Love it or hate it, you can't ignore it.

By Eric Diesel
October 30, 2020
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Candy Corn
Credit: Getty Images

Anyone still unconvinced that dissent is patriotic just needs to rummage through a trick or treater’s candy pail, or the pillowcase of contraband it becomes by the next day. This sugary dumpster-diving is as much a rite of Halloween as scary movies, fortune telling, and haunted hayrides. It’s a given that almost any reasonable person is digging around for individually wrapped chocolates, packets of fruit chews, even the occasional discordant pack of pretzels. But for all of the impassioned arguments for and against, the sixth-best-selling seasonal candy on the US market in 2020 is candy corn.

Not kidding. Of all the candy holidays from Valentine’s Day truffles to Easter’s spritely jelly beans, Halloween is the showstopper. Its treats swoop in on licorice bat wings, feed affable aliens with peanut butter nibbles, bedevil with Red Hots. But this holiday's treats are often tricks: sours masquerading as sweets, jellies formed into ghastly anatomies, or even the most stomach-churning of all: presidential election chocolates. 

For many, the most contentious debate of the season is the annual contretemps over candy corn. Candy corn caucuses lean either yes or no; few are undecided. Corn lover or corn leaver, if you have an opinion, it is probably immovable, with both sides representing a sizable constituency. The lobbying and debate that follow—often impassioned, sometimes reasoned—are as all-American as candy corn itself.

That’s appropriate, because candy corn is a genuine American success story. The classic confection comes from beginnings so modest it was known, upon introduction, as "chicken feed." This was the product of the simple, profound tradition of craft, created by a candymaker as part of their daily labor. The original chicken feed was a penny candy, scooped from a barrel and poured into a plain paper bag. Just as one scattered corn to feed chickens, one scattered candy to children, especially on Halloween. In those simpler times, the states of candy and corn were united. 

That sack of humble kernels has since poured through the harvest holidays to become a cornerstone of America’s candy culture. Another American institution—a marketing department—changed the candy’s name from "chicken feed" to "candy corn," but nothing much else about candy corn has changed. It is the same basic fondant recipe rendered in the same familiar tricolor of orange, yellow, and white. While candy corn is available throughout the autumn season in variations from squishy mellowcreme pumpkins to bewildering Christmas corn, that bag of candy corn is as much the hallmark of an American autumn as the state fair (in non-pandemic years), popcorn balls, and the debate over its deliciousness.

True to its spirit of simplicity and generosity, candy corn can contribute to the in-home Halloween celebrations that for many this year will replace door-to-door trick or treating. The sweet kernels are perfectly designed to make an ear of corn by sticking the white tip of the triangle in concentric circles around a center of almond paste or cookie dough if you are in the corn-positive party. At the socially-distanced game table, candy corn hops the squares on the Halloween bingo card or checkerboard. And for the corn-negative, the materialization of a bowl of candy corn constitutes a Halloween fright. CandyStore.com's annual poll of 20,000 customers ranked it as the worst Halloween candy for the second year in a row, after nudging 2018 "winner," circus peanuts, out of the way.

As befits a cultural institution, candy corn has its own day of recognition—National Candy Corn Day—devilishly observed on the day before Halloween (a.k.a. Mischief Night, Cabbage Night, or Devil's Night, depending on where you were raised). How appropriate to the season that celebrates with gusto and ghost-o, the twin spirits of mischief and fun. On Halloween, we dress as monsters to hide from monsters, but when there is unity, an individual position does not have to be a strike against the opposing faction. When unity expresses itself as disagreement through discourse, we can embrace the kindred spirits of feed and corn, humility and success that tell the hallowed tale of this classic candy. During this of all seasons, that is a true holiday miracle: a Halloween treat playing a great trick.