Thursday, June 21, 2012

Philadelphia & Chocolate: History

Wilbur Buds
With the big dedication ceremony complete, the Reading Terminal Market got into the nitty gritty of regional food lore in the first of its week long programs in the Rick Nichols Room.

Leading off at noon on Monday was Michael Holahan, co-owner of the market's Pennsylvania General Store and president of the Reading Terminal Market Merchants Association, who provided an overview of the region's role in the chocolate industry.

Today' candy industry, Holahan explained, grew out of the mom-and-pop confectioneries that could be found in almost any burg with a railroad depot, to provide quick treats for passengers. In eastern Pennsylvania, many of these shops had been established by immigrant Germans, who brought their traditional recipes over from the Old World. With the introduction of industrialization in the late 19th century some of the shops kicked up production, and found markets beyond their little towns for some of the treats they created. Among those in the greater Philadelphia region that attained renown were Zagnut, Goobers, Raisinets and Snow Caps.

One Philadelphia confectioner came up with the brilliant idea of placing filled chocolates in a box. Although Whitman's no longer manufactures in Philadelphia (it was bought out by Russell Stover), the concept lives on.

The German candy tradition was supplemented in the big cities, Holahan said, by Jewish candy-makers. In Philadelphia the most prominent product coming out of that lineage today would be Goldenberg's Peanut Chews, which Holahan said the Goldenbergs started as a ration during World War I.  Although, like most of the small chocolates firms it has been taken over by a larger company, Just Born (maker of Peeps), Peanut Chews continue to be manufactured in Philadelphia -- because Just Born wants to keep its Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, plant peanut-free.

In his talk Holahan also recounted the birth of the Wilbur Bud, how Milton Hershey sold off his Lancaster caramel manufacturing business to found his model community and orphange and make the Hershey bar on the side, and the eventual duopoly battles between Mars and Hershey, especially once Mars in the 1960s started processing its own chocolate rather than buying $30 million worth a year from Hershey.

For additional reading on the subject Holahan recommended Emperors of Chocolate: Inside the Secret World of Hershey and Mars by Joël Glenn.

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