A Brief History of Circus Peanuts
Written by John Seewer, Associated Press
Published by USAToday.com - July 28, 2006
BRYAN, Ohio — Steve Kerr pulls apart the freshly made circus peanut and presses his thumbs into its spongy, orange center. Not too moist or too rigid — just right. "It's all about feel," he says.
He isn't tempted to taste it though.
"I'm not a big fan," admits Kerr, vice president of operations for Spangler Candy, one of the few remaining makers of circus peanuts.
The marshmallow confection is as controversial as it gets when it comes to candy. What makes the circus peanut so intriguing and sparks debate among candy connoisseurs is that the treat is a mystery on many levels.
"People can't wrap their brains around why it's sweet and get really confused by the flavor," says Beth Kimmerle, author of Candy: The Sweet History.
Though they're orange and look like a peanut, they taste like banana. And they are chewier than a traditional marshmallow. Even those who like circus peanuts can't agree whether they're better soft and fresh or stale and hard after sitting out for a week.
"Break out a bag anywhere and you'll get a debate going," Kimmerle says.
She prefers them factory fresh and once served slices at a cocktail party where guests were adding them to crackers and prosciutto.
Most love 'em or hate 'em. "It's right up there with black licorice," Kimmerle says.
Circus peanuts have become a cult item much like Peeps — the marshmallow chicks and bunnies, says Steve Almond, a self-described candy addict who wrote Candyfreak, a memoir that chronicles candy making in America.
He calls them "a mixture of fascination and disgust. It's a completely baffling candy."
No one knows how circus peanuts got their shape and name or how they long they've been around. One theory is that they originated with the traveling circuses where vendors sold salted peanuts and candy.
By all accounts, circus peanuts date to the 1800s when they were a seasonal treat and one of the original penny candies.
"There are few candies that actually have survived as long as circus peanuts," says Jon Prince, owner of wholesale candy retailer www.candyfavorites.com. "It's not so much candy as it's Americana."
Spangler, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary and is best known for Dum-Dum lollipops and candy canes, has been producing circus peanuts since the 1930s in northwest Ohio.
The candy is the most difficult of the company's products to make, Kerr says, because "you've got all these variables coming together."
There's little room for error when it comes to cooking temperatures and ingredients — mainly sugar, gelatin, corn syrup and artificial flavor. The toughest part is getting just the right moisture. Too much will leave a thin, crusty layer on the outside. Too dry and they'll cave inward.
Bill Fenter, who has made circus peanuts for 23 years, scurries between mixers checking the temperature gauges and adding ingredients. "I eat them once in a while," he says. "One or two. That's about enough for me."
The mixture is squirted into starch molds that pull out the moisture and shape the peanut. Next, the candy crystalizes in temperature-controlled rooms for about 24 hours.
Spangler makes about 32,000 pounds per day. Most is sold in bulk to wholesalers and repackaged. The company also sells its own brand in retail stores.
It makes varieties that are heart-shaped for Valentine's Day and bunnies, chicks, and eggs for Easter. A few years back, it discontinued a holiday-themed line because not many people would eat marshmallow Santas and Christmas trees.
Next Easter, the company will team with Disney on a nationwide distribution of Winnie the Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore and Tigger candies. They'll come in cotton candy, cherry, banana and lemon flavors.
The hope is it will attract more children to eat what is "an old person's candy," says Kirk Vashaw, Spangler's vice president of contract businesses.
Circus peanuts are about 5% of Spangler's business. The privately run company does not release overall sales figures.
Still, circus peanut sales were up last year and have increased 10% this year, Vashaw says. Not bad — and yet another mystery — considering candy sales have been flat lately.
"We're a little perplexed why it's going up," he says. "The circus peanut is such an enigma. It's hard to tell what's going to happen to it."
Dallas-based Brach's Confections and Melster Candies in Cambridge, Wis., are the other two leading makers of circus peanuts.
Sales at Melster have been on the rise in recent years despite circus peanuts' "bad rap," says Andy Telatnik, a spokesman for Impact Confections, which owns Melster. "Anything that's survived 200 years is pretty good."
The traditional orange, peanut-shaped version remains the best-seller by far. A lot of that has to do with nostalgia.
Candy shop owner Pam Linseman says customers looking for a reminder of their childhood will often find their way to a bag of circus peanuts at her store, I Want Candy in Portsmouth, N.H.
"You can't be a candy store without circus peanuts," she says.