Monthly Archives: February 2017


Historic Philly Sign

Historic Philly Sign

I just gave a talk about the history of candy at the Historical Society in Philadelphia. The most amazing aspect of the “City of Brotherly Love,” more than the architecture, the ports, or the gardens, is the people. Sitting curbside at a Cuban restaurant afterwards, I watched the parade of humanity go by: Muslim women with hijabs, Latino families with dark-eyed children, a Vietnamese cook in chief’s whites, European American students chatting at a nearby café, and two African American workers with key-laden rings at their hips.

Philadelphia Talk & Tasting by Susan Benjamin

Philly Girls

As for candy – for most people, candy is a metaphor, a metaphor based on the experience of love. For generations, grandmothers have fished sweets from their purses for eager grandchildren; lovers have shared chocolates in ribbon-wrapped boxes; and on occasion children have given candy to their teachers, bosses to their secretaries, and friends to each other. They are the stuff of birthday parties and weddings: they are us.

Philadelphia Cuban Restaurant

Philadelphia Cuban Restaurant

You could also say that our diversity is a metaphor for sweets, but it’s more literal than that. Chocolate originated in Mesoamerica and was eaten by Native Americans, long prepared with sugar from India and spices from Asia, or as a coating on Mediterranean almonds, British raisins, and North African coffee beans, first consumed by Muslim men. The hard candies were European and jellies from the ancient Arabic Apothecaries.  The brittle came with the Irish fleeing starvation, while the peanut traveled from Argentina to Africa then back on slave ships whose struggling inhabitants produced the sugar with the strength of survivors, which they were.

We owe them, all of them, gratitude. They are the sea of inhabitants in Philadelphia, new arrivals and countless generations. That’s it. Love. Brotherly, sisterly and for all time.

Norbert Rillieux: All the Sugar that You Eat and a Bizarre Twist


Norbert Rillieux (undated)
Fun (and Informational) Candy Facts

  • Americans get a small amount (about 5%) of their sugar from candy! Most sugar comes from hidden places, from frozen pizza to granola bars.
  • Through most of history, food had a purpose – it was healthy, a medicine, or used in ceremonies. No junk food!
  • Early sugar in North America came from roots, barks, fruits, and grains, including corn!
  • Most Americans eat sugar from a beet – 55%! – and not the sugar cane. What’s the difference? It’s hard to tell!
  • The abolitionists thought they could get rid of slavery by “boycotting” the cane sugar, which was important to the economy of slavery. They used other sugars instead – the beet was one of them.
  • In the 1800s, most of the candies were made in pharmacies.

If you like sweets, eat sweets, or give gifts of made sugar, you have Norbert Rillieux to thank. His story is remarkable and his legacy regarding cane sugar in specific and sugar in general is profound.  He was born in 1806; his mother was a free woman of color, and his father, Vincent Rillieux, a European American plantation owner and inventor. At that time, 25 percent of African Americans in New Orleans were free and mixed couples often raised families together.

Rillieux was a precocious student – so precocious his father sent him to the famous l’École Centrale in Paris where he studied engineering. At twenty-four, he became the youngest instructor of applied mechanics and later, back home, developing a multiple effect steam-operated evaporator that turned raw sugar into sugar crystals.


Rillieux’s Evaporator System

At the time, sugarcane production relied on something called the “Jamaica Train”: a process where slaves ladled scorching sugarcane juice from one boiling container to another. Frequently, these workers were scalded to death or endured debilitating burns. Then came Rillieux’s system, where the evaporator did the work, saving lives, enhancing the quality of sugar and expediting the timing of the sugar evaporating process.

In short, it was of the same magnitude as Eli Whitney’s cotton gin. And here is the bazaar twist: Rillieux became the most sought-after engineer in Louisiana: evaporator was embraced by widely by such persons as the Confederate secretary of war, Judah Benjamin. Yet, as a “person of color,” he couldn’t sleep at the plantation as a guest or, in some cases, even dine there. As the Civil War drew near, Rillieux faced an increasing number of restrictions, such as the loss of his right to walk along the street. So, Rillieux moved back to France where he died in 1894 and was buried in the famed Paris cemetery of Père Lachaise.


Degas, Suffering City of New Orleans

Eligh Whitney has made his way into the annals of history. Norbert Rillieux is forgotten.  But, an interesting footnote is this: In 1872, French impressionist painter, Edgar Degas was suffering from a bout of artist’s block. So, he decided to visit the home of American relatives in New Orleans. Louisiana, still recovering from the devastation of the Civil War, somehow inspired Degas and fueled some of his finest paintings. The home had belonged to Vincent Rillieux, Senior.  His son, Vincent, Jr, was Norbert’s father. Degas and Norbert Rillieux were cousins.


