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Sweet Memories Of Childhood Sweets

They say nothing tickles the memory buds like a smell. Maybe. But sweets come a very close second.

I say "sweets" rather than "candies" because I am British. And it seems to me that a touchstone of national character may well be what kind of candies stick in the sweet tooth of the mind as the pure nostalgia of childhood. But "nostalgia" - meaning a longing to return to past experiences - might not be quite the right word.

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I remember how I longed to visit the sweet shop of the wonderfully round and beaming Mr. Percy. I overcame constitutional shyness to ask him for a "quarter of jellies" or "six ounces of licorice allsorts, please" (that terminal "please" being a well-drummed-in politeness). But when I recall some of the sweets I loved as a child, I view my child-self as almost belonging to another, rather revolting, species.

I was especially fond of two sweets that today I would rather (almost) go bungee-jumping than eat. They were Refreshers (still available) and what I think were called Trebor Chews. The first, in pastel colors of unsurpassed artificiality, fizzle sharply on the tongue. The second were a hybrid between chewing gum (which I've never liked) and toffee, and were flavored as their colors indicated: yellow for "lemon," pink for "strawberry," black for "licorice," ochre (I fancy) for "banana," and purple for "black currant." But none of these flavors was at all authentic. The very thought of them now makes me shudder.

WHILE I was at prep school, the rigorous wartime sweet rationing was relaxed at last (February 1953, to be precise). As senior boys, we were allowed once a week to walk down the long drive to buy at the tiny shop whatever sweets our pocket money could encompass. It was an occasion of unsurpassable privilege, a day of longed-for, shining importance.

Oh, sweets are nostalgia, all right. There is even a company in Lawrence, Kan., called "Brits" that offers (presumably to desperate ex-pats) bars of Cadbury's Fruit and Nut chocolate, Smarties, jelly babies, walnut whips, and much more. What is interesting about their offerings is that they are still, as it were, in print. New products come and go, but such things as Mars Bars, KitKats, Rollos, Fry's Turkish Delight, and Maltesers ("with the less fattening centres") are stalwarts, showing (though sometimes they're not as good as they used to be) no sign of redundancy.

I like to think such sweets are original to my childhood. But the fact is that most belong to several generations before mine. Even their frequently inseparable slogans are also surprisingly longstanding. "Have a break ... Have a KitKat" is 40 years old. "Make the Day with Cadbury's Milk Tray" was certainly in use in 1961. I'm not sure about "Can I have Fruit Gum, Mum?" or "Are you a Fruit and Nut Case?" but I guess they are of no mean vintage.

Bounty Bars only have to be mentioned for people here to quote "A Taste of Paradise." When they were launched by Mars in 1951 at 6 old pence per double bar, the claim, according to ads illustrated in Robert Opie's book "Sweet Memories," was not yet paradise, but a filling of "milkier, juicier coconut than even South Sea islanders ever knew."

In spite of such die-hard classics, a whole range of old favorites seem to be only just hanging on in a changing world. You can still find them, but you have to look hard. Or search the Internet. Or visit Warwick, England.

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On a side street in Warwick is a 9-by-12-foot shop run by Henry Odia that specializes in "nostalgic sweets." Henry's list boasts things that one had presumed were long ago discontinued as small old companies were taken over by large ones with new managers more interested in money than toffee bonbons or pear drops. They make decisions based on packaging convenience and new marketing techniques and show scant regard for those who still yearn for coconut mushrooms or sour plums or Bristol Mint Humbugs.

Mr. Odia tells a nice story about an old sweet (which I have never heard of) called Squirrel Cherry Lips. "They taste of soap, truth be told," he observes wryly. But it seems that, like Lyons Midget Gems or Pontefract Cakes (a Yorkshire licorice confection belonging to my childhood), they have a cult following. The company, Squirrel, was taken over. Cherry Lips were among several lines that were dropped. But then," says Henry, "there was such an outcry, that they had to bring them back."

I like outcries.

MR. ODIA'S Web pages bring him a range of "can you find?" inquiries, which he does his level best to satisfy. He says it is often "like an agony column, really." I can imagine. A world without genuine Gob Stoppers (the kind you keep taking out of your mouth to check which layer of color you have reached) or sugar pigs or genuine Sherbet Lemons (hard-boiled sweets that, when you finally suck the shell thin enough, spurt out a dash of fizzy citric powder - m-m-m-m) is, or should be, inconceivable.

But Henry admits that most of his off-the-street customers are 30- or 40-something. And I have a suspicion that this may be polite-speak for even riper citizens looking for "delight in every bite."

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