What’s in a name?
Tracing the history of sponge candy
Clockwise from top left: George Ziegler Candy Co.. 101 W. Wisconsin Avenue, Milwaukee (Harold Weinholz Collection); two images of Sweetland in Michigan;
Try to trace the history of sponge candy, online, or in library records, and all roads lead to Western New York. Records indicate Buffalo has been enjoying the chocolate covered honeycomb since the early 1900s, though the specific candymaker credited with introducing the crunchy concoction to the region is oft debated. No matter its hazy provenance, most Buffalonians (and publications) include sponge candy when rounding up local food favorites. For most natives, sponge ranks right up there with wings and ’weck.
But if Buffalo is honest, it can’t take credit for the invention of sponge candy. It may be near and dear to every WNY heart, but it requires only a little creative Googling to uncover the candy’s ubiquity. Instead of sponge candy, try searching “cinder toffee,” “hokey pokey,” “golden crushers,” “sea foam,” “angel food,” or “puff candy.” Each of those names refers to a familiar confection made of a crisp, caramel-flavored candy coated in chocolate. And this confection can be found everywhere.
Clockwise from top left: George Ziegler Candy Co.. 101 W. Wisconsin Avenue, Milwaukee (Harold Weinholz Collection); two images of Sweetland in Michigan
1896 is the date on the recipe card bearing New Zealand’s earliest written record of Hokey Pokey. Penned by William Hatton, it’s currently preserved in the New Zealand archives. The Kiwis use the term Hokey Pokey interchangeably for the sponge and the chocolate-covered sponge, and both seem to be equally popular with one notable exception. Naked Hokey Pokey honeycomb broken into bits and crumbled into vanilla ice cream is the country’s second-most popular ice cream flavor.
In Australia, sponge fans might enjoy the Violet Crumble, which sounds more like a villain from Batman. It’s the name of a candy bar currently manufactured by Nestlé with more than a hundred years of Aussie history under its belt. In 1913, manufacturer Abel Hoadley, a one-time maker of jams, jellies, and vinegars who had recently purchased a confectionary business, decided to pack his new honeycomb candies into a mixed box of chocolates, wrapping the boxes in purple paper, his wife’s favorite color. The boxes of candy sold well and the honeycomb proved immensely popular, but since sponge changes texture when the weather grows damp, the pieces often stuck together and the candy’s quality diminished. Hoadley’s solution was to cut the sponge into bars, enrobe them in chocolate, wrap them in purple paper, and, voila, the Violet Crumble was born.
In Britain, JS Fry & Sons launched the Crunchie bar in 1929; it’s even mentioned in Enid Bagnold’s 1935 novel National Velvet. Today it’s produced by Cadbury and sold in several sizes. Over the years a handful of limited edition flavors have been released: in the sixties, orange and lemonade variations were sold, and, in 1999, a champagne-flavored Crunchie bar was created to ring in the new century.
Closer to home, sponge under different monikers is found all around the Great Lakes. One can only presume its recipe spread among these connected cities the same way Tom & Jerry’s and fish frys have, creating an edible Rust Belt connection of sorts.
Hoadley’s ad; Crunchie bar ad; Fairy Food patent
In 2011, Milwaukee, Wisconsin chocolatiers went to battle over the right to use the term “fairy food.” Buddy Squirrel, LLC claimed to have a federal trademark registration for “Fairy Food” (Reg. No. 2812547) issued in 2004. Kehr’s Candy stated that a sign in its store, patented in the 1950s, predated Buddy Squirrel’s claim. Freese’s Candy Shoppe, founded in 1928, asserted that the term “fairy food” had been used by Milwaukee candymakers for decades and therefore shouldn’t be proprietary. Its owners even threatened to bring a seventy-seven-year-old customer to court to testify that she’d bought fairy food at Freese’s since the 1940s. To really follow Wisconsin’s fairy food back to its roots, check out the document filed with the US Patent Office in 1914. It records a patent request from George Ziegler Co. of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a candy company founded during the Civil War that produced candy up until the 1970s. It was so successful, that, as early as 1920, the Milwaukee Journal reported it was producing twelve million pounds of candy each year. The patent application claims use of the term since September of 1912 and describes “fairy food” simply as a ”chocolate-coated candy” (Serial No. 72,297, Class 46. Foods and Ingredients of Foods).
In Grand Rapids, sea foam is sponge’s nom de plume, and third-generation candymaker John Maum of Sweetland Candies says that, to the best of his knowledge, the launch of sea foam production at his grandfather’s candy shop took place in the late thirties. “It’s our best seller, behind chocolate turtles. It’s a huge part of our business,” Maum says. “When my grandfather began Sweetland in 1919, it was mostly hard candy and chocolate was still pretty scarce.” Today the company operates three shops in Michigan and is one of the state’s largest producers of sea foam.
Here in the Queen City, Cynthia Van Ness, the director of Library and Archives at the Buffalo History Museum has done plenty of sponge candy research over the years. Mention of “sponge toffee” made news in 1906, as part of a helpful hints column in an issue of the Buffalo Enquirer. In 1909, a helpful recipe is printed in the Buffalo Evening News. Van Ness also presents a 1922 print advertisement from a confectioner called Zittel’s, located at 106 East Seneca Street, for an item sold as “Chocolate Covered Puffs – A pure delicious Sponge Candy On Sale in all High Grade Stores.”
While sponge candy, in name or recipe, might not be a Buffalo invention, it’s hard to find any community that loves its unique (and adopted) food traditions as much as Buffalo. Is sponge candy by any other name just as sweet? We think so.
*Given that only about thirty percent of the museum’s Buffalo newspapers have been microfilm digitized, it’s possible earlier evidence of Buffalo’s sponge candy obsession may reveal itself in a year or two once the process of uploading the papers predating 1922 has been completed. Stay tuned!
To read more about sponge candy including a list fo the best in WNY, click here.
Christa Glennie Seychew is a freelance writer who worked as food editor of Spree for many years.