Confection connection: Buffalo and sponge candy
In Buffalo’s hypothetical Food Hall of Fame, sponge candy has a prime spot right next to chicken wings. But while wings have a well-documented provenance perfect for an information plaque, sponge candy has virtually none. The usual story is that it was created somewhere in Buffalo, sometime around the 1940s, possibly the result of a Toll House-like happy accident.
Sam Mancuso, a consultant for Merckens Chocolate and an octogenarian who’s been in the business for “more years than I care to count,” is onboard with the accident theory, but says it happened further north, in the New England area, perhaps Massachusetts. “They were making sponge, but not in the fashion that it’s made here today,” he says. “They would use the bicarbonate of soda [see Spree's story on how sponge candy is made], but they didn’t use it with heat—they put it on a cold table, marble or metal—so it would only rise a couple of inches. They would break it up with a hammer and sell it that way. One day, somehow, somebody confined it to a box, and the heat by itself made it balloon up, and that’s how it started.”
For New Englanders, who held fast to the “old” way of making the candy, the discovery didn’t create a sponge revolution, and Mancuso doubts they could even sell the version we make here. “They still call theirs sponge, but it’s very hard and they don’t chocolate cover it,” he says. “That’s why we feel the ‘problem’ happened there, but didn’t take hold. But maybe at some convention, somebody mentioned it, and someone here latched onto it, and it did well.”
Those are the best “facts” we’ve got. And while we’ll never know precisely how Buffalo became the sponge epicenter, we do know that, at some point, area candy makers embraced the “new” confection and called it their own. “They just passed it on from one candy maker to another,” Mancuso says. “There are no secrets in this industry. People are very helpful to each other.”
From there, Mancuso offers that the area’s many Eastern Europeans, with their taste for sweets, were the early adopters that kept sponge from dying out. It continued to sell, though it was hardly an overnight sensation. In 1975, when Peter Morphis began working full-time at Antoinette’s Sweets, sponge candy wasn’t even a blip on the accounting ledger; today, he says, it’s the store’s bread and butter best-seller. Despite its hazy history, or perhaps because of it, sponge candy became, arguably, Buffalo’s favorite candy. “There’s never enough sponge candy in this city,” Mancuso contends. “Even with all our candy makers, we can [hardly] keep up with the demand. And seventy-five to eighty-percent of those who leave will communicate with someone here to mail them some.”
As any Buffalo ex-pat can tell you, similar products do exist—honeycomb in Australia, cinder toffee in the UK, sea foam in the Pacific Northwest, fairy food in Chicago, molasses puffs in St. Louis, etc.—but they’re not quite the same as the Buffalo variety and, of course, not nearly as good. It’s logical that such a successful sweet would migrate far beyond its area of origin, and it’s likely a combination of factors that has prevented this from happening.
First, sponge candy doesn’t keep well in warm temperatures, which means a huge percentage of Americans are automatically deprived; even in Buffalo, good sponge is hard to come by in the summer. (Antoinette’s does make it in their dehumidified shop, but advises eating it quickly!) Second, it requires special equipment, so there is an investment for anybody who decides to make it. Third, it requires knowledge, less and less of which is being passed on in the candy industry. “The new entrants in our trade association, Retail Confectioners International, are usually people who open a candy store and buy everything from wholesalers,” points out Morphis, who notes that candy with a limited shelf life is best made and sold on the premises. “It’s not something we inventory; what we make today is gone in a month.”
More significant than any of those reasons, Mancuso maintains, is that people outside the area just don’t like it. If you’ve ever pushed sponge candy on nonnative houseguests or brought some along as a hostess gift when visiting out-of-town friends, you may have witnessed tepid reactions that make you inclined to agree. “It’s a puzzlement to all of us,” Mancuso says. “Even Pittsburgh, as close as it is, can’t sell it; it’s absolutely a regional taste. That happens with different products in the candy business. Chocolate-covered jellies are really big in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, but have faded away everywhere else.”
This is all to say that if you want regular access to quality sponge candy (and who doesn’t?), you might just have to live in Buffalo. Which is a pretty sweet deal.
Donna Hoke ate sponge candy while writing this article.