In praise of the "retro" candy apple and its connection to trick-or-treating

While you may not receive a caramel apple this Halloween, giving out apples was once common

By Michael La Corte

Deputy Food Editor

Published October 31, 2022 3:00PM (EDT)

Four apples coated with caramel and three with nuts also (Getty Images/duckycards)
Four apples coated with caramel and three with nuts also (Getty Images/duckycards)

The other night, I had a sudden hankering for a caramel apple. Not sure if it's the season, the fact that I hadn't had one in maybe a decade, or my recent extensive coverage of the apple beat, but I wound up opting for a caramel apple covered in chocolate and flaky salt. It was, truly, one of the best things I've eaten all year. It was crisp and refreshing, it was bright and tart, it was salty and a little savory from the chocolate and caramel. I cut the apple into thin slices to make it easier to eat (as my brother astutely put it via text, his "teeth don't really comport with caramel apples") It then got me thinking of the caramel and candied apple itself: the history, the production, the waning popularity.

There's certainly an autumnal, Halloween-y essence — along with things like bobbing for apples (which is clearly obsolete & truly petrifying to imagine in the COVID landscape) —which also then got me thinking about trick-or-treating and if there may have at some point been a connection to apples. As a late 80s baby, I grew up in the 90s as an excitable trick-or-treater who was spooked that there might be razor blades in my apples. I don't believe I ever got any apples trick-or-treating, but this article certainly adds some veracity to the legend. (2022's version might be candy-laced-with-fentanyl fear-mongering.) 

Since I was a wee lad (and through my teenage years...), trick-or-treating was unquestionably one of the highlights of my year. I so looked forward to the absurdity of the annual custom: the ringing of doorbells, the cacophony of "trick or treat!," the cavalcade of candy and chocolate, the heavy, laden pillowcases or hollow plastic pumpkins filled to the brim with stranger's candy, the warm welcomes, the not-so-warm welcomes, the discomfort of the latex masks and hindered ability to see, the survey of the candy post-trick-or-treating, the leftovers enjoyed throughout early November — the list goes on and on. I would do my darnedest to crunch atop as many crisp, multicolored leaves as possible.

So how did this peculiar practice come to be? And were caramel or candied apples once a typical go-to for those handing out treats on Hallows Eve? Or were they more so generally enjoyed throughout the autumnal season, such as at festivals and fairs? 

In an unexpectedly celebratory moment of pride in my home, I can state that the originator of the caramel apple hails from The Garden State: William Kolb developed the bright-red, brittle candied apple in 1908 in Newark. Originally a Christmas item with a sharp, cinnamon flair and a crackling, candy exterior, the apples sold for five cents throughout the state, from his storefront to the Jersey shore. By comparison, the caramel apple didn't come to be until the 1950s, when Dan Walker of Kraft Food developed it by "experimenting with excess caramels from Halloween sales," according to Gold Medal Popcorn.

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After melting them down and dipping the apples into them, the caramel apple came to be. As time has gone on, both products have changed considerably, tweaking recipes, adding additional flavors, toppings or inclusions and customizing as trends dictate. 

As Annie Quigley writes for Food & Wine, "Candy apples also became fashionable to give out to trick-or-treaters during Halloween in the early 1900s and remained so until the 1960s and '70s, when urban legends about hidden needles and razor blades cast them out of favor."

Whether fake news or not, the rampant fears clearly minimized the presence of the candy and caramel apple as a veritable trick-or-treating offering, which increased the presence of individually-wrapped candies and chocolates for the little ghouls and goblins. Beyond caramel and candied apples, other homemade delights fell out of favor, such as cookies, brownies, or anything that was not clearly sealed at a factory. 

For NPR, Alison Richards writes about the deeply entrenched meaning and symbolism between apples and autumn, relating them to Samhain, a Celtic festival. "It fell around the end of our modern October and marked the end of summer, the end of harvest and — revelers worried — perhaps the extinction of life itself," stating that what soon became Halloween was thought to be a "liminal state [which] also allowed ghosts and mischievous spirits to visit the living."

Apples were thought to be a sign of fertility, of good fortune and a brightness that juxtaposed the darkness of the fall and coming winter, so offerings were given and the apple was celebrated (and consumed) in every possible manner. 

While there's a vast difference between the beliefs of these historic colonists in the early Americas, Kolb's making a candied apple in the early 1900s and the children who'll soon be running amock this coming Halloween, there's a clear link between the ubiquitous apple and the seasonality of the changing seasons from summer to fall and to the bleak, frigid winter. Savoring the apple when you can and possibly even encasing it in brittle, artistically-colored candy or rich, smooth caramel helps to preserve the brightness of that freshly picked apple, gleaming in the sun of an early harvest. 

To delve a bit more into the origins of trick-or-treating, History notes a term called "souling" that originated around 1000 AD, which involved "poor people [who] would visit the houses of wealthier families and receive soul cakes in exchange for a promise to pray for the souls of the homeowner's dead relatives." While problematic, oddly disparaging and innately capitalistic, this practice (somehow) eventually involved into being a children-only event, in which they would go door-to-door in hopes of receiving gifts, primarily food, trinkets and beverages. This would almost always take place around November 2, which was All Souls' Day, "a time for honoring the dead." (All Souls' Day soon became All Hallows' Eve, before the nomenclature soon shifted to the now-commonplace Halloween.)

It should be noted that the "tricks" portion of the practice has more akin with the UK custom Guy Fawkes' Day, frustrations arising from the Great Depression and "Mischief Night" hijinks involving lowkey vandalism and even outright violence. As Farmer's Almanac notes, there was also a custom to literally put on a little show at a strangers doorstep, which was called "mumming." Costumed people "would go door to door, singing, dancing and enacting plays in exchange for food and drink." Clearly, this custom merged with a variation of 'soulling,' giving us the best of both worlds with trick-or-treating. The natural understanding was that the homeowner answering the door could opt to give out treats or receive a "trick," which could either be a mini-performance or perhaps something more sinister, like being egged or pranked. Due to this, candy and chocolate became the primary currency on Halloween — and the rest is history. You can see how all of these customs coalesced into what is now the practice of trick-or-treating on Halloween.

Also interestingly enough, post-WWII culture consciousness involved an abrupt cut-back on sugar rationing, which the candy companies then immediately capitalized on. The "trick" fell out of favor (but is sometimes still practiced the night prior to Halloween), while the "treat" component became a well-known custom primarily because of corporate advertising campaigns and blatant attempts to sell sugar. What a world, huh?

While your child may not receive an artisanal caramel apple complete with flaky salt while trick-or-treating this Halloween, try to make one at home or pick one up from a nearby store. I promise that won't regret it.

Happy Halloween!

By Michael La Corte

Michael is a food writer, recipe editor and educator based in his beloved New Jersey. After graduating from the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, he worked in restaurants, catering and supper clubs before pivoting to food journalism and recipe development. He also holds a BA in psychology and literature from Pace University.

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Apples Candied Apples Candy Caramel Apples Chocolate Food Halloween Trick-or-treating