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The Straight Dope

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As I write this letter, I am staring at a box of candy, the contents of which are basically a total mystery. It shouldn't be that way, I understand, because supposedly the chocolate-dipped candy industry adopted a not-so-secret "squiggle code" many years ago. In other words, the squiggly lines of chocolate on the pieces of candy are supposed to indicate if the contents are nougat, vanilla cream, marshmallow, etcetera. But my tidbits are mostly covered in smooth, plain, unsquiggled dark or milk chocolate, which means I must resort to the notorious "pinch test" to discover the contents. What's going on here? --N.G., Chicago

Just to give you an idea of the nightmarish conditions I endure on this job, N., I had to buy (and eat, of course--you can't just take some clerk's word on these things) literally dozens of pieces of candy in order to crack the squiggle code--risking insulin shock, acne, and God knows what else in the process. Luckily, you are dealing here with the Chuck Yeager of modern candy testing. My efforts have turned up the following facts:

Once upon a time there was a universal candy code, but it went out the window in the 1940s. Apparently this was due to increasing mechanization in candy manufacture, which made the use of identifying letters on each candy, as the code required, rather problematic. Codes are still used by some manufacturers, particularly those who sell chocolates by the piece (as opposed to strictly by the box), so that clerks can identify the goods in the store. But each firm seems to have adopted its own code, usually a series of abstract designs that can readily be done by machine. Happily, the traditional shapes of the candies, plus a few of the codes used for the more common types, have remained relatively constant over the years. A single stripe on a rectangle, for example, usually means nougat. However, if you're into the more exotic varieties, or if the maker of your candy has eschewed markings altogether, you're pretty much out of luck.

Here's a list of selected candies comparing the old codes with those of two present-day firms, Chicago-based Fannie May and Massachusetts-based Fanny Farmer. (And no, I am not going to speculate on why candy makers tend to be named Fanny. I've got enough problems already.)

Type Universal code Fannie May Fanny Farmer

Vanilla Round with Round with Round with

cream "V" on top straight line single "arrow"

Chocolate Round, open Round with 2 Round with 2

cream "C" on top curved lines straight lines

(light inside) (dark inside)

Cherry Round with Round with Round with

cordial closed "C" circular closed "C"

hieroglyphic

Vanilla Square with Square with Square with

caramel "V" on top straight line V-like zigzags

Peppermint Round, flat, Round, flat, Discontinued

unmarked wavy stripes

Nougat Rectangle, Rectangle, Rectangle, 1 or

straight line straight line 2 straight lines

Orange Round with Oval, slanted Oval with

cream "O" on top "Hostess cup- narrow zigzags

cake" swirls

Shredded Not listed Round, Round, lumpy,

coconut wide zigzags one arrow

Marshmallow Not listed Square, 2 Round, random

or 4 "peaks" peak pattern

Cecil advises keeping this list with you always, so you can be prepared next time the ticklish task of candy picking presents itself. (Some candy makers also supply their own lists.) If that isn't practical, you might try memorizing the ones you find particularly loathsome (e.g., the dread coconut), the better to dodge them in the future. So many chocobits, so little time--no use getting stuck with ones you don't like.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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