It’s the time of year to rewrite my favorite story.
More than 20 years ago I was a contributing editor to a fine regional magazine called Wisconsin Trails. Basically, my job was to roam around the state documenting vanishing authentic experiences, usually food-related. I wrote about Wisconsin’s local cheese factories, community breweries, European sausage shops, supper clubs, family-owned kringle bakeries, and old-time candy stores, with the odd soda fountain or two thrown in.
Obviously, this was during the time when authentic food and drink experiences were going the way of rabbit ears and the tailfin, since these are now the experiences people travel thousands of miles for. Especially the beer.
When I became a writer for The New York Times I resurrected the candy-store story in time for Valentine’s Day, and it was a huge hit. And now, with Valentine’s Day so near, I’m happy to resurrect it again for you.
The premise is that there’s a candy belt in Wisconsin that basically follows U.S. Highway 41 from Oshkosh to Green Bay, with a side trip down U.S. 10 to Manitowoc. There’s an inordinate number of candy stores – chocolate shops, to be precise — in this 200-square-mile area, most of them family-run for a century or more, all of them serving up heirloom recipes in atmospheres so timeless and sincere you expect to find the Great Pumpkin manning a mixer in the back room.
Beerntsen’s in Manitowoc, with its plate lunches and ice-cream sodas; Wilmar Chocolates in Appleton, with its old-time awnings and state-fair prizes; Kaap’s in Green Bay, with its jar of jawbreakers on the counter; Seroogy’s in De Pere, with its magical meltaways; and a different Beerntsen’s in Green Bay, with its candy-striped wallpaper and dark-walnut woodwork — none of these places should be where they are doing what they’re doing. But in eastern Wisconsin, when it comes to chocolates, reality thrashes logic in straight sets.
The place to start is Oshkosh. Oaks’ Candy Corner is a chocolate mirage. Its gingerbread exterior yields to an interior that in winter is as sugary warm as the inside of a circus peanut and in summer goes down cool as a wax Coke bottle. It smells like caramel corn and cocoa butter rubbed into the floorboards with a pair of Red Wing boots. It’s the shop around the corner in an unremittingly blue-collar part of an unremittingly blue-collar town. It shouldn’t still be there, but there it is.
If Oaks’ is a mirage, Hughes’ Homaid Chocolates, less than half a mile away, is a whole-cloth figment. It’s ridiculous — an 80-year-old bungalow two blocks from Lake Winnebago with only a small neon sign to state its trade and a full-blown candymaking operation in its basement, complete with a small sales counter by the cellar stairs.
Almost everyone who’s been in Oshkosh more than a week has an opinion on Oaks’-versus-Hughes’. “Hughes’ is more of an undiscovered treasure, while Oaks’ has ambience going for it,” said Oshkosh teacher Pat Kilday.
“If you grew up on the north side, you probably prefer Oaks’,” said longtime Oshkoshite Cynthia Becker. “I was raised on Hughes’ chocolate,” countered Oshkosh police officer Kari Pettit. “I can’t control myself when I go in the door. Hughes is so good I won’t even eat Oaks.”
The dueling pistol in this skirmish is the meltaway. A meltaway starts where a 3 Musketeers ends, with a middle of chocolate-infused cumulus and a pumped-up profile. Hughes’ meltaways are the size of a large LEGO block and comparatively creamy. The Oaks version is the Melty-Bar.
With its Art Deco wrapper and hotel-soap shape, the Melty-Bar is true to its slogan – “The Aristocrat of Candy Bars.” Add malt, turn the Melty-Bar into a Malty-Melty, and the aristocrat gets a peerage.
“When people say they like malt they like malt, so why put in just a little malt?” said Bill Oaks, vice president of Oaks’ Candy, as he coaxed vanilla cream out of a 100-year-old mixing machine. Mr. Oaks, 59, is slender and a little stooped, but years of stirring the candy kettles have given him Wayne Gretzky forearms. “It’s strong flavors, so when you bite into a piece you taste something besides chocolate.”
Hughes’ counterpunch is the “oyster” – chopped nuts and chocolate surrounding a ball of vanilla cream that rests in the hand like a shot put. When they award the prize for Best Vanilla Cream Emanating From A Basement, Hughes’ wins in a walk.
