Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - December 8, 2023

Candy-cane daze

Many of my columns arise from something just catching my eye. This is one of those ... but it took a strange turn!

I was reading "The Sweet Origins of the Candy Cane" article in the December 2023/January 2024 Country Living magazine and it reminded me of my childhood days. After our church Christmas-Eve service, we kids received brown-paper goodie bags containing an orange, a popcorn ball wrapped in cellophane, ribbon candy, a few chocolates, and a candy cane or two.

A related memory was mom hooking a few candy canes to the top of our Christmas stockings - a practice I've continued with our daughters.

Still another was remembering when daughter Katie, then age 7, played the part of a candy cane in her school's production of "The Nutcracker." What a challenge it was for those poor teachers to keep the kids organized in their unwieldy costumes.

In recent years, I've hung red-and-white canes on our Christmas tree and put others in vases filled with greenery to add color to our home.

Husband Art is prone to burst into song when some event prods his memory. Our first real snow of the season arrived November 25, jump-starting his rendering of "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas." Even it salutes the candy:

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas,
Everywhere you go,
Take a look in the five and ten,
Glistening once again,
With candy canes and silver lanes aglow. ...

These thoughts primed my curiosity to learn more.

One "origin story" is all over the web, but with the caveat no one knows if it is true. It involves a German choirmaster, who, in 1670, used stick candy in the shape of shepherds' hooks to quiet fidgety children during a Christmas Eve service at the Cologne Cathedral. Susan Benjamin, founder of True Treats Historic Candy, says the tale is supported by the fact that 17th century Europe was a time and place where pulled sugars were popular.

According to the National Confectioners Association (NCA), the candy's U.S. origins can be traced to Wooster, Ohio in 1847, when German-Swedish immigrant August Imgard decorated a small blue spruce with paper ornaments and white candy canes, the only type made at the time.

So how are they made? The canes generally have three main ingredients: corn syrup, sugar and water. The three are heated, the water allowing the sugar to dissolve and the resultant to blend with the syrup. In commercial production, the goal is a stiff syrup "chunk" weighing about 100-pounds - enough to yield a lot of canes, yet not so much it is awkward to handle. It is allowed to cool as it is pulled and flexed by a machine with two large prongs. Air that enters the mixture makes the hardening candy opaque and white. A flavoring agent, such as peppermint, and a colorant might be added. Striped canes are created by taking separately-made long thin colored versions and placing them next to the main section while all are warm. These are then twisted together.

By 1952, Bob McCormack had been in the candy-making business for about 30 years in Albany, Georgia. He apparently shared with his brother-in-law Gregory Keller that the process of pulling, twisting, cutting and bending the canes was labor-intensive. Keller, a Catholic priest, invented and patented a machine to twist the soft candy into spirals and cut the sticks. In 1957, he invented another to add the hook. To this day, it is called the Keller Machine.

The NCA has collected some "fun facts" about the ubiquitous Christmas treat. A survey revealed 55 percent start eating a cane from the straight end, while 28 percent go for the curved end first, and 17 percent break it into pieces. As far as favorite flavor, 73 percent opt for classic peppermint, while 27 percent like other flavors, such as cinnamon, root beer, butter - and get this - gravy, mac & cheese, and ketchup. I'll just stick with the classic!

The typical candy cane is about six inches long and one-quarter inch thick, but other sizes have been made. Small 3-inchers are common. Logan's Candies, in Ontario, California, has a 30-pound, six-foot-long candy cane hanging on the wall behind the counter.

In December 2012, Chef Alain Roby of Geneva, Illinois set a Guinness World Record for the longest candy cane - 51 feet - as part of the city’s Christmas Walk and House tour. He said it took him about three weeks to design and build it in four- to eight-foot segments, and he used at least 900 pounds of sugar. He said after it was declared a world record, it was broken up with a hammer so people could take a piece of it home.

But this is where things took a turn. While doing my "research" - meaning Googling - many sites mentioned that 1.7 billion - some say 1.76 billion - candy canes are made each year. Where did that number come from? It's not like there is a candy-cane inspector with a clip board tallying them. Of the first 40 sites while searching on "1.7 billion candy canes," NONE offered a source. Some said "this year," but the years of posting ranged from 2013 to 2023. The same number all those years seems unlikely. Some said that was the number sold, while others stated it was the number made. Some said that was worldwide, while others said it was just in the U.S. These assertions were found on sites ranging from a county’s website to encyclopedia.com.

One site said the candy cane has been associated with Christmas for more than 350 years, while another said it began in 1847. Still another said a candy-cane-making machine was invented in the 1920s, meaning the Keller Machine was a late-comer by comparison. But if that was so, patenting the Keller machine would have been challenging if one already existed.

Maybe all these cane-lovin' folks are on sugar highs ... except unless a person is diabetic, eating a bunch of sugar does not make a person hyper. That's an old wives' tale. For that matter, a six-inch candy cane only has about 50 calories - about a third of that in a 12-ounce can of Coke. (So much of what I was reading seemed suspect, so I had Art calculate this one.)

Well, there you go! I had a "sweet" Christmas-related article going and I had to be a journalistic killjoy by questioning the reliability of some of my sources. I guess I should just enjoy the holiday and celebrate National Candy Cane Day on December 26.

Oh, did I mention that no one knows how ... or even if ... that came to be?

Top row (l-r): Katie as a candy cane; Mariya and Katie in front of our candy-cane-decorated Christmas tree; Priest Gregory Keller; vertical white prongs working the sugary batch. Bottom row: no shortage of candy canes in one of our local stores; sister Gaila (right) and me with sundae glasses decorated with greenery and candy canes. (Keller photo: Diocese of Little Rock archives. puller photo: spanglercandy.com)

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