“Do you like candy?” ten-year old Rosa asked excitedly.
My childhood friend, Ruth and I looked at each other looked at each other over the plate of cold noodles and pork buns we’d been gorging on when Rosa sat down next to me. I smirked, Ruth rolled her eyes and as a master of biting sarcasm even at the tender age of 15 (we both were, actually but Ruth took this turn), Ruth cocked her head to the side, gave poor, cute-as-a-button, little Rosa a look sharp enough to cut her in two and clucked “No, we hate it. Could you get out of here please?” Poor Rosa, deflated, dreams for the future seemingly crushed, slinked back into the family room to watch cartoons, until Ruth enticed her with a “Do you have candy or something?” Rosa perkily ran and emptied her pockets onto the table. She unloaded a pile of Chinese milky-peachy flavored candies that she’d gotten on a recent trip to the Chinatown near where we lived.
This is what I thought of when I walked into True Treats, a small candy store nestled into a group of shops off the main road in downtown Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. I thought of that story and of sugar, and how it transformed the lives of people for better and worse, all around the world, particularly people of African descent. Why? I can’t say. It’s how my mind works, I guess. A blessing and a curse, most certainly.
But True Treats . . .
I stumbled upon it during a recent trip to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. Ironically in a town brimming with history, it is one of the only shops that sells much of anything historic. This candy store, it’s quite unique owing to the confectionary’s inventory—candies from the 1800s through the 1950s—and its owner, Susan Benjamin.
The store sells collections of candy grouped by decade. Some time ago, Susan Benjamin got it into her head to create a collection focusing on contributions to history through confections, made by folks other than wealthy, white men and so it was that the first in what will be similarly themed collections, the African American Candy Collection, was born. It includes seven different types of old-fashioned candies –generally the types that, depending on your age, you may have heard your own parents or grandparents talk about– made from historic recipes and authentic ingredients using traditional techniques. Benjamin partners with candy makers around the country to get the products made, some exclusively for her company Cool Confectionaries.
The African American Candy Collection feels sort of personal, probably because of the information booklet that accompanies it and gives information about the lives of the people whose recipes have been used to make the candies.
The short profiles place things in context and exist as Susan Benjamin puts it, as her “own personal revisionist effort . . . ” Here are the people profiled in the collection:
● Hercules perhaps America’s first “celebrity chef” and enslaved by George Washington
● James Hemings enslaved by Thomas Jefferson (this one really gives you an idea of what a jerk old TJ really was)
● Catherine Ferguson whose profile tells us that maple sugar was a favored sweetener of abolitionists because it was not processed by enslaved people
● Ellen Craft who with her husband, William founded the Woodville Co-Operative Farm School after escaping slavery in Georgia.
● Lt. Stephen Atkins Swails a free African American and Lieutenant in the Union Army
● Rufus Estes, author of the first cookbook by and African American chef and of course,
● George Washington Carver, Scientist and inventor of peanut brittle (Thank you, Dr. Carver, for everything!)
The candy collection has recently been picked up by museums and can be found in museum gift shops, and, of course at True Treats location in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. For more information on the shop, the collection, or to order click here.
Cool Confectionaries Harpers Ferry, 180 High Street #1A Harpers Ferry, West VA 25425
Herbal medicine stall in Coronation Market -- Kingston, Jamaica