Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Not about books today... The best thing about January is February candy

January is named for Janus, the Roman god of doors. I'm not sure why the Romans needed a door god; but they had loads of gods, so they could certainly spare one to watch the door. Maybe Janus was the first bouncer.

Anyway, January is the door to the year, and I like January a lot. Each day we get a few more minutes of daylight. Five p.m. now comes during the day, not at night. Even though I'm typing this as an expected 12-to-18 inches of snow is accumulating outside my window, the earth is warming. Spring is coming. Crocuses will be popping soon. In about 85 days, the cover comes off the pool, and my ancient and beloved bright-red 1978 Fiat convertible comes out of the garage.

But the best thing about January can be found in chain drugstores like Rite Aid. That's where you can get JuJu Hearts, the magical chewy-gooey red cherry candies I've been addicted to since babyhood. If I close my eyes when I open the package, the sweet aroma transports me to Cherry Blossom Time in Washington DC -- or at least to my grandmother's apartment in the Bronx.

When I was a kid, my Grandma Del would buy pounds and pounds from Krum's -- the pre-eminent candy store in the Bronx, or maybe in the world.

Some years she even arranged to buy the huge pile of hearts on display in the window, at a special price after Valentine's Day. We grandchildren would get a few pounds in February, and Grandma would stash the rest in her freezer, to be gradually defrosted and doled out throughout the year. (In later years, when Grandma Del moved to Florida, I provided JuJu Hearts for her.)

Krum's was famous for its candies and ice cream sodas, and used to be on the Grand Concourse between 188th Street and Fordham Road. In the front of the store was a huge display case of chocolates and other candies, and farther back you could sit and slurp. The landmark Lowe's Paradise Theater was across the street, and before McDonalds and Taco Bell came to town, teenagers went to Krum's for a post-picture snack.

The Lowe's Paradise has been reincarnated as a mostly-Latino concert venue, Grandma Del and Krum's are long gone, but JuJu Hearts are as good as ever. The price has gone from 15 cents a pound to 99 cents for a 9 ounce bag in 2009, to $1.59 for 12 ounces in 2011. (I saved 50 cents off the $1.59 per bag because I'm a card-carrying customer of Rite Aid.)

In most years, we get a bit less for our money, but 2011 strangely provides a  better deal than 2010 (with the card). But addicts don't care about the cost of their fix.

Although I'm using the traditional term, "Ju-Ju Hearts," I could not find any with that name this year.

Product names, retail availability, manufacturers and even the country of origin varies over time. This year, I made my first stop at Wallgreen's. Sadly their seasonal candy shelves were still filled with 75%-off Christmas sweets.

Rite Aid, too, had chocolate Santas, candy canes and such on its shelves, but I spied a huge stack of unopened cartons nearby. I thought I detected a familiar aroma, and a quick inspection revealed a familiar name on one of the top boxes. I summoned the manager. He recognized me, smiled, and said, "You again?, I guess it's that time of year again." He took out a box cutter and handed me my ten-bag season-starter supply.

This year's first crop bore the brand name "Brach's" -- which now belongs to candy giant Farley's and Sathers. F&S now supplies such vital foods as Chuckles, Jujyfruits and Jujubes. The product name has morphed, too. It's now "Jube Jel Cherry Hearts."

The taste is fine -- just a tad sweeter than the 2010 vintage (I have samples preserved in my freezer.)

JuJu/Jube Jel Hearts' taste and texture are unique: sweeter and softer than red hot dollars, but not as sweet or slimy as Gummi bears or worms.

Strangely, the JuJu/Jube Jel Heart formula doesn't seem to be used for anything else, at any other time of year -- not even for JuJubes or Jujyfruits. But that's OK. JuJu Heart season is only a little longer than the bloom of the Cherry Blossom. The rarity makes them more special, and less destructive to teeth and glucose levels... and freezers make it possible to prolong the pleasure.

This year's heart package shows no country of origin. Years ago, they were made in the USA, In 2008, they came from Canada. In 2009 (a terrible year), they were from Brazil. In 2010, they were made in (FILL IN).

JuJu history
  • The JuJu name apparently comes from the jujube, a red fruit first cultivated in China over 4,000 years ago, that can be used for tea, wine, and throat medication, or eaten as a snack.
  • A jujube tree in Israel is estimated to be over 300 years old.
  • The jujube's sweet smell is said to make teenagers fall in love, and in the Himalaya mountains, young men put jujube flowers on their hats to attract hot Sherpa babes.
  • In West Africa, a Juju refers to the supernatural power ascribed to objects or fetishes. Juju can be synonymous with witchcraft, and may be the origin of the American voodoo.
Some of the first JuJu Hearts were made by the Henry Heide Candy Company, founded in 1869 by Henry Heide, who immigrated to New York from Germany. Heide Candy became known for Jujubes, Jujyfruits, jelly beans, Red Hot Dollars, Gummi Bears and Mexican Hats, which have been perennial favorites in movie theaters and five-and-dime stores.
The business stayed in the Heide family through four generations, and was sold to Hershey Foods in 1995. In 2002, Farley's & Sathers Candy Co. acquired the Heide brand products from Hershey.

Although F&S owned Heide, they did not produce Heide's hearts.

Through the 2009 season, the hearts were distributed by Mayfair Candy, in Buffalo, NY.  Over the years, I've encountered some really crappy hearts. Mayfair made the real thing. My dog loves them, too -- but he never refuses anything that's remotely edible.

Strangely, there were two (maybe more) kinds of JuJu Hearts distributed by Mayfair. The "original" version was sold by Rite-Aid (and possibly others). I discovered another inferior version for the first time in 2007, at CVS. The individual candy pieces were smaller than the originals, and they had a second heart shape molded onto the front of each piece. They didn't taste nearly as good as the originals: they were too sweet and not as chewy. Strangely, the same packaging, with same ingredients and same stock number, was used for both.

I will get back to Wallgreen and also go to CVS to see what they have this year and will update this post.

You can get JuJu Hearts online. Metro Candy offers 5-lb and 30-lb batches from Ferrara Pan. I have not tasted them

Special thanks to Philip Heide,
and Roger McEldowney of Mayfair.

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