Author’s Book “Sweet as Sin: The Unwrapped Story of How Candy Became America’s Favorite Pleasure.” (Prometheus, 2016)

“I have always held that Rillieux’s invention is the greatest in the history of American chemical engineering and I know of no other invention that has brought so great a saving to all branches of chemical engineering.”

— Charles A. Browne (1870-1947), Sugar Chemist, U.S. Department of Agriculture

Candy in the Classroom?

Civil War Candy HistoryYesterday, I gave a talk at the D.G. Cooley Elementary School in Berryville, Virginia, about the history of candy with plenty of samples as we went. Skeptics, such as health professionals or parents who fastidiously limit their children’s intake of sugar, may cringe. Candy? In the classroom? Seriously? No worries – I’m on their side.

But first, a little background. Candy is uniquely qualified for teaching children. They can relate to it directly – it’s not abstract, difficult, or about grown-up achievements. It’s about something in their realm and so, about them, complete with positive associations of candy bags at birthday parties and salt water taffy on family vacations. Just as important, candy gives them a visceral learning experience that touches all their senses- they see, smell, taste, touch, and even hear the sound of candy crunching.

The best part of candy in the classroom, though, is the multi-faceted education that the young students literally consume. The early history of our nation, for example, is interwoven with cane sugar, the primary reason for slavery and a central component of the American Revolution. The stories through time are fascinating and the experience immediate: the children taste the chocolate Thomas Jefferson and John Adams ate, the candy bars the World War I soldiers relied on for health and nourishment, and the 10th century medicine used in Arabic apothecaries, now known as the Turkish Delight.

Other lessons relate to the Industrial Revolution and what it reveals about the foods we eat. Students sample the licorice root – yes, a real root – then travel through time to the licorice and the red twist. They try the cacao bean then the industrialized milk chocolate. They discover that all through history people ate what came from the ground and tree as well as the fish, birds, and livestock that lived. Today our experience of food frequently begins in the supermarket, with a range of ingredients, revealed on the all-important label. In the process, they also learn about marketing from branding to market-driven ingredients in such favorites as the Pixy Stix, which has colors and smells specially added to the actual ingredients to enhance the eating experience.

And those lessons are only the beginning! No matter what the content, though, the children leave better informed and more able to make wise decisions about the foods they love. All this in an hour or so of fun.

If you’re a teacher and want to know more about True Treats’ programs, please contact us. If you want to use candy in the classroom yourself, feel free to call or e-mail us for advice.

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The Charleston Chew


James P. Johnson

The Charleston Chew, that dense chocolate covered marshmallow-taffy-toffee substance may be nostalgic, but beneath the chocolate exterior, is an edgy, activist DNA embedded in the candy which, as it happened, was named for the song and the dance known as the “Charleston” in 1925.

Let’s start with the dance. No one knows where it originated exactly, but it likely was in the domain of enslaved African-Americans living on a small island near Charleston, South Carolina. Their dance likely had Ash-Ante African roots, modified to deceive the slaveholders and their rules prohibiting it. You have to remember that both song and dance were a powerful means to resist the slaveholders’ grip on those who were enslaved. They could communicate information about food resources, escape plans, and other matters central to their existence as well as maintain a spiritual and generational connection to their pasts.

Snap forward 1894 and the great African American musician and composer James P. Johnson was born. Classically trained, he went on to bridge the gap between ragtime and jazz, as back-up player for such greats as Ethel Waters and Bessie Smith, mentor to Duke Ellington and  Fats Waller, among many others, and an accompanist on over 400 recordings, and colleague of George Gershwin. As ground-breaking as he was, Johnson’s role as resistor also played out in the classical music landscape, where he was intent on breaking barriers with compositions that reflected African beats.  He succeeded.

One of his most enduring compositions, was the song, the Charleston, likely written in 1913. The popularity snowballed a 1920s hit. The flappers adopted the song and the dance, where it was featured in images of speakeasies with overflowing and deliciously illegal cocktails. The Charleston came to represent female liberation, irrant behavior and flight from the Victorian-esq norms.

It was during the wild times that Donley Cross, an actor in San Francisco, ended his career by falling from stage and injuring his back. With no back-up profession and for unknown reasons, he went into candy-making, instead.  In 1925, his most famous hit the market and the name tapped into the spirit of defiance and resistance, both crazed and serious.  And that was, of course, the Charleston Chew.


Black History Museum Talk & Tasting

black-history-museumLast Saturday, I had the pleasure, and I do mean pleasure, of speaking at the Black History Museum in Alexandria. The museum was formally a one-room library for African Americans during segregation. Since then, the site has expanded and now features a presentation and exhibition area.

