Sunday, June 23, 2024

Sitting in her Wiggins, Miss., home one fall afternoon, Wanda King began counting all of the candy corn flavors she has collected over the years.

She quickly ran out of fingers.

There is sea salt chocolate, caramel, peppermint, cookies, Starburst, Sour Patch Kids, apple pie, pumpkin pie, s’mores and three separate coffee flavors. Others are slightly more imaginative, like blackberry cobbler. Some are holiday themed, like eggnog and witch’s teeth, which are off white with green tips. Others in her collection try to mimic meals — like a brunch-flavored bag with kernels that taste like French toast, waffles and pancakes.

Catching her breath, Ms. King, 62, said she had amassed nearly 40 varieties, which she stores neatly in Mason jars in a guest bedroom.

“It is the ultimate survival sugar rush,” she said, noting that she’d recently checked the freshness of a batch from 2017. “Candy corn don’t go bad. It’ll last forever.”

Ms. King and her husband, Danny King, run a YouTube channel dedicated to their 10-acre homestead about 30 miles north of Gulfport. Her connection to candy corn started as a running joke about six years ago and took off with the help of their viewers, some of whom have sent bags for her to try.

Although Ms. King is referred to as a “candy corn queen” by some of her friends, there is a line she will not cross.

“I couldn’t see a turkey-tasting candy corn,” she said. “And people sent me a meme of a pizza with candy corn, and I can’t see eating a candy corn pizza. I just can’t.”

Chicken feed, as candy corn was originally called because of its appearance, was invented by the Wunderle Candy Company in the late 1880s during a candy boom in the United States, said Susan Benjamin, a food historian and president of True Treats, a research-based candy store in West Virginia.

Chicken feed and other treats like it were marketed toward working-class children. “It was the first time they could see themselves as part of the middle class because they could go out and purchase something,” Ms. Benjamin said. “That something was made for them and geared to their taste and that was candy.”

Chicken feed was initially popular year-round. It’s unclear when it became a near-exclusive Halloween sensation, but research suggests it was most likely around the middle of the 20th century.

By the 1940s, trick-or-treating was taking off in the United States in part because candy manufacturers became adept at packaging smaller snacks. “That would explain why candy corn became the natural fit for trick-or-treating, because it had everything,” Ms. Benjamin said, adding that it reminded people of harvest rituals, it was festive in appearance, and it was inexpensive.

“The triumph of candy corn is the triumph of getting past all of these thousands of candies that were made in the 1800s to be one of the few that survived today,” she said. Ever heard of Sen-Sen, spruce resin gum or banana split taffy? Probably not. But candy corn, she said, is “still around and we still use it.” She added, “You still find it in decorations and food all over the place.”

Candy corn today is widely sold across the United States. Jelly Belly Candy Company, which has manufactured candy corn since 1898, when it was called the Goelitz Confectionery Company, produced about 65 million kernels of candy corn the last fiscal year, a spokesman said. Brach’s, a competitor, produces about 30 million pounds of candy corn each year, a spokeswoman said. Brach’s claims to be the No. 1 producer of candy corn, making up 88 percent of the candy corn sold in the United States.

With so much candy corn on the market, who’s eating it? And how? Fifty-one percent of Americans eat the whole piece at once, and 31 percent start nibbling the tiny pieces at the narrow white end, according to a recent survey by the National Confectioners Association. The remaining 18 percent start with the yellow end.

No matter how it’s eaten, candy corn regularly tops the list of most divisive treats alongside black licorice and circus peanuts, Ms. Benjamin said. Each fall, when pumpkins take center stage and candy is sold by the bucket, discord breaks out between the lovers and haters of candy corn.

Key Lee, 29, a content creator in New York City, is among the haters. “This didn’t need to be made,” she said, calling the intensely sweet flavor, which she described as like maple syrup, off putting.

The comedian Lewis Black dislikes what he calls its mealy texture. “I don’t even know how to describe its flavor because it’s one of the few things on the planet that tastes like poop,” he said.

And it’s been about 30 years since Ray Garton, 60, a horror novelist in Northern California, last had candy corn. “It’s the consistency, how it feels between my teeth and the taste,” he said. “It’s just too sweet. It makes me shudder just thinking about it.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Melissa Cady, 38, an Etsy shop owner in Hollis, Maine. While she likes eating candy corn, she prefers dressing up like it. “If I see candy corn stuff, I kind of automatically gravitate toward it,” she said. “I’ve been collecting candy corn things for a while.”

Ms. Cady has candy-corn-colored buttons, earrings, headbands, sweaters, dresses and other knickknacks, including a ceramic candy corn tree. “It feels like big box retailers have caught on to the whole, like, candy corn craze and that there’s money to be made in it, outside of the actual candy itself,” she said.

Each year, she shares one bag with her husband, and they have no plans to give it up. “I totally get all the people who are like: ‘It’s disgusting. It has like a weird, waxy texture,’” she said. “I totally know where they’re coming from, but I’ll still eat it. Is that weird?”

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