A little known fact about Chicago, home of the tootsie roll and Wrigley’s Gum (of course) is that it happens to be the official candy capital of the world, which I only became aware of after recently reading through the book Candy: A History.
And as you leave Chicago heading South on the I65, the first indication you have that you have crossed a State line is not the welcome absence of the toll roads, but rather the large interstate signs that practically beg you to take the upcoming exit to visit the Albanese Candy Factory, noting it as the home of the “world’s best” gummi bear (of which I can now attest).
Bookended by the Albanese Candy Factory on one end of the Indiana State line (the only company to offer 12 flavours of gummi bears by the way) is Schimpffs Confectionery located just before Louisville also on 165. This is the oldest family owned candy shop in the U.S and also where they make those legendary Red Hots.
Also worth mentioning, monitoring the Indiana middle state, is Abbott’s Candy Factory set in the racing capital of Indianapolis, a confectionary whom played an important (emphasis on “important”) role in perfecting the caramel, for which I am eternally grateful
A Small Bit of Candy History
Following the 1893 world fair in Chicago, which would go on to revolutionize the industrialization of the candy industry by subsequently opening the door to market the first wrapped candy (tootsie roll) and candy bar (Hershey) along with the world’s first “combination candy bar” (the Goo Goo Cluster from the Standard Candy Company in Nashville), the nostalgic picture of candy and the candy store that we know today started to take shape.
Truth be told though, there is a lot of interesting material to be gleaned from all this candy obsession aside from simply being kitchy and touristy and perhaps a bit indulgent. For example, one of the things I learned from reading Candy: A History is that these candied institutions that are pining for your tourist attention all along the interstate were once and still are at the forefront of America’s larger story. Dig a little deeper beyond the wrappers and what you will find are stories of immigrant families striving to make a new home for themselves on American soil, such as the story of a Bavarian family whom turned their old, romanticized version of a penny candy store into an area institution called Schimpffs Confectionary. And like so much in American culture, dig a little deeper yet and you will also find America’s long standing, socio-political struggles and successes well represented and very visible.
Roadtripping and the American Ethos
Which is one of the things I find so fascinating about road tripping through America. The American ethos is so well preserved and celebrated from town to town and city to city that its hard not to appreciate the intention with which they tell these collective stories in incredibly personal ways. Ask someone in America a question about their national history and they are almost always willing to share, warts and all. This is in large part (I think) because they remain personally connected to their (collective) story in a real way. Something we as Canadians, I think, can learn from. And I am often amazed at how great American’s are at telling stories. Intermixing lively legends with history and lasting questions, there is a joyous spirit that often permeates the fashion in which they bring these places to life in knowledgeable and entertaining ways, often touching on honest and revealing depictions of the nation and people they desire to be.
And although this might feel foreign to my own particular slice of Canadiana (where being from the “slurpee capital” of the world is a fact one is likely only to find buried on wikipedia somewhere under “useless pieces of information”) I feel like at least part of the reason Americans tend to be so vocal about these fun little cultural factoids and trademarks is because these places, in some form or another, do represent an innate and inner desire to understand and know where they came from and where they are headed. And the chance to mark these stories and tell these stories is a chance to truly express how they feel beyond the politics and the unfortunate caricatures. The fact of the matter is that the people who started these places and sill work at these places and that value the identity of the towns and cities that house these places are real people with real values with often long standing generational ties that shape real hopes and real fears that I can’t pretend to know and understand without actually talking to them and being willing to step into their shoes, if only for a moment. And road tripping through America is, if nothing else, a chance to actually talk to them, to walk for a moment in their shoes. And the truth is, in a silly and almost preposterous way, sometimes it takes something as seemingly trite and silly as gummi worms to remind me of the humanity we share across borders and nationalities, the same humanity that shapes each of us no matter where we come from.
Also worth saying is that this is what makes these stories of immigrant families and diversity, freedom and democracy, opportunity and creativity all the more important at times when these same values and this same shared sense of humanity could be perceived as being threatened and challenged.
The Backroads and The Kitchy
As a visitor to the United States there is something to be said for having endless opportunity to take that long detour through the country backroads just to witness Jack Daniels still making whisky, or winding through a long forgotten section of an old Kentucky suburb just to stand beside a sign commemorating Col. Sander’s very first “cafe”.
Or pulling off the interstate to walk through the doors of the very first Cracker Barrel Country Store and Restaurant. These are the things that are afforded equal participation right beside the bigger name cultural attractions like Churchhill Downs or the Indianapolis Speedway, and I personally find this to be a neat aspect of Americana to revel in and enjoy.
That and it simply makes road tripping a whole lot more fun.
So in a curious way, like the quintessential American road trip, candy brings us together much like a horse race. These iconic pieces of Americana that began as a a subtle craft and labour of love beckon us to veer off the freeways and take a break from the bustling pace to revel for a moment in simpler times. The walls of candy concoctions that line the Albanese Candy Factory for example intentionally elicit feelings of those old penny candy stores, even if it also happens to boast a large chocolate fountain as its “can’t miss it” centre piece. Open factory windows where we can watch the candy being made bring us back to a time when candies were made in a shop just down the road and where the delicious concoctions used to sit in the open air for excited eyes to peruse and behold, young and old.
And when we were done perusing, we simply got back on the freeway refreshed and newly determined to keep our eyes peeled for the next opportunity to explore. And lucky for us, the 165 had plenty.