Roughly every couple of months, my sister and I would hop into the back seat of our car, headed to the airport. We were not usually travelling ourselves, but instead collecting my father from a business trip or friends and relatives visiting from out of town. The car ride was long, bumpy, and our family Audi caught on fire during one instance.
Relief would ensue at the airport parking garage. My sister and I would beg our mother to park “at the far end,” so as to maximize travel distance and hijinks on moving sidewalks.
As much as I liked the planes, the airport was a dark, tedious place. The ceilings were low, the light was dim, and there were limited options for little kids. Indeed, the airport had just handful of uninspiring shops, a shoe shine, and nothing else.
In order to pass the time and keep us occupied, my mother would take us to the one shop, and she would treat us to the forbidden luxury of candy. We almost never had candy at home, but the tedium of the airport (or flaming car) warranted a special treat. She picked out the one candy that would be a dream for little kids: Chuckles. These are still for sale: painfully sweet, rectangular gelatin gums that had only an imaginary fruit flavor. The bright, colorful package screamed to children. The payout was more the luxury of forbidden candy rather than the Chuckles themselves.
The grim truth is that Chuckles were awful. They were sticky and flavorless. In fact, their name and their “googly” eyes on the package were their best assets. Lousy candy be damned, my sister and I and started referring to the potholes on the decaying airport highway as “chuck-holes” either due to undeveloped language skills or a bit of childhood irony.
Fortunately, Chuckles turned out to be the tip of the fruit gel iceberg.
By “fruit gel,” I refer to a species of sugar-dusted fruit-flavored candy. Fruit gels are softer than stickier fruit candies like Starburst. They are larger than Nerds or Skittles. There is no chocolate coating, and the candy holds its own shape unlike Japanese gelatin candies that are prepared in tiny cups. Furthermore, fruit gels are not gummy bears. The bears are firmer, have no sugar coating, and have a shinier finish.
Sunkist Fruit Gems
My sister, who was taller and perhaps more outspoken, spotted Chuckles’ rounder relatives. She found “Sunkist Fruit Gems” high on the shelf near the cashier at the local deli.
Like Chuckles, fruit Gems are also still in circulation. They offer the unconvincing promise of a genuine fruit content. The Sunkist company, after all, cultivates citrus fruits. The individually wrapped circular candies imply natural orange and lemon slices. The package advertises that five real fruit juices are contained. Based on taste alone, one must assume that the dose of juice is homeopathic. A bit of web searching revealed that the “gems” are manufactured by Jelly Belly, not the Sunkist fruit company.
Sunkist Fruit Gems were significantly less impressive than Chuckles: gummy, flavorless, with pointless sugar dusting. Moreover, Fruit Gems required exceptional effort: one had to unwrap each piece of candy, forcing delayed gratification. Chuckles won the battle for immediate access; both Chuckles and Fruit Gems were fairly dull.
To this day, Trader Joe’s sells its own version of Fruit Gems: comparatively flavorless and plastered with white sugar. The TJ’s versions are square, but they are otherwise the same as the Sunkist variety.
The Holy Version
Fruit slices are not kosher. Gelatin is usually derived from animal products, making products like gelatin desserts and gel candies off limits. As with just about every law of kashrut, there are work-arounds.
We invariably observed Pesach (Passover) with another family. One year, I noticed something astonishing on the other family’s dining room table: fruit gels. Not just gels; these were semicircular, multicolored fruit “slices” designated as kosher for Passover.
In a swift reconnaissance mission, I gained access to the sealed box. It advertised, “Made with Potato Starch!” (I cannot be absolutely certain of the exclamation mark, but it seems appropriate.)
The Pesach candy was in limited supply. There were perhaps only ten or twelve slices in the box, so it was impossible to source a piece unnoticed. The candy was packaged like jewelry: an oversized white container, displaying each sparkly fruit gel slice beneath a plastic sheen. They appeared valuable, scarce, and had the added curiosity of “potato starch.”
Deprived of the Pesach fruit slices as a child, I eventually came across them as a teenager. In a neglected Passover display at the supermarket, I found the rare fruit slices. I sat down at the table, preparing for a euphoric plunge into sweet bliss. As one could have imagined, the excitement of the kosher fruit slices was modest. The sacred Passover candy tasted exactly like something made of “potato starch” and “both natural and artificial flavors.”
After the unsatisfying kosher incident, I learned that the Passover fruit slices had a non-kosher cousin. The tref fruit slices could be found in the back corners of candy shops. Others could feast on boiled sweets, caramels, and waxy milk chocolate. The decent candy shops had drawers of “bulk” fruit slices: lemon, watermelon, lime, and orange were standard. The shops with better stock would offer coconut, grape, raspberry, and grapefruit. The shops sometimes identified these by the manufacturer, “Boston Fruit Slices.”
The genuine fruit slices had a certain heft: one could not easily consume the entire slice in one bite. The firmer “rind” had a layer of faux white pith. The interior flesh had a firmness, requiring one to chew, savor, and treasure the flavor. Each slice was an eruption of sweet and sour. The acid of lemon or grapefruit would give way to a dense, smooth sugary finish.
