The Ghost of Candy Bars Past
2140 W. Seventh St., St. Paul; 698-0356
The peanuts come into view on a palm-wide conveyor belt, looking for all the world like a little gravel road. As the belt speeds along, a little spout lays down a quilt of golden caramel on the peanut road, and another deposits candy centers resembling sticks of chalk on top. The conveyor races into a series of spools that pull the caramel-and-nut edges up over the candy center (imagine pulling the long sides of a dollar bill together) and send the resulting rolls toward the packaging area, where cartons sit ready to receive everything from the impressive 3.5-ounce King Size to the three-quarter-ounce Fun Size. For a brief moment they all come into line, looking like living beings--running hamsters, or trout swimming upstream.
Watching a Pearson's Nut Roll take shape is a strangely giddy experience--in part because of the strong candy smells, and in part because it's like being inside one of those cheery educational minidocumentaries that run during kids' cartoons. More important, for a pop-culture buff, local-history enthusiast, and candy hound, being allowed into the inner sanctum of the Nut Roll empire feels like gaining access to a past unmediated by sanctimony: This is history you can stick in your glove compartment; these are antiques that can't be forever hidden in museums. The Pearson's factory is not only a rare survivor of the once-vibrant Twin Cities candy culture: It's a busy manufacturing plant--noisy, lively, electrical.
Pearson's will be celebrating 90 years of St. Paul candy-making next month, and the popularity of its salty Nut Rolls, bodacious Nut Goodies, and signature Mint Patties shows no sign of abating. They're luckier in that way than the Cherry High Ball and Chicken Spanish, two of the dozens of candy bars that once called the Twin Cities home. You see, once this town was full of plants where the air smelled good enough to sell, where chocolate lemmings shot down conveyor belts into hungry cardboard mouths. Now Pearson's low-slung white buildings, tucked behind the Parrish Supper Club on West Seventh Street, are nearly all that's left.
Candy bars were brand new in 1912, when the Pearson's Nut Goodie was born. The technology to temper chocolate to a stable consistency suitable for mass production had first been demonstrated at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair; Milton S. Hershey made his very first chocolate bar in 1894, but he didn't go into full-scale production until 1904. The first "composite" chocolate bar--featuring marshmallow, caramel, peanuts, and milk chocolate--was the Goo-Goo Cluster, which debuted just a few months before the Nut Goodie in 1912.
Minneapolis was ideally suited to be a major center for chocolate production--primarily because of its central location on the railroad system and the proximity to production centers of raw materials like beet sugar and milk. The city gave birth to one candy bar after the other, many bearing flippy Jazz Age names that sound poetic now and a little pornographic--in fact, I dare you to read the following list aloud in public: Cherry Mash, Sugar Daddy, Sugar Babies, Chick-O-Stick, Just Juice, Oh Nuts!, Prom Queen, Cold Turkey, Annabelle's Big Hunk, Trojan Twins, Co-Eds, Foxxy, Nic-L-Nut, Long Boy Kraut, Heavenly Hash, Angel's Delight, Long John, Creamy Whipt, Rough Rider, Butter Smack, Cherry Humps. Los Angeles-based Hoffman Candy Company had the temerity to market not only the Habit, but also the unforgettable Chicken Bone. And you thought the modest Nut Roll was suggestive.
It was, as Ray Broekel chronicles in The Great American Candy Bar Book (1982) and The Chocolate Chronicles (1985), a wild and woolly time in the world of candy, and anyone with a little money and a dream could take a swing at nougat immortality. Imagine a time when a trip to the local drugstore allowed the purchase of Minneapolis's own Cherry High Ball, or one of St. Paul's own Trudeau Candies, such as the fantastic-sounding Seven Up, a bar composed of seven small, candy-box-style chocolates welded together. Its original incarnation featured four types of caramel, a Brazil nut, coconut, and jelly; by the time it was phased out in 1979, dark chocolate covered segments of mint, nougat, butterscotch, fudge, coconut, buttercream, and caramel. Now I feel gypped: Why are we stuck with Hershey's, Hershey's Almond, and Chunky? Bah, humbug.
