Culinary delights of the Lower East Side: Economy Candy

I’ve been a candy maven as long as I can remember. Ironically, it was Grandpa David, immigrant to the Lower East Side, who got me hooked.  When I was wee, about five or six, I used to work in his auto parts store in Uniontown, Pennsylvania—”work” consisting of putting purchases in paper bags. (He once yelled at me for wasting a bag on a single screwdriver.) At the end of the day, he’d give me a quarter, which I’d take to the penny candy emporium right next door.

If you’re not of a certain age you won’t remember how far a quarter could go in the 1950s, particularly when candy was one cent per piece—or even less.  For twenty-five cents you could get a sizable bag of the stuff.  But oy, the choices! Would it be a tiny wax bottle filled with fluorescent, saccharine fluid, or maybe a paper strip speckled with dots of sugar, or a licorice whip, or a few chocolate babies, or jawbreakers, or orange marshmallow “circus peanuts”?  And you had to make twenty-five choices.  It took a long time, and of course the woman behind the counter would get impatient with the grubby urchin determined to get both full value and full variety for his quarter.

Since my childhood, I’ve sampled sweets throughout the world, from the tamarind candies of Mexico to the pista barfi of India, and I haven’t found any that I didn’t like (save, perhaps, the salted, sugared and licorice-flavored preserved plums of China).  But there’s nothing like the penny candy stores of my youth.  You can find a few places that cater to boomer nostalgia by selling individual candies from bins, but they’re overpriced and phony.

But there’s this:

Economy Candy, on Rivington Street, is just a few short blocks from Katz’s Delicatessen.  Opened in 1937, it’s been in the hands of the Cohen family ever since.  It’s large, and it sells nothing but candy. Walking in is like taking a big bite of that madeleine.  And you won’t find any kids in there: just adults reliving their youth.

Economy does make a half-hearted nod toward upper-class tastes: they stock some waxy-looking chocolates and a variety of European sweets, but their real forte is nostalgic American candies. You may not be able to buy them by the piece, but they’re there:  the wax bottles, the licorice whips, the circus peanuts—the whole megillah.  You’ll see stuff  you thought they stopped making ages ago:

Sky bars, with their five individually-filled segments! Mallo Cups, set to ooze white goo all over your shirt! Black Jack gum!  Bonomos’s Turkish Taffy, which we used to slap on the pavement to crack into bits.  Necco Wafers (if you break the white ones apart in the dark, they make a spark.) Sugar Daddies!: those caramel suckers so efficient at removing fillings.  It’s impossible to visit this store and not leave with a sack of nostalgic treats.  (See a list of them here; note that there’s six pages of the stuff.) And lest you ask, “So what’s so Jewish about this store besides its owners?”, there’s this:

Halvah is the King of Candies.  The sesame-paste version isn’t 100% Jewish, but Middle Eastern; the name, however, comes from the Yiddish, and in America the candy is specifically associated with Jews.  You’ll either love it or hate it, and I happen to love it. It’s dense, oily, and crumbly, with a very slight bitterness of the sesame that offsets its sweetness. It’s an adult candy, complex and sophisticated, like good theology.  I eschew the fancy chocolate-covered varieties for the plain ones.

You can mail order the old-time favorites, and much else, from Economy’s website.

23 Comments

  1. Posted October 27, 2010 at 6:04 am | Permalink

    Hi Jerry,

    Have you ever read Roald Dahl’s ‘Charlie & the Chocolate Factory’? The description of your sweets reminded me of Mr. Wonka’s goodies.

    Cheers,

    Ruth

  2. Insightful Ape
    Posted October 27, 2010 at 6:12 am | Permalink

    Economy almost certainly doesn’t mean low calorie.
    I am sorry Dr Coyne, but ever since Hitch got sick, I am much more health concerned than I used to be.

  3. Dominic
    Posted October 27, 2010 at 6:22 am | Permalink

    “complex and sophisticated, like good theology” – Massimo Pigliucci, eat your heart out.

  4. Hempenstein
    Posted October 27, 2010 at 6:24 am | Permalink

    B,O – N,O – M,O BONOMO! Oh, oh, oh, it’s Bonomo’s! Crimony, I haddn’t thoughtta that in at least 30yrs, but they clearly drilled their jingle into my head in my youth. And Black Jack! My favorite gum! I haven’t seen that in at least 20.

