The (Pre?) History of Candy

Candy is one of those food items that fits into the category of “I know it when I see it, but I’ll be damned if I can tell you what constitutes it.” This lack of a concrete definition makes defining what, exactly, is candy, a tad bit difficult. Looking at the Snickers bar, one of the most popular piece of candy in America today, bears little in the way of clues.

It’s easy to see why the Snickers bar is tremendously popular. It’s a bar of nougat, topped with roasted peanuts, then covered with caramel, before being enrobed in milk chocolate. But these are merely ingredients, none of which define candy outright.

Perhaps it’s the sugar used to mesh these ingredients together? But this discount candy made from honey or syrup, but yet includes pastries.

Perhaps it is its portabilty? But then this would include such products such as cookies, and exclude classic candies such as Pixie-Stix, which is nothing but sugar and a bit of citric acid combined in a straw. Without that critical bit of packaging that is the straw, Pixie Stix would be nothing more than a simple baking ingredient.

Even dictionaries have problems with their definitions. Is candy ” crystallized sugar formed by boiling down sugar syrup”? It can be, but the six year old in all of us knows of products that exceed this perspective. Is candy “a confection made with sugar and often flavoring and filling”? Well, yes, but so are turnovers, cupcakes, and macaroons. For every characteristic one can give to candy, an exception can be found.

From my perspective, candy is a product whose definition is dynamic. What constitutes a candy differs from person to person, from culture to culture. Baklava is considered “candy-like” in the Middle East. Confectionery in India includes an extensive use of milk and clarified butter.

The etymology of the word candy does somewhat help clarify the definition, but only a little. Looking at the Old English Dictionary finds that the word goes back at least 2,000 years, all the way to the Persian word qand, which was their word for the crystallized juice of the sugar cane. Using that definition, it’s possible to trace back the word even further, to the Sanskrit khanda. That the word has changed very little over the part two millennium, and yet still connotes roughly the same definition is remarkable.

What this means is that the first candy was nothing more than the crystallized grains of sugar. From that product, one which is often mere by-product of the sugar cane, a billion dollar industry was born. The history of candy starts right at the beginning of the history of sugar.