Messing with a Beloved Cultural Icon

October 27, 2009 · 5 comments

Necco Wafers

At the end of August 1977 I packed everything I owned into the family Toyota, which Dad drove all the way to Cambridge, Massachusetts. I was heading to MIT, and as we got closer to our destination I could barely sit still. We made the right turn from River Street to Mass. Ave. (a turn that I’ve taken thousands of times since), and drove the few blocks to the main campus. Dad saw the buildings first – “Look, there’s the little dome!” – but my eyes were elsewhere: we had pulled up alongside the building that housed The New England Confectionery Company. “Look, that’s where they make Necco Wafers!” (Dad still hasn’t forgiven me for screwing up what should have been a treasured memory.)

My dorm was downwind of the factory, so my morning walks to classes were suffused with the unsubtle scents of the eight wafer flavors. I soon found myself giving each day a color to match a flavor: “It’s a purple day,” “It’s a white day,” etc. I could see the water tower on the roof, painted to lok like a roll of wafers:

Old Necco tower

Everyone knew the color-to-flavor mapping: white = cinnamon, purple = clove, pink = wintergreen, brown = chocolate, black = licorice, orange = orange, yellow = lemon, and green = lime.

Necco realized that it owned prime real estate in the Cambridge technology zone, so they sold the property and relocated to Revere, taking all of their original wafer-making equipment with them. Novartis A.G., a global pharmaceutical company, purchased the building and gut-renovated it, preserving the original façade and the water tower. They sponsored a contest to solicit a new design for the tower, finally choosing this design from humdreds of submissions:

New Novartis tower

It’s a double helix, which is obvious for a company like Novartis, but it’s a double helix whose backbone and base pairs match the wafer colors. I miss the old tower, but I have come to accept the new design.

But today’s news in the Boston Globe is harder, if not impossible, to accept: Necco Wafers will now be all-natural. It seems like a good idea to eliminate any artificial flavorings or colors. The flavorings were never a problem, the company always used natural sources. But the colors are a different situation: seven of the eight colors can be reproduced with vegetable sources like beet juice, purple cabbage, and tumeric. But not green. That color couldn’t be reproduced consistently.

You can see the manufacturing process in the middle of this clip of the yahoos from New England Cable News:

The color overhaul also involves a flavor overhaul:

According to Jackie Hague, Necco’s vice president of marketing, switching to all-natural flavors and colors “would draw young mothers concerned about their children’s diet.” The new cinnamon flavor is “less like Red Hots”, the new lemon, “less like paper candy dots and more like lemon meringue pie filling.” The chocolate flavor—previous a vanilla flavor “with a hint of chocolate flavoring”—switches to a more intense all-cocoa flavor.

That citation from Wikipedia (boy, they’re quick on the update) includes quotes from food critic Corby Kummer’s article “Sugar and Spice” in The Atlantic. That article also includes this photo of the new wafers:

New Necco Wafers

I’ll admit that green was never my favorite wafer – that honor goes to pink/wintergreen – and I’m willing to give up a ritual I’d established as a boy in which I always ate the citrus trio together, but to have to accept this new color palette? It’s an outrage, and all in the name of marginally “healthier” wafers? C’mon, people – it’s fucking candy, not a Martha Stewart accessory!

I’m on a mission to stockpile the old wafers before they’re replaced in inventory. I’ll be at Target the minute they open on Sunday morning to grab all of the closeout Necco Halloween wafers I can carry. If I’m careful, I can ration my purchase to last a few years. It’s not like the wafers go bad, and I owe it to my childhood.

5 comments

winenegress October 27, 2009 at 12:22 pm

This is awful. From the bottom of my Type 2 diabetic heart, I feel as though family has died. Or something like that.

David October 27, 2009 at 2:12 pm

I failed to mention that on the walk back to the dorm in the afternoon the candy breeze had an undercurrent of wok oil from the Joyce Chen Small Eating Place.

Bryan October 31, 2009 at 10:12 am

Necco has been dead to me since they left Cambridge. Okay, not really. At least the all-chocolate rolls will be safe. One has to wonder, though, if Necco Wafers have been in production since 1847, what did they use in the original candies? It seems unlikely they were using what we would think of as synthetic flavorings in the 1840s.

This reminds me of when Crayola messed with the original color set of 64 crayons. I still have some of the old boxes hidden away.

David October 31, 2009 at 4:58 pm

Cut them some slack. They made a pile of ,money, enough to keep them gong for years. They relocated everyone and everything, no one lost a job, and production stopped for less than a month.

I, too, have an original Crayola 64 set stashed away.

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