The flavor was more authentic than Chuckles, the texture more inviting than the “potato starch”-infested kosher version. In a delicious transgression of religious law, the genuine fruit slices were miraculous.
The taste was not entirely natural. Lemon, grapefruit, and orange were convincingly similar to the fruit found in nature. Watermelon, grape, and lime bore little resemblance to the actual fruit, but rather resembled the imaginary flavors found in soda and candy. The flavor, for example, was rich with the taste of lime. It was not at all like the lime that grows on trees; it was a perfect, rounded, floral taste of lime candy.
Fruit slices are not shelf stable. They become hardened, crusty. Their flavor is overshadowed by coagulated sugar. The soft gelatin is too fragile for heat, air, or moisture. Consequently, candy shops often declined to stock them.
It turned out that there was one reliable source: the Philadelphia Airport. I was commuting back and forth between San Francisco and Raleigh, and my flights would often transit Philadelphia. I stumbled upon “Lick,” a candy shop that turned out to be the mecca of fruit slices. Lick had a wall of magnificent candy slices. Forget the usual orange and lemon. Lick’s plastic cabinets overflowed with green apple, mango, and pink grapefruit, and mandarin. During my quick layovers in Philadelphia, I would stock up, exercising extreme strength not to consume the entire bag on the short onward flight.
For the Gourmet: Pâtes des Fruits
New and tempting fruit gel opportunities emerge as one travels. A patisserie in Paris was my first introduction to pâtes de fruits. A sane gourmet would head for an éclair or religieuse. No way. Off on a corner shelf, a tray of neatly sliced “fruit pastes” caught my attention. These are smaller than fruit slices, perhaps half the size, but the flavor is doubled. Pâtes de fruits are intense, strong, and passionate. A bite in to a pâte is to experience the nuclear option of fruit candies. The taste of blackcurrant, plum, or raspberry is unworldly.
Although neighborhood patisseries sometimes offer pâtes de fruits, the poshest versions are for sale at Fauchon. If one is not headed to the flagship store at Place de la Madeleine, Fauchon pâtes de fruits are for sale—where else?—the airport. The “Buy Paris Collection” Duty Free at Charles de Gaulle Airport invariably has them for sale. Akin to my childhood airport trips, Terminal One at Charles de Gaulle is a dim, filthy place. But a dip into the box of Fauchon joy will make any delay or inconvenience palatable.
An American version, made by Oregon Berries is worthy competition for Fauchon. The tiny Oregonian versions pack even stronger flavor than their gourmet French cousins.
Although I could suggest that pâtes de fruits won the Fruit Gel Olympics, it is perhaps unfair to compare fruit slices with pâtes de fruits. They are—sorry—apples and oranges. Fruit slices—like those at Lick—are larger, heavier, and sold in extensive varieties. Les pâtes are not a filling snack but more of a flavor “experience.”
The Avoidable: Turkish Delight and Wine Gums
Turkish food is brilliant: pides, sütlaç, ayvalik tostu. But stay clear of the local version of fruit gels: Turkish delight. Although it sounds good in the novels of J.K. Rowling and C.S. Lewis, it is a sickly sweet, bland, powdered sugar mess with the unfortunate addition of rose water. Maybe it tastes better at Hogwarts or in Narnia.
Washingtonians have their own undesirable concoction: Applets and Cotlets. Although less repulsive than rosewater, these are flavored with apricots and apples. In theory, the taste should be perfect, but Applets and Cotlets are dense and flavorless. They have the unfortunate addition of walnuts. Above all, their geometry and powdered sugar coating make them dangerously similar to their miserable Turkish kin.
In the UK and Canada, an equally unpleasant option awaits: wine gums. These taste exactly as they sound: the taste of an unreasonably sweet dessert wine encapsulated in a tooth-rotting gum. It is a taste similar to cough syrup-like port or Manischewitz, but it is somehow impossible to wash the flavor down. Wine gums come in different colors, representing different varieties of wine. I am no sommelier, but the “wine” are indistinguishable.
Both Turkish delight and wine gums have their devotees, but I suspect this is due to inexperience rather than truly bad taste. One cannot sink one’s teeth into a perfect mango fruit slice then backpedal into the dreary, cloying blandness of Turkish delight.
It seems counter-intuitive, but the European gourmet candies are easier to find than the American version. Pâtes de fruits are available from internet suppliers or by flying to France.
Fruit slices, however, present a challenge. Candy shops on the internet seem to sell these in three forms: the useless “mini slices” (what is the point?), variety assortments with only a handful of the least interesting flavors, or in absurd bulk supplies of single flavors. Access to the lush pear or red apple slices requires a trip to the Philadelphia Airport.
Turkish delight, Fruit Gems, and Chuckles are best located in a dumpster.
Should you find yourself at a Parisian patisserie or enduring a delay at the Philadelphia Airport, exploit the opportunity to indulge. If your fruit candy experience has been limited to wine gums or Fruit Gems, broaden your horizons and try pâtes des fruits. You will not be disappointed.
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