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A Halloween primer on candy

Next week is Halloween, a most anticipated holiday for young witches and goblins. Who can deny the hedonistic pleasure of sitting in a pile of candy freshly reaped from the doorsteps of generous strangers? When my husband was an enterprising, trick-or-treating 11 year old, he and a group of friends reconnoitered their neighbourhood in one costume, only to return in different dress to strategically chosen houses a second time in order to maximize their take. Talk about tricks!

Trick or treating dates back to the parades in England on All Soul’s Day, a day to honour the dead, where the poor begged for food from the wealthier citizens. The wealthy would give out "soul cakes" to anyone who would promise to pray for their dead relatives. The practice was eventually taken up by children who would roam their neighbourhood to be given money, food and ale. Later, in North America, between 1920 and 1950, the holiday had evolved to a community-centred, secular holiday celebrating the harvest. It also began to be plagued by vandalism. In theory, if neighbours wanted to avoid destruction to their property they provided treats, or candies, as a small token of bribery.

In previous columns I have outlined my parent’s prohibition of sweets as I was growing up. In grade school Halloween was the only exception to this rule and we were allowed to gorge ourselves on candy for the one night a year. I thought I had discovered a second ticket into candy nirvana, when at the age of eight, my class was invited for a tour of the Hershey’s chocolate factory in Smith’s Falls, Ontario. It is hard, even now, to recall my miserable discovery that candy came out of stainless steel vats and conveyor belts rather than anything like the fantastically coloured, entirely edible factory belonging to Willie Wonka in the movie Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Candy, also called confectionary or sweets, is big business. Of the hundreds of different candies that are launched each year, only a few remain in circulation, creating a cut throat, competitive atmosphere for innovation. Time-honoured, favourite and successful confectionary recipes are exceptionally guarded secrets within the industry. Companies force employees to sign confidentiality agreements and even then the whole process may only be memorized by a select number of executives. It is not unknown for an industry insider to pose as a machine mechanic to get inside a competitor’s factory. Spies are everywhere. The method of manufacture has to be kept secret as this is what determines the end product.

All confectionary is derived from similar building blocks – that is sugar and water, boiled together to form a syrup. The amount of water concentration, the length of time they are boiled together as well as other ingredients – flavour, nuts, chocolate etc., that are added to the syrup, determines the type of sweet that is made.

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