Other lost Twin Cities candy companies include Hollywood Brands, maker of the Milk Shake, the Top Star, the Big Time and--my favorite--a hazelnut bar called Hail, with the slogan "Cool as Hail." Sadly Hollywood moved to Centralia, Ill., in 1938, but two of its alumni returned to Minneapolis in 1940 to start Candymasters Co., with products like the Coffee Dan, the Brazil Hill, and the North Pole. (Candymasters ultimately was bought and closed by a Chicago company.)
Pearson's itself has ties to some of history's oddest chocolate bars. The Chicken Dinner was originally created by Milwaukee-based Sperry Candy Company, and I guess the idea was to convey a sense of wealth and prosperity à la "a chicken in every pot." (Another of Sperry's big sellers was the Club Sandwich bar.) Sperry was bought out by Pearson's in 1962; five years later, it was sold to Winona's Schuler Chocolate Factory, which itself was the originator of the corn-flake-spiked Duck Lunch bar. (If you want to work up a real Minnesota jingoist fury, consider that Schuler was sold in 1978 to Tennessee's Brock Candy Company, so goodbye to the Cold Turkey, Snow Maid, and Snow Cherry--what do they know about snow in Tennessee?)
Pearson's debuted the Nut Roll at the height of the Depression, in 1933, as the Salted Nut Roll; it has been going strong ever since, making it a bona fide candy star. Yes, you could quibble and say it's not as big a success as the Milky Way. But funny you should mention the Milky Way, because there was a time when Pearson's just towered over it.
The story goes like this: Frank Mars, eventual patriarch of the M&M/Mars multinational, spent a good deal of formative time in Mill City. An unhappy marriage was followed by a scandalous divorce; Mars picked himself up, married again, moved to Seattle, failed in two successive candy operations, and declared bankruptcy, only to return to Minneapolis and set up another one. Since he and his wife had no cash to buy large batches of ingredients, they purchased candy necessities from the big producers: Legend has it that Pearson's would only sell sugar to Mars for cash, since his payment history wasn't too great.
But by this time, Mars had learned to watch the competition. The Minneapolis-based Pendergast Candy Company was making waves with a new nougat recipe that used egg whites to create a fluffy substance (like that found in the Three Musketeers) unlike the chewy nougat (think Charleston Chew) the world had previously known. So revolutionary was this new formula, it became known nationwide as the Minneapolis or Minnesota nougat. Mars got to experimenting with his own version and, in 1923, created the Milky Way. He sold the rights to Winona's Schuler Candy Company (remember them?) while he and his wife packed up to try their luck in Chicago. And there the candy gods finally smiled on them: They became chocolate moguls, using the Minneapolis nougat to create the 3 Musketeers, Mars, and Snickers. And, of course, they bought back their beloved Milky Way.
Diligent readers are now asking: So what the heck did the Pendergast Candy Company do with its history-making Minnesota nougat? They made a puffy candy called the "Fat Emma," and the moniker became the national term for a fluffy bar. But that didn't help Pendergast. They eventually were bought by the Hollywood candy company--which, you'll remember, moved to Centralia, Ill., and made the extant Pay Day and Butter Nut. Hollywood was taken over by Chicago's Consolidated Foods in 1967, marking the end of the Minneapolis nougat's Minnesota legacy.
So if you find some Nut Goodies or Nut Rolls in your Christmas stockings this year, count your blessings on a couple of levels: Not only have you got a tasty treat, but also a piece of history and a champion survivor.
Pearson's candies are available at many, many stores throughout Minnesota, the Dakotas, Wisconsin, and Iowa, including Walgreens, Sam's Club, and others.
PAINT IT BLACK: Among the myriad things I learned while researching chocolates was that you can order M&Ms in your choice of weird colors from the M&M Web site, www.m-ms.com. Sure, it costs $195 for a 40-pound order, but hey, you could be the first M&M artist on your block. I know I am. For example, consider a little piece I did called "Calvin Klein Home"--it's 30 pounds of cream-colored M&M's and one pound of gray. "My Mother Never Understood Me" is 20 pounds of black and 10 each of gray and gold (symbolizing tears). Perhaps my most chilling and critically acclaimed piece is a brazen combination of 10 pounds each of aqua, dark blue, light blue, and red, titled "Shark Attack."
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