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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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Hate Red M&M's? You Need a Candy Color-Sorting Machine
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You don’t have to be a demanding rock star to live a life without brown M&M's or purple Skittles—all you need is some engineering know-how and a little bit of free time.

Mechanical engineering student Willem Pennings created a machine that can take small pieces of candy—like M&M's, Skittles, Reese’s Pieces, etc.—and sort them by color into individual piles. All Pennings needs to do is pour the candy into the top funnel; from there, the machine separates the candy—around two pieces per second—and dispenses all of it into smaller bowls at the bottom designated for each variety.

The color identification is performed with an RGB sensor that takes “optical measurements” of candy pieces of equal dimensions. There are limitations, though, as Pennings revealed in a Reddit Q&A: “I wouldn't be able to use this machine for peanut M&M's, since the sizes vary so much.”

The entire building process lasted from May through December 2016, and included the actual conceptualization, 3D printing (which was outsourced), and construction. The entire project was detailed on Pennings’s website and Reddit's DIY page.

With all of the motors, circuitry, and hardware that went into it, Pennings’s machine is likely too ambitious of a task for the average candy aficionado. So until a machine like this hits the open market, you're probably stuck buying bags of single-colored M&M’s in bulk online or sorting all of the candy out yourself the old fashioned way.

To see Pennings’s machine in action, check out the video below:

[h/t Refinery 29]

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See How Candy Canes Are Made
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According to legend, a 17th-century German choirmaster bent sugar sticks into shepherd’s crooks and gave them to children acting in his Nativity pageant as a treat for good behavior. Lo and behold, the world’s first candy canes were born.

Over the years, manufacturers have perfected their own methods of making the holiday treat. In the below video from Lofty Pursuits, a Tallahassee, Florida-based purveyor of hard candies, you can watch how the expert team of candy-makers turn seemingly everyday ingredients like sugar, water, and corn syrup into a sticky mixture. Gradually, the pliable concoction is folded, stretched, rolled, cut, and bent into candy canes—a mesmerizing visual process for anyone who’s ever sucked on one of the sugary confections and suspected it came from somewhere other than Santa’s workshop.

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