August 1999
s m u g
by Todd Levin

Ferrara Pan® Candies

It started in 1908 with an almond and some sugar. By rolling almonds around in a hot pan, and slowly coating them, layer by layer, with sugar and food coloring, Mr. Ferrara created his first "pan" candy. (The candy was originally was intended to by thrown at the bride and groom during Italian wedding celebrations and, if you have ever eaten its nasty spawn, the jordan almond, you would know that these candies aren't really fit for much else)

Sure, Mr. Ferrara developed a candy that pleased widowed grandmothers, but almost fifty years passed before he finally did a proper for the kids. Like Mad Max returning to his long-forgotten leather accessories before laying waste to post-apocalyptic hooligans, in 1954 Mr. Ferrara (no doubt recently divorced, drunk on Sambuca Smoothies, and with evil coursing through his hot Italian blood) reached for his pan one more time. The result was the Atomic Fireball. And Mr. Ferrara tasted it and his tongue burst into flames and, lo, he proclaimed, "this is good."

How very right he was. What followed was, in my opinion, the most inspired family of sweets to ever grace a dentist's "most wanted" list. Ferrara Pan Candies begat honors students like Red Hots, Jawbreakers, Lemonheads, and Johnny Appletreats. These candies didn't just help school children get the sugar freak on -- they challenged kids. Each candy did unthinkable things to your senses -- shocking you with sweet, sour, or eye-watering hot; painting your tongue, teeth and lips perfect alien hues; spelunking through your tooth enamel more quickly than hot lead through a school bus. It could be argued that Mr. Ferrara actually hated children. (A case which might be evidenced by his most infamous pan candy, Little Rotten Bastards -- nothing more than sugar-coated driveway gravel -- the production of which was thankfully arrested before they ever saw the inside of a child's mouth. Mr. Ferrara was committed to State mental health facility and swore he'd be back some day.) But children adored Mr. Ferrara. And I was one of those children.

I ate Ferrara Pan candies every single school day from the age of 10 until I turned 14, when my bus route changed. I had uncomfortably frugal parents -- the kind that would provide me with $3.50 on school field trips so I could purchase a medium soda or souvenir key ring while my peers paraded up and down the aisles of our school bus dressed in full Confederate soldier regalia, brandishing real muskets loaded with grapeshot -- so it was difficult to squeeze more than 25 cents out of them to fund my after-school sugar jones. But 25 cents bought me two boxes of Ferrara Pan candies and a jumbo piece of Bazooka gum, more than enough sugar to give me the energy for playing Wiffle Ball or fleeing from bullies.

And I flee I did, often with a pink elastic string of Red Hots-tinted saliva trailing from the corner of my mouth. I had complete loyalty to the Ferrara family of candies, box-hopping from Fruit Cocktail Imperials (stunning colors but with a taste that had more in common with plastic bath toys than it did with fruit) to Alexander the Grapes (still my personal favorite saliva-coloring agent) to Cherry Chans. (These had a box that featured chop-socky lettering and a pair of grinning coolie heads dancing madly against a string of Polynesian paper lanterns. I'm sure Mr. Ferrara intended no ethnic maligning, but these candies were nonetheless changed to "Cherry Clans" sometime in the early nineties and the coolies were removed, replaced by tasteful caricatures of two Chicanos in hair nets and Ray-Bans. Later still, Cherry Clans were renamed Cherryheads and, through some sort of brand-recognition campaign, were folded into a unified "Head" product line led by Lemonheads and featuring Grapeheads, Appleheads and Orangeheads.) My after-school sugar posse made one rule, however: we must never speak of Boston Baked Beans. They were the black sheep of the Ferrara flock. It was best to simply dismiss them as executive force majeure. (Peanuts??? Don't you know those occur in nature? And, as such, they have no place in my stomach.)

Every aspect of Ferrara Pan candies is enjoyable. The artificial coloring is blissful. The rattle they make inside their boxes is satisfying and has Pavlovian effects on the ears of a 10-year old. The smaller boxes fit perfectly into the chest pocket of your Wrangler denim jacket. And, once a box of Lemonheads has been kicked, you can use the box itself as a makeshift kazoo. (Kazoo-playing usually immediately precedes bully-fleeing, incidentally.)

The candies have unquestionably attached themselves to my own sentimental timeline, but have left their own hip cultural legacy as well. They became the inspiration for at least two bands, The Atomic Fireballs and The Lemonheads (and Ferrara has been kind enough not to pursue litigation. For this alone, they should be canonized). They have also inherited the role of Jolly Rancher Candy Stix as the sucre du jour in hip-hop, even name-dropped by Wu dignitary, Method Man.

Though I've slowed down considerably (less considerably than you'd imagine, though), I still find time to grind Lemonheads and Red Hots against the sugar-weakened walls of my molars. As a full-grown adult it's difficult for me to slide a box of Lemonheads across a bodega counter without feeling the urge to loudly announce, "No, I'm not a child molester. I just enjoy delicious pan candies from time to time. And these coloring books, balloons, and Flintstone vitamins are for my nephew. God day to you, sirs!" But I don't care. With no serving size indicated on the box, I can shovel them in ten at a time, letting them bang around my mouth, dripping color as they travel. If there is a Master Builder for all creation (A discussion I will gladly leave for a much smarter writer, I hope. Someone like Steven Jay Gould or Dave Barry.), It is pacing an angry trench right now, wishing It had made us all the perfect yellow of Lemonheads.


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