Friday, March 9, 2012

From Poisonous Sweets to Heavenly Halvah: Notes on the History of Candy

This is the fourth in a series of 6 articles by Educator Judy Levin, originally written as research for our “Foods of the Lower East Side" walking and tasting tour.

Sugar candies were among the first products marketed directly to children. Widely available by the 1830s, these treats were crafted in a dazzling array of colors and shapes, including pressed-sugar dolls, horses, guns, stars, hats, cigars, gin bottles (a questionable choice for kids), and so on. They were notable for their cheapness—the original penny candies could be a dozen for one cent—and for the sometimes poisonous things they were colored or flavored with (like arsenic in green dye).

A candy vendor on Hester Street on New York City's Lower East Side, c.1890

Of course, reformers were concerned. Babyhood Magazine c.1879 gave worried mamas a long list of experiments to perform on candy to see if it was adulterated with poisonous flavors or colors, or stretched with additives. There was also a concern that candy would lead to “intemperance, gluttony, and debauchery,” and that children who indulged their early appetites for sugar might be more prone to sexual misdeeds or alcoholism later on.

Other concerns stemmed from the making of cheap candy and chocolate in sweatshop conditions, with women or girls dipping sugar mice in chocolate by hand and then licking their fingers, standing from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. because the boss thought sitting made them “lazy.” As with many other products, concern about candy was based on questions of consumers' health, the misery of workers, or both.

Young women at work in a candy factory in the early 20th century

Mass-produced candy wasn’t sold only to immigrant children in America. Like pickles and a few other cheap edible pleasures, candy was a strong contrast to the often bland diets of the poor. It figures prominently in tales of tenement and immigrant life—both in novels (the smallest sisters in All-of-A-Kind Family, the classic children’s novel of the Lower East Side, agonize happily over penny candy purchases) and in memoirs and oral histories. 97 Orchard Stree resident Josephine Baldizzi remembered sugar-coated almonds (confetti), torrone (either nougat or a kind of nut brittle), and 1-cent Hooter bars (her favorite—an American candy bar rather than the traditional Italian candies), and American peppermint drops.

Candy-making also became a business in which immigrants could compete. One of the candies that comes to America with immigrants and goes on to be a Lower East Side success story is halvah (also spelled halva, halwa, helwa. . . .). Its root is the Arabic word for “sweet,” and versions of halvah go back about 3,000 years. Its long history results in arguments about its ingredients, flavorings (vanilla, chocolate, orange, carrot), consistency, and historical origins. Some people also like to eat it; others say it’s “just right for spackling the walls.”

Halvah for sale by the pound

There are two general styles of halvah. The one that comes from India, Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan is semolina-based, though it includes oil, flour, and sugar (or honey). The other widely-known version is based on ground seeds or nuts and is Romanian, Russian, Greek, Israeli, Turkish, and Lower East Side Jewish.

Halvah was originally sold by “Turkish, Syrian, and Armenian street vendors”, according to author John Mariani, but the variety best known on the Lower East Side was brought here by a 22-year-old immigrant from Minsk, then the Ukraine, named Nathan Radutzky. He started making it in 1907, and it was sold on pushcarts and in delis. His company moved to Brooklyn and was renamed Joyva by his sons after World War II. These days they also make chocolate-covered jelly rings, marshmallow twists, and a hard sesame candy with a well-known logo: a drawing of a Turkish guy.

Joyva's chocolate-covered halvah
Radutzky’s recipe, based on ground sesame seeds, comes in vanilla, chocolate, marbled (mixed vanilla and chocolate), chocolate-covered (rolled in mixed nuts or not), and with and without pistachios. The “chocolate-covered” part is surely an American addition. Otherwise, Richard Radutzky, grandson of Joyva’s founder, says the stuff is made as it always was, partly by hand, in 60-gallon copper mixing bowls. Workers combine tahini with a “taffy made of corn syrup, sugar, and egg whites, elongating and aerating the blend until the halvah holds together in sinewy strands.”

Halvah’s popularity is attested to by references to it in literature and popular culture. In a play called The Centuries: Portrait of a Tenement House (Emanuel Jo Bansshe, 1927) an immigrant in need of a job is given the suggestion (among others) that he go sell halvah. In The Garret, Carl Van Vechten reports that some patrons of the Yiddish theaters are driven crazy by other patrons eating during the plays, often fruit or candy—and especially halvah. While it wasn't as iconic as lox and bagels, no one ever felt the need to explain what halvah is at that time.

--Posted by Educator Judy Levin


  1. This makes me want to out and get halvah--a favorit when I was a kid!

  2. I need to go get some halvah, stat!

  3. My father grew up on Orchard Street, a few doors down from the tenement museum. He was born there in 1913. He told me two kids could get into the movies for a nickel when he was a kid. The game was, you stood out front of the theatre and yelled, "I got two, who's got t'ree?" until it got close enough to show time for a kid with three cents to be willing to be the heavy lifter. It was a game of chicken, and if you won you would have a whole penny, and you could buy what he described as "a big bag of candy."

  4. Wow! Such an interesting article! Halvas is still a big thing here in Greece but I didn't know that it had gained popularity in the US. Thanks, very informative!

  5. Thanks for the explanations. I've never understood people's ardor with halvah. Then I've tried one recently and all the suspicions went away. :)


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