June 11th, 2005

Ethnic cleansing in the candy world


"The diversity of our packaging guarantees that we can meet the needs of all segments of our trade. We can also introduce new and updated packages to appeal to a wide variety of accounts" - Ed Goldenberg


“The piece was absolutely exquisite, like a rich taffy, with a hint of molasses for body, and the peanuts provided a pleasing textural snap and a rush of smoked flavor.” – Steve Almond author of Candy Freak


If you grew up on in northeastern America you have seen them - unassuming peanut and molasses candies, nestled like a camper in a sleeping bag of chocolate - often sold individually wrapped for 10 cents (and the cranky old man in me remembers when they were 5 cents). They were thrown together in a display case behind the counter, their faces pressed against the plexiglass like so many puppies begging you to take them home. They were “Goldenberg’s Peanut Chews”. And they were kosher. And they were vegan. And they were good.


Newly acquired by Just Born Candy, maker of the fascistic Marshmallow Peeps, they are Goldenberg’s no more. Now they are simply “Peanut Chews”. Perhaps a better name would be “Middle America’s Peanut Chews”. Or “Not Just for Jews Chews”. Or “We swear we won’t convert your child to Atheism, look at our snazzy new packaging! It will make your child do EXTREME SPORTS! Chews”.


Since the beginning of the 20th century Philadelphia has been producing this manna from heaven. And as the world goes crazy around us – Church and state mingle, SUV mounted blast guns containing anthrax wipe out whole ecosystems, ice caps melt and cities flood – they have been a solid and dependable presence in our lives. In fact, on a recent trip through Philly - as if my life were a short story in the making - I was enjoying a package of Chews in their original packaging and musing on their dependability when across the freeway a huge sign loomed over me like so much nuclear dust – the new packaging. Not red, brown and white, not in any form that I knew it anyway. And the red star, the glottal stop, that used to give us pause between the proud “Peanut” and the heroic “Chews” was now relegated to mere decoration, an obvious effort to silence the naysayers.


Yes, they are still vegan. But they are no longer all natural. TBHQ has been added as a preservative. And the taste: I used to think of Peanut Chews as two separate candies – “Winter Chews” and “Summer Chews”. In Winter the molasses and peanut center would be hard – it would crack when you bit into it and warm and melt on your tongue. In the summer it would be smooth and caramelly. The chocolate coating would give way to a sweet chewy bite. Now the texture seems more like so many other candy bars, not bad of course, just homogenous. Chewy. Safe.


But of course the biggest difference was the absence of Mr. Goldenberg’s name. Gone are the days when the package brought to mind the struggle of my ancestors, the rich reminder that bad times make the good all the more worthwhile. We are ushering in a new era: “Conform!” the package seems to scream. Conform or be left behind.