Spending my childhood on Long Island in the late fifties and early sixties was a treat in lots of ways (although somehow I probably didn’t appreciate it as much then as I do now), not least in the number and variety in my neighborhood of what we called “Candy Stores” – there were 3 within a 5-minute walk of my house, and I alternated among them, although Bert & Edie’s was the one I visited most often.
When you walked into Bert & Edie’s the first thing you passed was the tall, glass-fronted tobacco counter, behind which were arrayed all the brands of cigarettes whose names we sometimes appropriated for street games (“I declare war on… Chesterfield!”), as well as cigars in wood and cardboard boxes, pipes, bags of loose tobacco, pipe cleaners, and other smoking accoutrements. On a platform in front of the tobacco stash were all the daily newspapers, which, aside from the comics, I had no interest in.
Right after the tobacco came the object of my affection – the candy counter. It was a tall, wooden case, subdivided into what seemed like hundreds of sections by little glass panels, holding an amount and variety of candy that would make your head swim. The nickel (or quarter, if it was Sunday) I held protected in my fist would get all sweaty during the time it took me to make a decision, my eyes darting from one candy bar to another, mouth watering in anticipation. Edie, in her apron with its pocketful of coins, always waited patiently while I took as much time as the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords (or so it must have seemed).
Some of my most favorite treats: Bonomo’s Turkish Taffy (B-O-N-O-M-O — O-O-O it’s Bonomo ♫) – put it in the fridge till it got cold, then smash it on the sidewalk or against the side of the house! (Boy, does that sound weird if you’re not familiar with the ritual – “Oh, I buy a candy bar and smash it against the side of the house – that satisfies my sweet tooth….”) Sugar Daddy or Black Cows could pull your fillings out when they got small enough to chew, but were sweet and satisfying. Jujubes – tiny, colored cylinders – if you just sucked on them, they’d last forever. Reams of penny candy, especially Bazooka Bubble Gum, licorice whips, B-B-Bats taffy lollipops, and regiments of pastel-colored candy dots marching down long strips of paper.
I guess you can see where this is going… I usually bought sweets that would take a looong time to finish – that way, I felt like I was getting a lot more out of my nickel.
A few other things I really liked, but that didn’t seem quite so practical, were those candy necklaces on elastic, that would leave sticky, pastel stripes on your neck; wax lips – lots of fun to play with, and tasted good – at least until the sweetness dissipated, and you were left with a big ball of paraffin in your mouth – ick; bubble gum cigars – had a similar fate to the wax lips, especially since I usually ended up breaking off fresh pieces of the cigar and adding them to the wad in my mouth as soon as whatever was already there lost its flavor; Pixie Stix – straws of sour, fruit-flavored powder (maybe a forerunner of Pop Rocks) that would make you choke and cough if you poured them into your mouth too fast.
A couple of other items that I had to try because they looked sort of enticing, were disappointing – Chuckles, the rainbow of sugar-coated jellies – bleccchhh; Boston Baked Beans – what the heck were those things, anyway?; and the biggest disappointment of all, the little wax “Coke” bottles filled with about a half teaspoon of colored sugar syrup – what a rip-off!
I loved lots of other candy, including Licorice Nibs, Good & Plenty (I was a big licorice fan!), Chocolate Babies – these were extremely un-PC, but they tasted good – I had a standard operating procedure for eating them, sort of like chocolate bunnies – I always started with the feet, because I felt bad about biting their heads off; Smarties, Jawbreakers (not the dentist’s favorite) and SweeTarts; Goldenberg’s Peanut Chews (my passion as an adult, too!), Chunky, Frozen Milky Way, Oh Henry, and of course, M&M’s; Candy Cigarettes (which figure prominently, along with discarded couches found at the curb, in a series of photos of my kids as they grew up); the more adult taste of Royal Crown Sours (I wish you could still get them!). Bit-o-Honey, Mary Janes (but not those orange and black wrapped taffies people threw in your bag at Halloween), Now-and-Later. Fruit Striped Gum and Juicy Fruit (which took on a whole new life after the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), and the packets of mini-Chiclets were my go-to chewing gums. I loved malted milk balls, hated root beer barrels. And Charms made the best cherry lollypops. Gee – reading this makes me realize that there must have been thousands of different kinds of candy! Mmmm… so much candy, so little time (and money!).
As a Catholic child, one particular brand of candy figured prominently in my religious life, such as it was, before my First Communion: Necco Wafers. We’d stash them in our pocketbooks, and when the adults went up to receive Communion, we’d unwrap the waxed paper, and solemnly place wafers on each other’s tongues. I think this was a major reason for a minor letdown when I was old enough to receive myself – the cardboard-y, unleavened host was certainly no taste match for a Necco wafer!
Although it’s not candy-related, the one other major attraction of the candy store for me was the lunch counter, where you could sit yourself on a stool (and spin around a few times while waiting for your order), and have a soda – sometimes a Coke or 7-Up, but most often the quintessential and confusingly-named egg cream. At a dime a glass, it was one of the most satisfying treats to be had.
As a grownup, and especially living in a part of the country far from the Big Apple and its exceptional culinary pleasures, I’ve often been asked about this delicious concoction, and where it gets its name. I haven’t been able to discover the origin of the name (there are lots of apocryphal stories), but you don’t need to know that information in order to be able to enjoy one yourself! Take a large glass (the bigger the better, as far as I’m concerned), and pour in 1/4 to 1/2 cup of milk or half-and-half, then about 1/4 cup of Fox’s U-Bet chocolate syrup (for those who don’t have a source of Fox’s, Hershey’s will suffice!), and stir like mad until the syrup is completely incorporated – the amounts may vary according to the size of your glass, as well as your taste, but I can think of much worse things to experiment with! Then carefully fill the glass with chilled seltzer, stirring gently all the while. You need to go slowly, and sometimes wait a bit for all the bubbles to dissipate, but it’s worth the wait. Now pop in a straw, and enjoy!