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Actually, Candy Corn Is Great

The reviled Halloween treat, which has deep roots in American history, should have a better rep

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Photo: Dan Kosmayer / Shutterstock

Much like the word “moist” and the music of Nickelback, candy corn is a thing that’s cool to hate. In an article titled “Candy Corn Is Garbage,” Deadspin points to “hobos, serial murderers, and Satan” as the only people who like candy corn; The Takeout, also driven to invoke the devil to describe candy in a candy corn debate, calls it “Satan’s earwax”; Buzzfeed, combining two pariahs in one pithy line, lists “the leftover crumbs stuck in Guy Fieri’s goatee” among things that taste better than candy corn.

But here’s the thing: They’re all wrong. The candy corn hate is a baseless charade that denigrates one of America’s oldest sweets. Most of today’s popular candies came about within the past 100 years, born of candy makers at big corporations looking for a new way to make a buck: Snickers emerged in the 1930s from the massive Mars company; M&M’s came around in the 1940s and were essentially just a copy of some other treat described as “chocolate pellets;” Twix was imported from the Brits in 1979.

Candy corn, on the other hand, has been around since the 19th century, its roots firmly planted in American soil. According to oral history, George Renninger first invented candy corn in the 1880s while working at the Philadelphia-based Wunderle Candy Company, where it went by the names “Butter Cream” and “Chicken Corn.” By the turn of the century, the Goelitz Confectionery Company (now known as the Jelly Belly Candy Company) had begun producing the confections on a larger scale, marketing it as “Chicken Feed” in rooster-adorned packaging.

The corn-kernel shape and poultry-centric positioning was no accident. At the time, farmers made up about half of the American labor force, and companies marketed agriculture-themed products all year long. In fact, lots of candy makers were busy creating similar treats in the shapes of other agrarian tokens, like chestnuts, turnips, and clover leaves, according to The Atlantic. What set candy corn apart was its revolutionary tri-color design: those white, yellow, and orange stripes. Done manually, by men pouring heavy buckets of steaming sugary liquid, the labor-intensive coloring process resulted in a visual excitement no other confection could match.

It took a while for Chicken Feed, which was marketed year-round (“The candy all children love to nibble on all year long”!) to become associated with Halloween. But when wartime sugar rations lifted in the 1940s and trick-or-treating began to take off, candy corn’s harvest colors and low cost made it the obvious choice to offer at the door. Goelitz took advantage of this shift, dramatically increasing its October advertising and gradually making candy corn a treat that Americans thought of at Halloween, and only Halloween.

Today, the two major candy corn manufacturers — Jelly Belly and Brach’s Candy — use largely the same recipe Wunderle did back in the day (sugar and corn syrup, fondant, confectioner’s wax, and various other additions, like vanilla flavor or marshmallow creme). The main difference is that the laborious hand-pouring process has been taken over by machines, which means that they can produce a lot of candy corn: According to the National Confectioners’ Association, American companies produce 35 million pounds, or 9 billion kernels, annually.

Vivien Killilea/WireImage

But this prodigious production isn’t met with an equal amount of enthusiasm. A 2013 survey from the NCA showed that only 12 percent of Americans think of candy corn as their favorite treat (and they included “gum and mints” as an option, so the competition wasn’t exactly stiff). Each year, the argument against candy corn seems to spawn a new internet meme, taking on the current reigning one, which extols “serving it directly in the trash, since that’s where it’ll end up anyway.”

With all the candy corn produced, and the apparent universal disdain for it, something doesn’t add up. One of two things is true: either people are lying about their candy corn opinions, or tons of candy corn gets thrown out each year.

Both options are tragic. The first means that people are hiding their love of candy corn out of societally imposed shame, like when I pretended I thought I Feel Pretty was stupid even though I cried through the whole last third (she found beauty within herself!). The second means that pounds of delicious treats are winding up in the garbage. Fortunately, both can be fixed with one simple solution: a nationwide embrace of the true deliciousness of candy corn.

The notion that candy corn tastes bad is a lie. It’s just not true. Though the primary ingredient is sugar, candy corn’s flavor transcends cloying sweetness, becoming something richer and more nuanced: There’s a nuttiness reminiscent of marzipan, hints of warm vanilla, a buttery flavor belied by the fact that candy corn is, as bags proudly proclaim, a fat-free candy.

Then there’s the texture, something a lot of people cite as their grievance with candy corn. During candy corn production, the sugar crystallizes, giving the kernels a short texture: that means they’re not too chewy, and just a bit crumbly, while holding their shape enough to give a good tooth-sink. This short texture resembles ear wax, or a candle (two common comparisons), only insofar as it has a slightly waxy exterior, created by the confectioner’s wax that gives candy corn its cheerful sheen. But regardless, critics should beware the logical extension of dismissing a food because its texture resembles something else: Do we hate mochi because it has the texture of a rubber ball? Do we revile yogurt because it’s the texture of body lotion? Do we recoil at flourless chocolate cake because it shares a texture with human waste? Leave your texture arguments at the door, please. They’re invalid.

Candy corn also has an evocative aspect, like Proust’s madeleine. It’s one of the few foods truly associated with only one time of year (sure, candy canes are just for Christmas, but they taste like any old mint you grabbed from the hostess stand at a restaurant). Because of this, a bite of candy corn conjures this specific seasonal moment: the anticipatory energy of October, the cozy turning inward of mid-fall. A bite of a Butterfinger makes you remember only that you need to buy more floss.

But I’m not here to denigrate other candies. Other candies are great! Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups are the greatest candy ever made, Snickers truly do satisfy, and even tooth-destroying Butterfingers hold a unique place in my heart. My love for candy corn doesn’t make me an antagonist to America’s most popular treats — and the assumption that it would is at the root of America’s abandonment of candy corn, and, dare I say, many other problems we face today: We seem to have forgotten that we can like one thing without hating another.

Candy corn doesn’t need to be your favorite candy, or even in the top three. But, for your own taste buds, for America’s candy history, to rebut societally imposed candy opinions and reject today’s polarization and vitriol, you should enjoy at least a few kernels. Candy corn tastes great. If you think otherwise, your opinion is wrong.

Kate Willsky is a Brooklyn-based writer and candy corn enthusiast whose writing has appeared in Vice, Food52, and, among other publications.
Editor: Erin DeJesus