Classic confectionery through the eyes of an American
Words by Sarah Chamberlain | Illustration by Joël Penkman
Sarah Chamberlain moved to the UK in 2009 and lived in Edinburgh and London for seven years before returning to California. A historian of modern Britain and an enthusiast for all things gastronomic, she’s spent many days thinking about why British people eat and drink what they do. Here she shares her observations about British drinking and dining, from everyday foods and rituals to more obscure traditions.
After living in the UK for several years and marrying a Brit, you’d think I would have sussed the small differences between America and Britain. Yet last week, when I stood in the street with my husband having a loud debate about whether the dance where you put your right foot in, then your right foot out is called the “Hokey-Cokey” or the “Hokey-Pokey”, I realised that there will always be something new to learn. (For the record: it is absolutely the latter, end of discussion.)
But alongside George Bernard Shaw’s old chestnut about the US and Britain being separated by a common language, I’d argue that we’re separated by a common sweet tooth.
Let me explain. Like most Americans born in the 1980s, I first learned about British sweets through reading Roald Dahl. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is the obvious example, but I also loved the paragraphs in the early pages of Dahl’s memoir of childhood, Boy. His descriptions of sweets are imbued with his trademark love of the macabre – he tells with relish how one of his seven-year-old classmates swore that the licorice whips he ate were actually made from crushed-up rats. But crushed rats aside, to the American reader even the matter-of-fact descriptions of the sweets sound distinctly strange: Tonsil Ticklers, Sherbet Suckers, Wine Gums (which seemed incredibly mature until I learned that the gums were non-alcoholic). Compare these quaint, old-fashioned names with those of American sweets: Nerds, Sour Patch Kids, Air Heads – like characters in a high school comic strip.
"I first learned about British sweets through reading Roald Dahl... his descriptions imbued with his trademark love of the macabre"
What really struck me when I first tasted British sweets was how subtle they were in comparison to the candy I grew up with. With some study I learned that this wasn’t just my imagination. In the thirteenth edition of Skuse’s Complete Confectioner, the author states that when making sweets, “overcolouring should be avoided. Delicate shades appeal much more to fastidious tastes than bright colours; excess of glaring colour is repellent, rather than attractive.” I don’t really associate the adjectives “delicate” and “fastidious” with American sweets – candy to me is loud, bright, almost chaotic, both in taste and in its effect on the eater. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a British sweet that was “Blue Raspberry” flavoured, where the blue colour is as unnatural as the flavour and dyes the tongue an alarming shade of turquoise.
The flavour wheel of sweets is different too – working in gentler gradations of sour and sweet. When I first tried a Rhubarb and Custard, I thought it would be as mouth-puckeringly tangy as its fruity inspiration, but it was sweeter and creamier than I expected. If it were an American sweet, the sourness would be so amped up that it would wreck your taste buds for hours afterwards.
British sweets also tend towards tastes that I think of as more adult – perfumed (Parma Violets and rose creams) or even medicinal (all forms of black liquorice). In Boy, Dahl describes Pear Drops as having “a dangerous taste… They smelled of nail-varnish and froze the back of your throat.” Tonsil Ticklers “tasted and smelled very strongly of chloroform.”
"The first sweets were invented as delivery mechanisms for medicine. In the Middle Ages sugar itself was considered to be a cold remedy"
These last descriptions nail down the difference between British and American sweets. The first sweets were invented as delivery mechanisms for medicine. In the Middle Ages sugar itself was considered to be a cold remedy. Liquorice and marshmallow were also medicines. For example, according to the food historians Laura Mason and Catherine Brown, the sweets called Pontefract cakes began in the 17th century as an unsweetened mixture made of boiled liquorice juice that was used “to treat colds and chest complaints.” A century later, an apothecary decided to add sugar to the mixture, and Pontefract cakes as we know them came into being. American candy began in a similar way, with Oliver Chase inventing a lozenge-cutting machine in 1847 to make both throat lozenges and sweet, flavoured disks called NECCO Wafers. Candy has moved much further away from these roots, with its extreme colours and flavours, while most British sweets have stayed close to their original form.
Though no one in their right mind would say that sweets are medicine anymore, a certain aura of goodness still remains. They’re comforting, almost soothing, compared to the brashness of American candy. At least, that’s what I tell myself as I reach for another Rhubarb and Custard.