Day 640: Henry’s Hallowed History

originally published October 1, 2013

I had no idea that a topic so innocent could spiral my clicking finger down an unusual rabbit hole such as this. It’s Candy Week here in my sunny thousand-day purgatory, and where I was eager to sink my sweet-hungry writing-teeth into the backstories of more treats from my youth, I instead find myself awash in betrayal and innuendo.

Such is the unanticipated joy of Candy Week. While I enjoyed perusing through the evolution of the Kit Kat bar yesterday, I’ve found that most candy bar histories are regrettably similar. A smaller company invents it, a corporation buys it, maybe the recipe gets tweaked, and it hits the market. Then the labels change. Big deal. If every thread I was to yank would reveal the same drab weave I wouldn’t bother with Candy Week at all.

But luckily there are more than enough stories out there to keep my thread-yanking fingers taut and strong. Candy Week may feature a few detours and dark alleys, but we’ll still get through the ride. So polish up your sweet tooth and ignore your doctor’s recommendations – we’re going to start by grabbing us an Oh Henry!

If you believe the origin story of the Oh Henry! bar as it appears in corporate legend, then you should be ashamed of yourself for being too naïve. Don’t believe what corporations tell you – in fact, don’t believe anything. Don’t even believe that. Don’t believe or not believe anything or nothing that anyone or no one has told you. That should cover your bases effectively.

Anyway, the legend traces the bar’s name to its origins with the Williamson Candy Company of Chicago. Apparently there was a young boy who dropped in quite often and flirted with the girls who made the candy. “Oh, Henry!” the girls would say. That’s a weak story. It’s even more ridiculous to believe they named the bar after short story writer O. Henry. The most likely scenario is the story of Tom Henry, owner of the Peerless Candy Company, who sold the recipe to Williamson. Possibly for drugs – it doesn’t say that in my source, but I like to embellish for dramatic effect.

Next there’s the tale of John Glossinger, a Williamson employee who boldly declared in 1923 that he was going to make the Oh Henry! a national best-seller. The company’s response was that this would be impossible, and he was denied any marketing funds. You’ll notice the Williamson Candy Company doesn’t exist anymore. I’m just saying – believe in your product a little, people.

Anyhow, Glossinger made up a stack of bumper stickers that simply said ‘Oh Henry!’, then took them out and plastered them on every car he could find. It was viral marketing, 20’s-style, and it worked. People wanted to know who Henry was, and why he was commanding such rapturous attention. The bar became a hit, and was eventually swallowed up by Nestle in the US and Hershey in Canada – kind of the same generic candy bar storyline I depicted in my introduction.

Except there’s something slightly devious going on in the Oh Henry! world. First of all, the bars sold under that name north and south of the 49th parallel are notably different. Check out the American bar on the right and Canadian bar on the left.

The American bar looks like a more caramel-happy Snickers, while the Canadian edition is a slab of nougat rolled in caramel and peanuts. Every so often the Canadian version sneaks down into the States, sold as Rally Bars – a brand name introduced in the 1970’s by Hershey and later discontinued. This strikes me as very odd. I grew up identifying with the mostly-shared cultural experience of my American peers, yet this snippet of base knowledge – the experience of biting into an Oh Henry! bar – is fundamentally different. I really wish I knew why this bothered me so.

But I’m moved even further to a squooshy discomfort by this smidgen of trivia: the Oh Henry! bar in Canada is not, technically speaking, a chocolate bar. It’s a candy bar. Legally a chocolate bar must contain chocolate.

That’s right – there is no milk chocolate in a Canadian Oh Henry! bar. The contents are enrobed in a ‘chocolatey coating’, which is a legal designation for something that looks and kind of tastes like chocolate, but isn’t.

A chocolatey coating is – surprise! – less expensive to manufacture, and also less labor-intensive to apply. Cocoa butter needs to be tempered, meaning cooled then rewarmed before being poured upon a bar’s innards. But mix up a batch of cocoa, vegetable fat and artificial sweeteners, and all you need to do is crank up the heat about three to five degrees above its melting point and pour.

And it isn’t just Oh Henry! spreading its underhanded deceit around the candy world. That’s sweet chocolatey fakery surrounding the crispy insides of a Butterfinger, and also the fluffy nougat-goo of a Baby Ruth. I know no one wants to speak ill of the delightful Girl Scout Thin Mints, but yes, that’s chocolatey on the outside, not chocolate. Another term for this is ‘compound chocolate’ which sounds decidedly less yummy. You can also find a chocolatey coating around the Idaho Spud bar, as well as the Golden Gaytime.

No, you didn’t misread that.

Golden Gaytime is an ice cream treat found in Australia. It’s a toffee and vanilla ice cream bar dipped in ‘compound chocolate’ then rolled in honeycomb biscuits. It sounds delicious, and it was first released in 1959 when ‘gay’ was still popping up frequently as another term for ‘happy’.

I’ve got to give props to the Streets confectionary company. As cultural norms shifted, they could have quietly slapped another name on the treat and hid from this odd choice. But no, Streets rolled with it and had some fun with the name. “It’s hard to have a Gaytime on your own” was one tagline from the 1980’s. The four-pack box boasts “4 delicious chances to have a gay time!”.

Sounds like a wild weekend. Better carb up with an Oh Henry! or two. Even if they really are nothing more than peanut, nougat and caramel-filled bars of deceptive falsehood. They’re still yummy so I’ll forgive them.

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