“It’s all simple stuff – butter, sugar, cream, corn syrup, chocolate,” said Tom Hughes, the third generation of Hughes to make candy in the Doty Street bungalow. “Nothing’s hiding under a rock.”
After Oshkosh, Manitowoc. The Oshkosh-Manitowoc route is interrupted by Lake Winnebago, so the chocolate-belt tourist has to backtrack north or tack south to Fond du Lac and cut over. The southern route is recommended for its small towns, farm fields, lake views, and the homemade cheesecake at Roeck’s Bakery in Kiel.
Once in Manitowoc, Beerntsen’s offers up gooey hand-dipped creams and mint meltaways, high-waisted display cases, a soda fountain, and, through a clock-crowned arch that’s a figurative doorway to another time, two rows of booths where soup-and-sandwich lunches are served. Choosing is murder, but the peppermint stick candy “is so good that I would eat it as fast as it came off the line,” said former employee Amy Tolbert – “and they let me!”
Forty miles up the Lake Michigan coast, Seroogy’s, in the Green Bay suburb of De Pere, makes more than 300 different chocolate products and displays them in long, immaculate cases. Indulge in chocolate-covered fudge and cast-chocolate high heels if you want, but the smart money cuts to the incredible, candy-bar-sized meltaways, in flavors from peanut butter to mocha. “Something like a meltaway, you just can’t skimp,” said Joe Seroogy, whose family began making chocolates in De Pere in 1899. “It’s such a tight balance of what you add to the center, the amount of air, the proper ingredients, the way you temper the chocolate. It’s old-fashioned, but it’s the only way to do it.”
Seroogy’s is only five minutes on city streets from Kaap’s. Once a downtown landmark, Otto Kaap’s expansive restaurant with its mile-long menu and huge candy counter was malled out of existence. The Kaap’s that remains has a strip-mall location and no restaurant but a palpable sense of place and an almost perfect confection: simple wintergreen wafers slathered with a splendid dark chocolate.
“It’s a part of the tradition of the city,” said Karl Johanske, who bought the business not knowing a thing about candymaking and had to be taught from 100-year-old recipes how to make the homemade marshmallow and the creams so creamy they spill down your chin. “It’s a lot of hard work, a lot of hours, but also pride involved in keeping it going.”
From Kaap’s, the tour heads to a century-old shopping district on Green Bay’s west side, where Beerntsen’s – same origins as the Manitowoc store, but different owners – thrives in a new old-fashioned storefront. Its creams are dense and rich, and its chewier pieces proclaim the good news of butter and sugar, together forever.
It’s 40 minutes on a four-lane fronted by Packer-themed sprawl from Beernsten’s to Appleton, where Wilmar, with its new-age music, India-spice truffles and imported chocolate chips, plays it cool and upscale. But the smell of chocolate emanating from the back is old-school aromatherapy, and Wilmar’s signature candies are decidedly proletarian. Its “Wilmarvels” are turtles done right, its caramel nut logs are a toothsome version of the last candy left in the box, and its chocolate-covered cherries defy convention and deliver a piece that neatly balances the tartness of a real cherry with the sweetness of its surroundings.
“Our cream and butter come from a creamery outside of town,” said Liz Garvey, who owns Wilmar with her brother Jack. “You can tell what the cows have been eating just by tasting the cream,” added Jack Garvey as he drizzled a quart of local butterfat into a piccolo timpani full of boiling caramel, looking just like Jeff Daniels in a hairnet.
“When you’re around our candy all day you get a little more discriminating,” Ms. Garvey said. “I was out last night and someone said, ‘Hey, did you try that new Snickers?’. I said, ‘Sorry.’”
The candy belt isn’t going anywhere. The next generations are involved at Seroogy’s and Oaks’, and even Hughes’s basement operation is staying put.
“People come to us and say we should make different things and move somewhere else, but I say if it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” Mr. Hughes said, drinking coffee at the kitchen table impervious to the stirring, cooking, enrobing, and packing going on below decks. “A bigger building means more overhead, more headaches. It’s nice keeping it the way it is.”
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