by Ray Linville | Photography by Diana Matthews
As I stroll down the aisles of my favorite confectionery, specialty shop, or grocery store this month, I search for something unusual among the candies.
It’s easy to pick up some chocolate wrapped in glossy paper at one of the Valentine’s Day displays. They’re located near the checkout and also featured prominently in pop-up kiosks as you enter a store.
Although I’m a fan of chocolate, I’m still overwhelmed with all the candy left over from Halloween lurking in the pantry. I’m in search of something more novel.
Fortunately, handcrafted hard candy is not hard to find, and central North Carolina is leading the resurgence of manufacturing and packing this confectionery. Several companies in this region have time-honored artisan traditions dating back several generations, one as early as 1890.
In an issue last winter, editor Carrie Frye described how the spirits of a patient undergoing chemotherapy improved when she received peach- and lemon-flavored hard candy.
“It was the one thing my mother could have in her mouth and enjoy the flavor after her treatments,” said Dena Manning, who became so devoted to the candy that she bought the business, Butterfields Candy, a legendary maker with roots in North Carolina since 1924.
Hard candies such as these are a special treat to give (and receive) on Valentine’s
Day. Although other flavors such as cherry, lime, peppermint, orange and cinnamon are also marketed, my search is not complete until I find one that reminds me of my childhood.
I still remember going to an aunt’s house decades ago when I was not yet a teenager and discovering hard horehound candy for the first time.
Although I was initially put off by its dark brown color, I was immediately mesmerized by its distinctively bittersweet flavor.
My aunt was a frugal person not prone to buy nonessentials, which at that time for my family included candy. When candy was available, it was not “store bought,” so I had to ask why she had it.
“Well,” she said to justify her purchase, “it is good for coughs” (much like brandy and bourbon of yesterday—and today—bought for their medicinal value).
Every time I visited her home again, I feigned a cough and asked if she still had any of that dark brown hard candy.
Don’t be disheartened if you receive chocolates this month. They are traditional. It is, after all, the thought that counts. However, if you discover old-fashioned hard candy in a package that you unwrap, know that it is just as special as you are.
Linville writes about local connections to Southern food, history and culture. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.