I don’t know what I liked best. The museum itself is beautiful, clean, bright and airy. And while African American history is too large to fit into the New York City library, the small museum presents just the right information to make the trip warm and informative.

before-the-spiritsThe exhibition on the day I gave my talk was called “Before the Spirits are Swept Away: African American Historic Site Paintings” by Sherry Z. Sanabria . I’ve seen Sanabria’s work else –portraits of captivity expressed though abandoned slave quarters, mental hospitals, concentration camps and prisons. The images are disturbing, revealing and beautiful at the same time.

audrey-davisThe best part for me as a speaker, though, was undoubtedly the people: Audrey Davis, the curator, the staff, and the guests. All of them were friendly, smart and quick to engage in interesting conversations.  The talk lasted longer than scheduled but no one, especially me, seemed to mind.

In Virginia? Skip Trip Advisor and Head Here

Ready to sell tickets at the Rising Sun Tavern

Ready to sell tickets at the Rising Sun Tavern

I’ve been traveling around the country quite a bit these days and am always delighted to be hitting the road in Virginia. Last weekend, I found myself speaking in two beautifully historic places: Charlottesville and Fredericksburg. My recommendation: visit both (they’re only 90 minutes apart), spend time walking around the historic area, enjoy the wonderful stores, then head over to the Rising Sun Tavern and the Albemarle County Historical Society.

The Ultimate Deck at Rising Sun Tavern

The Ultimate Deck at Rising Sun Tavern

Rising Sun Tavern: Fredericksburg, VA

This former tavern was originally built in 1760 as a home for Charles Washington, George’s younger brother. About 30 years later, it became a tavern and popular gathering place for travelers. The interior has a cool, 18th century feel, with warm woodwork and well-preserved artifacts that express the time-period beautifully. Happy as I was to give the talk, I wanted to spend time just looking at the furniture, glassware and much more. Of course, from my perspective, there’s nothing like telling visitors about 18th century chocolate, sugar and other “sweets” in a space where it was likely eaten. As for the deck: so vast and comfortable you might want to relax for a few hours…too bad they don’t carry the original liquid refreshment! Before you head out, check the hours as the Tavern offers tours, staff dressed in period garb.

Albemarle County Historical Society

Albemarle County Historical Society

Albemarle County Historical Society: Charlottesville

So, here’s what you do: go for a stroll in the area around the Historical Society building, go out for lunch, and do a little shopping. But…before you do, find out what events are on tap that day. The Historical Society has walking tours and exhibits, all tastefully and professionally done and hosted by a welcoming staff.  At my talk, the audience felt welcome by their hosts, as did I – we had lots of laughs and great discussions.They even tried some of the really early candies I gave them without hesitation. In case you’re worried about parking, no problem. There’s a reasonably charged parking lot right down the street.

True Treats Historic Candy® Announces Launch of the Grandmother’s Purse Project

Candy Store to Donate Percent of Profits to Four Different Charitable Segments – Welcomes Requests for Funding

Harpers Ferry, WV (February 15, 2017): True Treats Historic Candy announced they will launch the “Grandmother’s Purse Project,” giving up to 10% of their profits to charitable events. In addition, True Treats will continue to donate up to six gift baskets or other goods to organizations for raffles and silent auctions

Says True Treats founder Susan Benjamin, “We’ve been planning this project for several years and are delighted to begin. We called it ‘Grandmother’s Purse’ because, for generations, grandmothers have carried sour balls, Lifesavers and other sweets in their purses to give as treats to the children they loved. The spirit of this gesture is exactly what we have in mind.”

None of the organizations receiving these gifts will be religious or political in nature, and will focus on creating positive and productive change in the community. In addition, they must have tax exempt status.

The project will provide funding in four areas of concentration:

  • Scholarship donation to culinary school. This year’s donation is slated for Blue Ridge Community College in West Virginia to show the company’s appreciation for the state and, in particular, their home in Harpers Ferry.
  • Environmental/animal welfare. These organizations may focus on anything from animal care to environmental programs but cannot be used for lobbying efforts.
  • Military veterans and their families. The funding will target the area of greatest need at the time of the donation and will focus on individuals or families in the West Virginia panhandle and surrounding areas.

The forth area will be an open donation, the recipients to be determined by the friends and employees at True Treats Candy. The gifts will be given in June and December of each year.

True Treats Historic Candy® is based in Harpers Ferry, WV and owned by Susan Benjamin, a professional researcher, author, and expert on historic sweets. The company has been cited by the Food Network,, and Holliday Letting, the international arm of as one of the best candy stores in West Virginia and/or the nation. Founder Susan Benjamin also gives talks on historic candy at museums, historic societies and other places throughout the nation.