    But salty licorice is the only candy you don’t like (Swedes have their own version)? How about horehound? Who the hell invented that? (Googles…) OK, it’s a natural product. Then who the hell thought you could add sugar and call it a candy?

    And somewhere I read that NECCO wafers are still produced on the original 1890s machinery, somewhere in the northeast.

  5. NewEnglandBob
    Posted October 27, 2010 at 6:45 am | Permalink

    Mmmmm, halvah! Even the chocolate covered ones. Marbled ones are the best.

  6. Posted October 27, 2010 at 7:05 am | Permalink

    What, no super-sweet, red wax lips? They were my favorite.

  7. stvs
    Posted October 27, 2010 at 7:22 am | Permalink

    Halvah is the King of Candies.  The sesame-paste version isn’t 100% Jewish, but Middle Eastern; the name, however, comes from the Yiddish

    Correction: I have in my desk a package of terrific halawa from Beirut. The Arabic word halawa (حلوى) just means sweet and follows the classical Semitic 3 consonant form based on ha-Lam-Waw. If it made it’s way into Yiddish, it must’ve gone by way of the Arabs to the Turks through the Balkans.

    I would not claim to be unbiased, but the absolute best halawa comes from Lebanon. Try some from a good Armenian store and compare it to your favorite.

    Halawa followed the opposite path of Arabic “whiskey”, Arouk, which I detest. Long before I had exposure to things Middle Eastern, I was in a liquor store and saw a bottle of booze with Arabic writing, and thought “that doesn’t look right!” I’ve since had a fair amount of the stuff and have learned that it came from the Byzantines in the form of modern-day ouzo, to the Turks as raki and then to the Arabs as Arouk.

    • Posted October 27, 2010 at 8:04 am | Permalink

      There’s a surprisingly good and damned cheap family-owned “Middle Eastern” restaurant / market in Tempe: Haji Baba. I think they’re Palestinian, but I’ve never actually asked. But they have some damned good halvah with pistachios. They also bake their on baklava, which is also well worth the sugar intake. Their arabic coffee is as fine an example as you’ll find in the region. And their baba ghanoush, gyros, chicken shawerma…all good.

      I do a good job at rationing my gastronomic indulgences. I partake, but sparingly, infrequently, and with great gusto. Halvah is one of my favorite indulgences, and one of the ones that requires the most restraint.

      Cheers,

      b&

    • Posted October 27, 2010 at 8:16 am | Permalink

      Yeah, I’m a halva/helva fan, and the word ultimately derives from Arabic. However, (according to Wikipedia) Jerry is correct that the word entered English from Yiddish.

      I’m partial to the Turkish version(s) myself.

      • Posted October 27, 2010 at 9:27 am | Permalink

        The OED says the English word comes from Turkish and modern Greek, which got it from Arabic.

        • whyevolutionistrue
          Posted October 27, 2010 at 9:30 am | Permalink

          I looked it up on Answers.com, and found this (I can’t vouch for its truth, of course):

          Etymology

          The word halva entered the English language between 1840-50 from the Yiddish halva. The latter term came from Romanian, which in turn came from the Turkish helva, a word which itself ultimately derived from the Arabic Al ḥalwā, meaning sweet confection.[2] The Arabic root حلوى ḥalwā means “sweet”.

    • Dominic
      Posted October 27, 2010 at 8:43 am | Permalink

      Most gorgeous recent discovery for me has been Gaz from Esfahan (I have an Iranian friend from there whose parents brought me some). It is a type of nougat with pistachio & sometimes has honey or can be covered with chocolate.

      You can certainly get raki in Crete. I have quite broad tastes these days but am not a fan of the aniseed flavoured stuff.

      I am sure if you know where to look you cann get all thiese ‘exotic’ foods/sweets etc in London these days – we have such a large number of nationalities with their own delicacies. From my lost youth it was peppermint humbugs, a stick of rock or butterscotch that I liked best, but i was not allowed to indulge too much & bubblegum was forbidden.

    • stvs
      Posted October 27, 2010 at 10:51 am | Permalink

      also bake their on baklava, which is also well worth the sugar intake.

      Now here is where I will cite my own partial Serbian heritage to prove that my opinion on baklava is unbiased by family ties, even to baklava made for me as a kid by my own mother and grandmother. The best baklava baklawa in the world comes from Amal Bohsali in Beirut. It is in a class by itself and cannot be compared to the ordinary baklava with which most people are familiar: not too sweet (of course), pastry with perfect taste and texture, and each pistachio worthy of its own photograph. Domestic baklava from places like Shatila (www.shatila.com) is better than most, but nothing compares to Amal Bohsali.

