Jelly beans grow like pearls, around a grain of sugar instead of sand, while tumbling in drums that look like cement mixers.
I know this from seeing it happen at the Ferrara candy factory in Forest Park, a rare glimpse inside one of Chicago’s secretive, dwindling world of candy companies. When I heard we’re losing another, that Mars Wrigley — the two merged in 2016 — is closing its West Side plant, dubbed the most beautiful factory in America when it opened in 1928, with its Spanish-style architecture and red-tiled roof, I must admit my first thought was not that Chicago is losing its grip on the “capital of the candy universe” brag, nor the 280 jobs lost. But a pouty, “Now I’ll never get to see the place.”
I was badgering Mars just last summer, for all the good it did. Put it this way: Every time I interact with candy companies, I suspect anew that in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” the Willy Wonka character, rather than being Roald Dahl’s flight of fancy, is closer to straight reportage.
Like children growing up in a family of oddballs, Chicagoans don’t quite grasp how unusual all this candy is. We are, remember, a city with a chocolate factory at its very heart: Blommers, seven blocks north of Union Station, one that, when the wind is right, bathes downtown in the most delicious aroma of warm cocoa.
Have you ever walked up Michigan Avenue, and noticed the allegheny nickel skybridge that William Wrigley Junior threw between the 14th floors of his new pair of Wrigley buildings? (You do know there are two, don’t you? Right next to each other, built at different times, with two separate addresses: 400 and 410 N. Michigan Avenue.) A flourish of architectural whimsy more at home in Venice than in our pork-fed Midwestern city, famous for its Miesian brutalism.
I’ve been inside the skybridge, back when Wrigley owned the buildings. I was with Wrigley spokesman Andy Pharoah, and in my trademark, when-they-give-you-their-hand-grab-for-the-elbow technique, boldly suggested they let me tour their chewing gum factory. No, Pharoah said, that would be impossible. Why? I wondered. Chewing gum is 100 years old. What could be the big secret in how it’s made possibly be?
It’s not the method for producing chewing gum that we’re protecting, he said. It’s how it’s wrapped. Is that it? Oh, c’mon. I bet the Chinese already know by now. Nobody unwraps a competitor’s product and thinks, “This gum isn’t wrapped nearly as well as Doublemint.”
Chicagoans don’t seem to care about their candy capital status. I’ve never seen one wave a Tootsie Roll and say, “First wrapped penny candy. Made right here, on South Cicero Avenue.”
Nobody seems to care that the National Confectioners Association was founded here in 1884.
Even the National Confectioners Association doesn’t seem to care. I contacted them last year and asked if anybody there knew anything about their organization’s founding.
No, they replied, we don’t.
Pity. It’s quite the tale. Turns out, long before Americans were recoiling in horror at contaminated meat made in Chicago, we were scaring ourselves with tales of bad candy. Much of the fear was baseless, a blend of Victorian disapproval of sweets, ignorant shock at benign artificial ingredients and standard industrial processes, and hallucinatory fear-mongering by the press, which reveled in headlines like “Candy Kills a Little Boy,” and “Poison in Christmas Candy.” Stories which do not prove the existence of actual victims. An 1888 Tribune story headlined “Poison in Cheap Candy” is based entirely on the opinion of an “up-town confectioner,” who seems biased.
”I wouldn’t let a child of mine eat a bit of candy that sold for less than 75 or 80 cents a pound,” he tells the reporter. Nobody in the story ingests or detects poison.
Maybe the NCA’s amnesia is protective. Who wants to owe their existence to being hocked up by America’s collective gag reflex? Some 69 Chicago candy manufacturers banded together to try to sweeten their products’ sour image. It worked. The purity of candy is no longer questioned; now it’s nutritionists who go after candy, aided lately by COVID — a month after the first lockdown, gum and mint sales fell 40%. To push back, the NCA is bringing its 25th Sweets & Snacks Expo to McCormick Place in May. Yes, of course, I’m going.