The Good Stuff

The Oddly Herbal, Wonderfully Bitter Appeal of Black Licorice

The good stuff.
The good stuff. Photo: Christophe Lehenaff/Getty Images

In honor of New York’s fantastic look at the state of candy in NYC, Grub asked Adam Platt about his own favorite candy. We were surprised when the critic chose oft-maligned black licorice — so we asked him to defend his choice. Take it away, Mr. Platt.

There’s a certain cockeyed moxie to the card-carrying licorice freak. We’re the fat little kid with the slightly left-of-center palate, who drank cans of Dr Pepper in grade school, while other kids were dutifully guzzling gallons of 7-Up and Coke. We’re the mutton-chopped Bushwick barkeep doggedly sipping his bitter root liqueurs (Fernet Branca, Cynar, Pernod) for decades before it was the cool thing to do, while everyone else was still sipping glasses of sherry with their pinkies in the air.

If you conducted a study, you’d probably find that licorice freaks were inclined to be more adventurous eaters, in general, than non-licorice types. We enjoy sharp, funky cheeses and classic offal recipes for gizzards and tripe, and, if you ask us, we’ll tell you it’s that addictive, faintly tarry kick of bitterness that’s the key to building a proper taste profile, especially when it comes to the relentlessly saccharine realm of candies and sweets.

Licorice tends to be an acquired taste, but once you’ve acquired it, the habit can be hard to kick. When my brothers and I used to ransack penny candy stores during our misspent fatso youth, I was the one hoarding black licorice jelly beans and licorice Katherine wheels, and rattling boxes of Good and Plenty, with their ivory-smooth pink and white exteriors and their chewy black centers.

During the ‘70s, when Baskin Rogers 31 flavor ice cream was all the rage, they had a licorice ice cream, which was soon discontinued, probably because the brackish, oily color made it look like some strange confectionary form of squid ink. I used to hoard tubs of the stuff in the freezer, like Howard Hughes with his famous Banana Nut ice cream, and when it disappeared, I went through a withdrawal phase of chewing on actual licorice root and spitting it out in chunks, like baseball players do with their used chaws of tobacco.

I’d like to report that licorice candy has enjoyed a trendy renaissance, like Fernet Branca and “hand-crafted” beer, but I don’t know if it’s true. My daughters view my habit with amusement and a little bit of alarm, and whenever we visit the movie theater or candy stores, the licorice choices are usually limited to plasticized strings of Twizzlers, and those bags of soft licorice candy with brightly colored sugary fillings. But I’m not complaining. I’m like the whisky drinker who takes his dram thick with Islay peat, or the reformed cigar smoker who’s allowed an occasional puff or two on doctor’s orders. Unlike the other sugary drugs on the market, this ancient confection is best enjoyed unadorned, without mixers or fillings, and a taste or two every month is all you need.

Earlier: 50 Candies to Eat Now, From Goat’s-Milk Caramels to Palm-Sized Gummy Rats

The Oddly Herbal, Wonderfully Bitter Appeal of Black Licorice