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IMHO: Wafer Madness

By Ron Scopelliti

It seems that NECCO Wafers have gotten a reprieve. In case you haven’t heard, NECCO went up for auction on May 23, and, after a bit of jockeying, was bought by the same company that rescued Twinkies from oblivion. For a while, however, there was a distinct possibility that NECCO Wafers would go extinct.

The news of NECCO’s troubles first came to me a month before the auction, while listening to “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me!” the weekly new quiz on National Public Radio. Though I seldom disagree with host Peter Sagal, I got a bit protective of one of my favorite childhood treats when he described NECCO Wafers as “flattened-out Tums antacids repackaged as candy,” and theorized that they were actually pulverized mouse bones held together with denture cream.

My defensiveness wore off quickly, however, when I realized that his comments had pretty much nailed it. NECCO Wafers are the perfect illustration of an acquired taste. They’re among the weirdest things we choose to ingest, with their odd combination of sugar, vague flavorings that almost taste like what they’re described as, and a touch of what I imagine the chalk at Dorothy Dame Elementary School would have tasted like. Yet, if you’re craving one, nothing else will do.

Sagal went on to say that stores were selling out of NECCO Wafers because people were “panic-buying” them to get what might be one last taste of the deceptively habit-forming little slabs. It wasn’t long before I joined the panic-buying trend, scoring two packs at Five Below.

It was the least I could do to show my support for NECCO. For one thing, NECCO is an iconic New England brand that has produced candy in Massachusetts for more than 100 years.

But on a more personal and specific level, people of my generation have a special relationship with NECCO Wafers. I’m sure there are many reading this who remember buying them as kids at the legendary Esmond Market candy counter. And the mini-packs that frequently showed up in our Halloween pillowcases tied them inexorably to the holiday. The odd taste of a NECCO wafer brings back instant memories of vacu-formed plastic masks and paranoia over razor blades hidden in apples. No matter how nutritionally inferior NECCO wafers may be to apples, we never feared that they’d be used to conceal a razor blade.

I guess I’m not above being drawn in by the nostalgia of certain things. A few years ago when all the Strawberry’s record stores turned into FYE stores, I remember complaining to a friend about how I missed the ambiance that Strawberry’s had. She e-mailed me a response that has stuck with me over the years. She said, “Ron, you can’t hang on to everything. And, by God, there have got to be better things to hang on to.”

She was right about Strawberry’s, but NECCO Wafers are in a different league. They’re not only part of my generation’s history – they’re part of history in general. According to NECCO’s website, their origins go back before the Civil War, to 1847 when Oliver Chase invented the first candy-manufacturing machine – a lozenge cutter.

The site goes on to note how explorer Donald MacMillan took them on his 1913 Arctic expedition to hand out to indigenous children. It doesn’t say if he took a dentist along on the expedition, or a supply of Ritalin to help with the aftereffects.

In the 1930’s, Admiral Byrd took 2 ½ tons of them on his two-year expedition to the South Pole, and NECCO says that during World War II the government requisitioned a large portion to send over to the troops. I pity the Axis soldiers who had to go up against an army of GIs fueled by that magic combination of NECCO Wafers, coffee, and Spam.

It’s been awhile since I actually ate a NECCO Wafer, so I wasn’t sure what to expect when I tore open one of my panic-purchased rolls. Was I really missing the taste of them, or was it just a matter of me holding on to a pleasant memory?

I was happy to find they were better than I remembered – even the licorice-flavored ones that I’d usually try to pawn off onto a friend rather than eating. And they actually do go well with coffee, although I haven’t yet tried throwing Spam into the equation.

I know Thomas Wolfe said “You can’t go home again,” and I still value that e-mail advice from my friend. I know I can’t hang on to everything, but when it comes to NECCO wafers, by God there have to be worse things to hang on to.