Fringe Candy: Lemonheads, Harbinger of Summer

Happy yellow yum, aka Lemonheads

I wasn’t going to do a Fringe Candy post today, despite it being Wednesday, my favorite day for doing these, and despite me having taken a picture with a handful of candy.

Things have been weirdly violent and chaotic in Seattle the past week. We had a couple of shootings happen near me or near friends recently. The last thing on my mind was candy.

But I mean, look at those little sunny balls of joy!

Those little bastards are pure joy. And if you’re lucky and don’t limit yourself to boring candy bars, you might have tried these before, so you know what  I mean.

Here’s something you might not know. This year is their 50th birthday. Lemonheads were born at the Ferrara Pan Candy Company in the Chicago area in 1962. The Ferrara Pan Candy Company was founded over a century ago and originally made traditional Italian sugar-coated almonds, known as confetti back in the old country. The centuries old French pan technique used to make the confetti (and one of the three founding families) gave the company it’s name. They added Red Hots to their lineup in the 30’s, and the Atomic Fireball in the 50’s, both of which are personal favorites of mine.

Lemonheads weren’t the only fruit-flavored treat rolled out at Ferrera Pan, but I’d venture they were the most popular. My evidence for this is two-fold. I can find references to when Lemonheads were created, but the other flavors are dismissed like the mutant family member who lives in a basket in the attic. I mean, who really gives half a shit for Alexander the Grape, Mr. Melon, or Cherry Clan? (Ok, the Cherry Clan is, admittedly, the only other flavor I’ve ever seen or tasted from their line-up that includes green apple and orange as well as the above. And despite the weirdly racist box design, I thought they were tasty.) Further proof that Lemonheads were the one fruit candy to rule them all, the company re-branded the whole line, so now they’re simply Grapeheads, Appleheads, Orangeheads, Melonheads (and is it just me that finds “Melonhead” strangely offensive also?).

So, enough goddamned history and social commentary. Tell us about the candy. Isn’t this just a lemon drop by another name?

I would answer “No.”

Then I would beat you unconscious with a table leg.

Lemon drops are sugar and lemon juice, boiled together, then dribbled out onto a surface to cool. Your grandmother can make lemon drops on a rainy day to keep from slowly going senile. They have a consistent flavor and texture the entire way through. In short, they lack subtlety. They have their place. Brachs makes a damn fine lemon drop, dusted with a bit of granulated sugar. Great if you have a sore throat.

A Lemonhead (and the other red-headed-stepchild-heads, for that matter) is built up kind of like a pearl around a hard candy core. The ingredients are added to the moving pan, coating the centers, allowing layers to build up. With a cold-pan process, the layers are soft, like a jellybean (another cold-panned candy), as opposed to the hot-pan technique which is used for Atomic Fireballs and Jawbreakers. With Lemonheads, this soft, slightly chewy middle layer is where the real sour comes in. The outer shell is a thin, sweet, hard shell, again, like a jellybean–a jellybean with the unflinching tartness of real lemon juice and a hard core.

Before Sour Patch Kids (which get their sour by cheating, using a “sour sanding” process invented by disgraced NASA researchers *citation needed* instead of lemon juice the way God intended), there were Lemonheads. They’re tart, but not too tart, and they have a satisfying crunch.

But best of all, and I realize this is a judgement call, these little fuckers are the most cheerful looking candy I know. Sure, they’re just tiny little yellow balls, about 1cm across. But they are the color of sunshine. And a funky mutant with a head like a lemon is smiling at you from the box.

In fact, the entire fruit-headed family thing coming 10 or so years after the Atomic Fireballs sort of constructs a confectionery Hills Have Eyes narrative.

But that’s the adult voice talking. The kid voice remembers them as being one of the less expensive candy alternatives when I was growing up. They used to have small boxes of these (along with the Original Boston Baked Beans and Red Hots) for about half the price of a candy bar at the local convenience store. As a value conscious candy whore, that meant a lot to me.

So much so that when I went to Chicago six years ago, I happened to pass by the big Ferrara Pan Candy Company sign on the highway and I immediately wanted to stop and do a factory tour. The driver vetoed me. I never got to go. But had I moved to Chicago (which was on my agenda at one point), I would have hijacked a school tour to get a look inside. Or, seen if they had tours. That probably would have been safer. As is, it never happened, and I’ll have to content myself with the dream.

In the dream, a waterfall of Red Hots flows into a magical room of candy, while a large family of fruit-headed mutants stir pans of candy. Andy Lemonhead (not his real name, of course, but he lets me call him Andy), invites me over to work the pans. And the air is filled with sunlight and the smell of citrus, and all is right and good in the world.


Addendum: A good friend of mine commented elsewhere about this post. Seems he has a personal experience with the Ferrera Pan Candy Company which is too magical for me not to share.  James says:

I lived for many years just down the street from Ferrara Pan (I lived in Oak Park and they were technically in Forest Park next door.) Each day of the week, we could tell which candy they were making by the smells that wafted through our neighborhood.

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