You may know which classic Canadian dishes you like, but do you know the stories behind them? And how can we define Canadian cuisine if we don’t know its past? In Iconic Canadian Food, Gabby Peyton shares the back stories of a smorgasbord of iconic Canadian dishes. Today she explores the history of Chicken Bones, a staple in Atlantic Canada Christmas stockings.
They were always there at Christmas time: the bowl of chicken bones on my grandmother’s sideboard. If you tried to grab one as you walked by, 10 would inevitably stick together in your hand, and most of the time no one liked them enough to eat the whole handful.
No, I’m not talking about a pile of leftover bones, I’m talking about the traditional candy made by Ganong. This bright pink hard candy with a chocolatey centre has been a polarizing confection for over a hundred years. You either love them or you hate them … or you’ve never heard of them.
Here’s the history of Chicken Bones.
Chocolate to the Bone
The unlikely pairing of chocolate and cinnamon found their way into Chicken Bones more than a hundred years ago in New Brunswick. Ganong, Canada’s oldest family-owned chocolate factory, was founded in 1873 in the town of St. Stephen’s by the Ganong brothers James and Gilbert.
Ganong is known across the country for their Delecto boxes of chocolate (1917) and their Pal-o-mine bar (1920), which was one of the first wrapped candy bars invented. It’s said they were one of the first chocolate companies in North America to sell heart-shaped boxes of chocolate for Valentine’s Day (inspired by their British chocolate compatriot John Cadbury). But Chicken Bones outrank everything and are actually one of the oldest products still in production by Ganong.
In 1885, an American candy maker by the name of Frank Sparhawk moved to St. Stephen’s from Baltimore to start working at the Ganong factory. Chicken Bones was just one of the boiled sweets the candy savant created during his tenure at the St. Stephen’s factory. During the last part of 19th century, Ganong created new candies every month as the penny candy industry was just beginning to flourish in North America. The candy stick was a favourite among Canadian children, and Ganong was also pumping out Dudes, Sunbeams, Zoo-Zoos and the All-Day Sucker, a precursor to the lollipop.
Those dear Bones have outlasted them all as the only hard candy Ganong still makes — more than 700 million candies have been made to date. The bright pink candy exterior is still hand-stretched and then rolled to encapsulate the dark chocolate centre.
We're tempted to try making this Chicken Bones Popcorn Lollipops!
Christmas Stocking Stuffing Staple
The sequestering of this candy is partially due to the flavour combination, partly because of their anonymity outside of the East Coast. Opinions are strong about Chicken Bones … some people love to see that bowl of pink bones on the sideboard, but others roll their eyes at the mention.
One thing everyone agrees on is that Chicken Bones are a huge part of Christmas tradition in the Atlantic provinces. Many a stocking in New Brunswick and beyond has been stuffed with Chicken Bones for over a century. While no one really knows why Chicken Bones became associated with Christmas (even the CEO of Ganong wasn’t able to explain why), they're a staple on the East Coast. Western Canadians can usually find them in drugstores and big box stores in December - a little piece of home for the holidays for those Atlantic Canadians who've migrated west.
After more than 130 years, Chicken Bones remain one of Ganong’s best selling items. The marrow of nostalgia is strong in them Chicken Bones.
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Gabby Peyton is based in St. John’s, Newfoundland and blogs at The Food Girl in Town. She’s a culinary adventurer and freelance writer, focusing on travel, food and drink writing with a dash of historical work. You can follow Gabby on social media at Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.