Everyone loves a gingerbread house. Even South Park’s hate campaign against the “ginger” couldn’t dull the sugary luster of the beloved cookie-built domicile. You probably remember the first time you saw one, right? Or the first time you smelled one?
Sometime in the late 1970s, at my local church, I spied and smelled a real, elaborate gingerbread house for the first time. It was during an Advent festival, with apple-cheeked residents of my snowy hometown selling pinecone ornaments and weaving fragrant holiday wreaths budded with hollyberry. Someone had knocked themselves out on the centerpiece, a resplendent dwelling of gingerbread with all the confectionery trimmings, the kind that lured the likes of Hansel and Gretel to their near-doom.
There was a raffle, or suchlike, for pieces of the house; I’m straining to recall the details, as this was over a million years ago. Somehow, I came into possession of a piece of the pastel-colored roof. From the intoxicating bakery aroma, to the enticing, ice-cream hues of the roof tiles, I was certain that I was about to taste the shingles of the divine.
It is only out of love and respect for my childhood congregation that I’m not suggesting a sudden loss of faith as a result of what I experienced.
Wintergreen. WINTERGREEN. PINK MEANT WINTERGREEN.
My god; why? Why wintergreen? At The Glen Rock Inn, my dad’s favorite watering hole, there was a pink hockey-puck in each urinal. You know, like the kind Patrick Bateman had enrobed in dark chocolate and served to his ex-girlfriend, in American Psycho. When you pissed on it, it released a smell. That’s how pink Necco wafers taste.
(Yes, I was permitted to hang out with my dad, at his favorite bar. IT WAS THE 1970s.)
Since I was a child in the aforementioned era, I totally hid my disgust, because showing revulsion at such a generous gift from adults would surely result in corporal punishment, or a severe browbeating. (For other kids, not my spoiled hinder.) I shuttered the screaming, angry voices in my mind- PINK MEANS BUBBLE GUM! STRAWBERRY MILK! SUGAR AND SPICE!- and sampled a second shingle. Purple.
Circa 1982, I was at summer camp. In the mess hall, there were two beverage options; milk and off-brand grape Kool-Aid. Some scamp mixed the two as a goof, and a crazy thing happened. Everyone liked it. It was like Strawberry Quik, but grape. Before long, it was being mixed on purpose at mealtime, and I clearly remember an adult counselor calling it “purple Ambrosia”.
Even after numerous attempts, I have never managed to replicate that mixture as an adult. It always ends up tasting like shit. That’s how I know it wasn’t Kool-Aid, or Flavor-Aid, or even Wyler’s; none of those worked when I tried them. I finally gave up before I started to go all Seymour Skinner.
Such is the power of Purple.
In the world of the Necco wafer, purple means clove.
There are flavors in this universe that require a “mature palate”. Caviar, for example. Asparagus. Cognac, and fine tobacco.
And then there’s clove. It smells funny and tastes like shit.
Once a few years ago, destitute and desperate to kill the incessant dental pain I was experiencing, I chewed cloves to numb my throbbing gums. It was like medieval torture. My breath was like Goth navel lint. Does that sound like candy to you?
I’d never tasted clove before that day, and I didn’t know what it was. I just assumed that the church was officially trying to poison me, and calmly moved on to another shingle. I was delirious and fighting back vomitus. Everything I knew was wrong.
I chose a black shingle. I chose poorly.
I already knew black licorice. It was a contentious matter in our household. My mom loved pectin jelly beans (well, candy in general), except for the black ones. They went in the trashcan. When it came to jelly beans, we were a bunch of racist pigs.
At Easter time, I would offer to just swallow the goddamned things, instead of wasting them. That way I didn’t have to taste them, and they’d poop right out later. One time, my mother threw one on the floor, and the dog inhaled it. A second later, she blecched it back up in revulsion, and we all laughed so hard I couldn’t breathe. It’s one of the earliest power-laughs I can recall. Even the dog hated licorice jelly beans!!!
Listen, I’m not entirely prejudiced against black licorice. I’ve imbibed a lot more absinthe than you, and I used to be borderline-obsessed with a Victorian-era chewing gum that made a reappearance in the 1980s.
I could not get enough of Black Jack. It was cheap, smelled amazing, and tasted like I thought black licorice should taste. In school, everyone was all about the Big Red and the Juicy Fruit, so I thought myself quite the young sophisticate with my grayish-black gum.
If you’re another longtime gum-chewer, you know the problem that lies ahead; longevity. All the gums I mentioned in the preceding paragraph last for about thirty seconds of chewing per stick. The worst offender, of course, is Fruit Stripe, which tastes better than anything for about as long as it takes to unwrap it. After that, it becomes a tasteless wad of burden that is now top priority to disembogue. “Anti-flavor”.
Big Red’s whole marketing campaign was based around “a little longer”; the gum was long-lasting, thanks to the lethal potency of cinnamon itself. That’s why you rarely see Big Red stuck to the wall of an amusement park ride, where people get on. You see the yellow of long-gone GatorGum, bone-white Mint and standard Pink and Purple, but mostly the sickly grays of Juicy Fruit and Black Jack.Whatever black jelly beans taste like; the black Necco wafer was worse. Had I any familiarity at that age with Gravity’s Rainbow, I would surely have noted the resemblance to the “terrible British candies” passage. It was literally years before I trusted an adult, a church, or a gingerbread house again. I could not fathom the idea of making a wonderful cookie house taste like a wombat’s ass crack.
Apparently I wasn’t alone in my aversion to Necco flavors; in 2009, the New England Confectionery Company (NECCo) changed the formula, for the first time since their inception in the 1800s. From Wikipedia:
Artificial colors and flavors were eliminated. The candy was made softer through the addition of glycerine. The lime flavor was removed due to difficulties in creating an all-natural green coloring, resulting in a 7-flavor Necco Wafer roll.
You know, if I’d gotten a lime shingle on that fateful day, I wouldn’t even be writing this. Lime is a fruit flavor. Fruit is nature’s candy. I shouldn’t have to tell you this. Mixing lime and cookies can produce a key lime pie, a unanimously desired pastry item. Cloves and licorice are used to mask undesirable odors.
According to Jackie Hague, Necco’s vice president of marketing, switching to all-natural flavors and colors “would draw young mothers concerned about their children’s diet.” The new cinnamon flavor is “less like Red Hots”, the new lemon, “less like paper candy dots and more like lemon meringue pie filling.” The chocolate flavor—previously a vanilla flavor “with a hint of chocolate flavoring”—switches to a more intense all-cocoa flavor. The traditional eighth Necco flavor, lime (green), was dropped in the move to all-natural flavors. In addition, the Necco Chocolate assortment changed from 100% of the standard Necco chocolate wafers into a four-flavor chocolate assortment.
However, the change was not popular with long-time customers. The company received “stacks and stacks of letters and e-mails that said, ‘Why did you do this? You ruined it,'” according to vice president of sales Steve Ornell. Less than two years after the change, sales of Necco Wafers had fallen by 35 percent. In response to these concerns, Necco Wafer production switched back to the original formula in the summer of 2011. [Wikipedia]
Clearly I’m in the minority on the Necco matter, and probably on Smooth & Melties too (another candy I detest). I don’t hate mint, either- I love the sensation when I bite into a York Peppermint Patty- but I don’t support its integration with fruit flavors. The candy races must be kept pure. The black licorice is too strong! The fruit could be overwhelmed and slaughtered!
I once got a hold of a bag of “spiced” jelly beans. Don’t even ask how that went.