      Tempe: Haji Baba

      Pita Jungle in Phoenix, http://www.pitajungle.com. Reviews speak for themselves. Owner is a friend.

      Finally, I’d like to share the best sweet I’ve ever had, or ever will have: mann al-sama from Iraq, made from the resin of an Iraqi shrub.  mann al-sama = المن السماء = manna from heaven, so yes, this is the Biblical manna, and yes, it is from heaven. People who’ve never tried it before ask if it’s like halawa because they share a similar appearance. But mann al-sama’s taste and texture is completely unique, and difficult to describe why it is so fantastically good.  The stuff I had was infested with tiny little ants, but it was so good we just picked off as many ants as we could and ate it all. I was hoping that the invasion of Iraq would at least produce some sort of manna import commerce, but all you can find online are recipes that do not appear to be authentic. I’d go a long way out of my way to taste mann al-sama again.

      • Posted October 27, 2010 at 11:17 am | Permalink

        Would I be a total Philistine to suggest that baklava is of Turkish origin? OK.

        I like the Serbian version, too.

        • stvs
          Posted October 27, 2010 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

          Actually, just the opposite of “Philistina”. Baklava is probably of Byzantine, not Turkish, origin. Greek loukoumi is of Turkish origin. Let’s see if that starts a Greek-Turkish row.

          The constant effort to surpass either the conquered or the conquering tribe has made the region what it is. That’s true of the Turk’s Blue Mosque, built both to surpass the grandeur of the Hagia Sophia Church and to rival with a scandalous six minarets the Mosque of the Ka’aba in Mecca, conquered by the Turks 80 years earlier. It’s also true of Lebanese cuisine, ranging from from baklawa to French wine.

          It’s the chocolate and too much tahini in the halawa that’s philistine!

  8. Donovan
    Posted October 27, 2010 at 7:25 am | Permalink

    Though I’m a child of the late 70’s / early 80’s, I still remember the penny candy stores. Most of them, that I went to, were in very rural NH towns. But there was one a short distance from my home: Granite State Candy, a nice little store from 1927. Most of their candy is made on site though, so there’s less nostalgic variety.

    Years later, after getting married, I drug my wife back to Concord, NH, and she fell in love with the place, too.

    If you’re ever in New England looking for a day trip (it’s about an hour north of Boston, 45 minutes if you drive like your from Boston) I would really recommend it.

  9. Posted October 27, 2010 at 7:32 am | Permalink

    Cruel! Cruel! Necco Wafers… Clark Bars… Circus Peanuts… and I can’t get any of that in Japan… (sob!)

    Did they have Bazooka gum? With the little cartoon inside? And Maple Nut Goodies? (just torturing myself:))

    • Hempenstein
      Posted October 27, 2010 at 11:36 am | Permalink

      Trivia: Necco bought the Clark bar company and moved operations from Pittsburgh, but the sign atop the Clark bldg remains, altho elsewhere now.

      See linx above the pic here:
      http://www.candyblog.net/blog/item/clark_bar/

      • Posted October 27, 2010 at 11:45 pm | Permalink

        Just reading that made my mouth start watering… cruel!

  10. Ken Pidcock
    Posted October 27, 2010 at 8:26 am | Permalink

    I was listening to Terry Gross’s interview of Sean Wilentz, where I learned that the company that made Sugar Daddies was owned by Robert Welch, the founder of the John Birch Society. My father would never have allowed me to eat them had he known.

  11. Josh
    Posted October 27, 2010 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

    Halva, bialys with schmear and lox, potato knish, pastrami. Add jelly donuts and pizza (from NY, not Chicago) to that, and you have a list of my favorite foods. Its like you’re in my head dude … spooky.

    Not really that surprising though, since my parents are both Brooklyn Jews who got me loving those foods at a young age. I’ve given up the religion, but not the cuisine.

  12. Stephanie
    Posted November 10, 2010 at 9:28 am | Permalink

    Every time I go to Economy Candy, there are plenty of kids. I remember on one visit, seeing a boy about 9 or 10 who looked like his brain was going to explode from the sheer amount of candy that was in front of him.


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