Day 645: Luscious, Lovable Licorice

originally published October 6, 2013

As I twist off the wrapper of my final Candy Week installment, I quietly hope my sweet tooth has been suitably sated. In actual fact, the only time my words brought an unconquerable craving to my lips was the night after my Kit Kat piece. I felt no guilt in this indulgence – one flavorful reward in seven days shows an impressive forbearance on my part. Well, one so far. The jury will remain in deliberation so long as the taste of today’s kilograph on licorice remains on my fingertips.

To be more precise, today’s topic is that of liquorice, not licorice. The distinction in spelling is mostly regional, but I’m going to stick with the North American ‘licorice’, primarily because it appears in Microsoft Word’s dictionary, and I don’t feel like looking at a bunch of squiggly red lines this morning.

Unless they’re made of red licorice. Ha. See what I did there? Yep, this is a promising start.

The licorice plant is technically a legume, like beans, peanuts or alfalfa. This could be the most innocuously unimportant snippet of trivia you will hear all day. Somewhat more interesting is the fact that more than 60% of the licorice harvested and sold each year doesn’t get made into candy, but actually finds its way into tobacco. This number is down from about 90% back in 1975, when practically every American cigarette or dollop of snuff, chewing tobacco and pipe tobacco featured a touch of licorice among its myriad of  carcinogenic chemicals.

As for its inclusion in candies, the content of actual licorice is often remarkably low. Generally the ‘licorice’ we taste is enhanced with oil from the anise plant, which is completely unrelated to licorice on any botanical level. One of nature’s quirks, I suppose.

Of course if you’re looking for the hardcore stuff, the licorice equivalent of backwoods moonshine or Leary-level sugarcube acid, you’ll want to grab hold of some ‘zoute drops’ from the Netherlands or Scandinavia, where they take their licorice seriously. No need for aniseed oil here; this is the closest thing to yanking the licorice out of the ground, sprinkling some salt on it and gnashing it with a ferocious growl. The actual salt content of European salty licorice is quite low – it’s the ammonium chloride that provides the salty kick.

Don’t be alarmed by the fact that ammonium chloride is born from the reaction between hydrochloric acid and ammonia. It won’t eat through your bathtub and rot your floors, but it will provide a hell of an interesting flavor kick. These snacks can be found at specialty candy stores, not your local 7-11.

And if you haven’t already tracked down the finest candy store in your area, then your inner child has clearly died and you have moved on without mourning. Even if candy is merely an occasional indulgence in your busy life, there’s something pure and magnificent about standing in a room filled with exotic sweets in old-timey glass jars.

It’s said that Alexander the Great used to hand out licorice root to his troops because of its thirst-quenching abilities. That may or may not be true, but licorice has been known to possess expectorant properties, which might be a handy thing to know next time cold season bites you in the lungs and keeps you up at night with a cough. Be warned though, licorice will also increase your blood pressure so you may not want to make a habit out of it.

Then there’s the matter of your poop. Because of the food coloring used in the manufacture of some licorice candy, a heavy consumption can give your stool a frightening green hue. Oh, and if you’re pregnant you’d best lay off the stuff completely. According to the American Journal of Epidemiology, eating more than 100 grams of licorice a week could have a detrimental effect on both the IQ and behavior of your offspring. So unless you’re okay having a sub-stupid asshole for a kid, maybe put down the Good & Plenty until you hang the VACANCY sign back on your uterus.

Speaking of Good & Plenty, we should take a moment and toss a snappy salute at America’s oldest branded candy. The snack came to be courtesy of the Quaker City Confectionary Company in Philadelphia, way back in 1893. I discovered these things during a (probably drunken) night in Las Vegas with my wife, and have been in love with them ever since. Even having learned that the pink Good & Plentys are dyed using an extract from the crushed bodies of the female cochineal insect doesn’t throw so much as a speed-bump in my adoration of the snack.

Also – and I’m surprised Calvin Klein hasn’t taken note of this – the smell of Good & Plenty was found in a study to be one of the most alluring scents to women. I’m really hoping for some anecdotal support to confirm this.

The origin story for licorice allsorts comes from George Bassett & Company, the remnants of which (owned by Cadbury in the UK) still peddle the sweets today. Apparently a sales rep named Charlie Thompson dropped a tray of samples he was showing off to a client in Leicester. The client was more taken by the mix than by the individual treats, and a legend was born. So for a real taste of tradition, dump your next bag of allsorts on the floor and get that gritty earth-crud flavor mixed in with the stuff.

If red licorice is your favorite, then you’re landing at the opposite end of the spectrum from those who relish the zoute drop experience in the Netherlands. Red licorice, as found in Twizzlers and Red Vines candy, actually contain trace amounts of licorice if any at all. Red licorice is so far removed from actual licorice, you may as well be eating a Kit Kat.

And lastly, it should come as no surprise that a naturally black candy treat has been pitched to the public with a smidgen of corporate racism.

Yes, Nigroids: the breath mint that will clear your throat and open up your singing voice, provided you don’t pop open the tin in the wrong neighborhood and get yourself punched in the throat. Ernest Jackson & Company has been selling these in England since 1900, but it wasn’t until only three years ago that they finally decided the name could be interpreted the wrong way by some folks, and gently transitioned to the ‘Vigroids’ brand.

Such a wonky way to end a sweet week of candy articles. I feel my palette has been purged of its unholy cravings and restored to a moderate balance, and I’m ready to transition back to my usual heady variety of odd tales and origins of stuff. I’ll conclude with a handy tip to increase your licorice love.

If you come across a pack of stale Good & Plenty (which appear to be the only kind I can find in Canada), just pop them in the microwave for about 18 seconds. They’ll be squishy and fresh-like as the day they were packaged, insect bits and all.

You’re welcome.

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