle Candy Company, with Renninger’s recipe, produced the candies in several designs, including the iconic corn shape.

By 1898 another candy company was snagging most of the credit for candy corn. The Goelitz Candy Company formulated its own version of the treat that became widely popular. Owner Gustav Goelitz had been operating his Belleville, Illinois-based confectionery for nearly 30 years before passing on the company to his sons in 1894. Within four years, the company was creating its own butter cream candies, and advertised its candy as Chicken Feed—"something worth crowing for."

The Goelitz family was successful with its candy corn version, and would later go on to become the Jelly Belly Candy Company, which still produces the treat each year. Wunderle Candy Company would fade into confectionery history.

But what likely made candy corn such a successful treat was real corn. Modern diets and foods are heavily reliant on corn and corn byproducts, but early Americans didn’t consume as much as we do now. Why? Because 19th century corn wasn’t enjoyable to eat as it came out of the field. The common hybrid and sweet corns we eat now, which are softer and more flavorful, weren’t popular or widely available prior to World War I. And, corn had to be picked by hand at the time because mechanical corn harvesters and shuckers weren’t common, making a dinner side dish of corn on the cob a bit of a task.

But the familiar kernel shape, along with sweetness, made candy corn a standout. It was a novelty treat, since real corn kernels were in many cases reserved for livestock (hence the name “Chicken Feed”).

Regardless of who invented candy corn and how well it was liked, it wasn’t easy for any company to make. Renninger’s candy design, and those that followed, were hand-poured to achieve their tri-color appearance. The process involved factory workers called “runners” who would walk backward alongside conveyor belts loaded with trays, carrying heavy buckets called “streamers” filled with the slurry mixture. Runners would pass the streamers, which could weigh up to 200 pounds, over the molds, and small amounts of hot, liquid candy would drip into the trays. Each layer of dyed candy (white, yellow and orange) would be added separately, meaning candy makers would repeat the process three times before letting the candy cool and set. Because candy corn was such a taxing product to create, confectioners only produced it between March and November, helping it to become associated with Halloween and harvest time.

Now, modern candy corn production is a bit easier, with machines filling cornstarch molds instead of actual runners doing all the work. About 9 billion pieces of candy corn are produced each year, so don’t feel bad for having a few extra handfuls—and think of these tiny kernels as an ode to America’s agrarian roots.

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Food
Former NECCO CEO Has a Plan to Save the Company

It’s been a month of ups and downs for fans of candy company NECCO and its iconic sugary Wafers. In March, The Boston Globe reported the company is in desperate need of a buyer and that CEO Michael McGee notified the state of Massachusetts that most of their employees—around 395 of them—would likely face layoffs if a suitor isn't found by May.

That news caused a bit of a panic among candy lovers, who stormed CandyStore.com to hoard packs and packs of NECCO Wafers, should the company go under. In the weeks since the news about NECCO’s uncertain fate hit, sales of the company's products went up by 82 percent, with the Wafers alone increasing by 150 percent.

Seeing the reaction and knowing there is still plenty of space in the market for the venerable NECCO Wafers, the company’s former CEO, Al Gulachenski, reached out to CandyStore.com to lay out his plan to save the brand—most notably the Wafers and Sweethearts products.

The most important part of the plan is the money he’ll need to raise. Gulachenski is set to raise $5 to $10 million privately, and he’s creating a GoFundMe campaign for $20 million more to get his plan into motion. Once the funding is secure, the company will move to a new factory in Massachusetts that allows them to retain key executives and as many other employees as they can.

“I can promise you that if you donate you will own a piece of NECCO as I will issue shares to everyone that contributes money,” Gulachenski wrote on the GoFundMe page. “This company has been in our back yard for 170 years and it's time we own it.”

Gulachenski also elaborated that, as of now, there is another buyer interested in NECCO, but that buyer “is planning to liquidate the company, fire all the employees and close the doors of NECCO forever!”

So far, Gulachenski has raised only $565 of the $20 million needed. “I know it seems like a long way to go but I do expect some institutions to jump on board and get us most of the way there,” Gulachenski wrote in a GoFundMe update. “It is also likely we can get most of the company if we get to half of our goal.”

There is still a bit of a sour taste for candy fans to swallow, even if NECCO does get saved. According to Gulachenski, the Wafers and the Sweethearts may be the only products that the reorganized NECCO continues with. This could leave lovers of the company's other candies, like Clark Bars and Sky Bars, out in the cold.

“The sugar component Necco Wafer and Sweetheart is certainly the most nostalgic and recognizable brand, more than the chocolate,” Gulachenski told The Boston Globe. “It’s all going to depend how they decide to sell the company and liquidate.”

While you can still order the Wafers in bulk from Candystore.com, the site itself even says it has no idea when or if shipments will stop coming, especially as NECCO's future remains uncertain.

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Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
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People Are Panic-Buying Necco Wafers Before They Disappear From Shelves
Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The sugar wafers everybody loves to hate may not hold their spot on candy shelves for much longer. Necco is in need of a buyer, and according to CEO Michael McGee, the candy company may need to shutter for good if it doesn't find one within the coming weeks. As a result of the company's threatened status, Necco Wafers are suddenly a lot more popular, as the graph below from Candystore.com reveals.

News of the New England Confectionary Company's situation spread on March 12 when The Boston Globe reported McGee's announcement. That same day, Necco Wafer sales spiked more than 50 percent on CandyStore.com. Over the course of the month, sales of the candy rose 63 percent overall.

Necco Wafers Panic Buying from CandyStore.com

For any other candy, this sort of "panic-buying" wouldn't be surprising. If a beloved product looks like it might be taken off the market, people will hoard as much of it as they can while it's still available. But Necco Wafers aren't typically characterized as "beloved." In an earlier list of the best and worst Halloween candy published by Candystore.com, Necco Wafers ranked the fourth worst. Commenters compared the candy to both chalk and Tums, with one hater even declaring that, "Necco Wafers suck all moisture out of my mouth and all joy out of my soul."

Though they may not be the flashiest or tastiest candy, Necco Wafers do strike a nostalgia nerve in some buyers. Necco is the oldest continuously operating candymaker in the U.S., dating back to 1847. "It is a love/hate type of candy and people are super passionate about it," Clair Robins of Candystore.com tells Mental Floss. "They are perceived as an old-school classic, and even patriotic—soldiers ate them in the World Wars (both). But others think it's dry and gross and should die a painful death."

If Necco goes under, its signature wafer won't be the only product to go with it. The company also produces Clark Bars, Sky Bars, Mary Janes, Candy Buttons, and Sweethearts, so stock up on these classic candies while you still can.

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