My mother taught me to respond graciously to all gifts—no matter how recycled, regifted, or ridiculous they are. So it was with a winched-up smile that I accepted our neighbor’s hostess present during the holiday season.
A candy cane. The last lonely remnant left on the tree after it’s hauled to the curb.
Well, it’s rare to get any hostess gift, I mused. But even as I yielded to snarky thoughts, I knew I was misjudging it.
For starters, the candy cane was more than a foot long, yet incredibly light.
“Disneyland,” my neighbor said. Was it my imagination or was there smugness in her voice as she offered me a cellophane-wrapped peppermint stick with the same care she might use for a magnum of Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte 2013?
Having paid for annual passes for our family of five over the years, I figured she had a right to be smug—no doubt that peppermint stick cost her dearly.
It turns out there’s more going on with this gift than cost, though it is pricey—$12.99 in 2016. There is tradition. For nearly five decades, candy cane fans have scurried to the park on select December mornings and waited at the gate for a chance at one of the world’s last hand-stretched candy canes.
The second the gates open, they race up Main Street to the Candy Palace for one of the day’s approximately 120 wristbands, which certifies the bearer to come back later for the treat.
For many, this race has become a family holiday tradition. There’s a guy who flies in from Texas to get a candy cane. One family has had its prize on the wall for years, framed. Many people ask the candy maker to sign the cellophane wrapper.
The delicacies are unique to Orange County. It’s too humid to make them at Florida’s Disney World, and the international properties don’t carry them.
Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix of Orange County, who runs mouseplanet.com, met her husband at Disneyland and was married there. Standing in line for the sweet surprise every year has become a way of showing her love for him.
“There are only 48 candy canes made per batch and three batches a day,” Vincent-Phoenix tells me. Sometimes she has to go back several times to get her prize.
The kitchen at Candy Palace is the same small space tourists see through the window. It’s not much bigger than a home kitchen, because candy makers must be able to bring the room up to 90 degrees Fahrenheit to use less corn syrup.
Disneyland follows an old-fashioned recipe, which is about 90 percent sugar. Master candy maker Rob Mc Hargue allows me to taste a chunk, which crumbles softly on my tongue like honeycomb. Mc Hargue, who has created many of the candies at the park, could be a Disney character. At 63, Disneyland’s oldest and most experienced candy maker looks as though he fell into a flour bag. His grayish-white hair and bushy white eyebrows match his white, sloped baker’s hat and double-breasted jacket. He has worn this outfit, complete with the thermometer tucked in his sleeve and classic red-and-white-striped scarf, for the 44 years he has worked at the Candy Palace, starting with a summer job while he attended Cypress College.
He shows me a giant copper kettle on a flame, which despite its pioneer appearance still conducts the heat most evenly. Water, sugar, and a small amount of corn syrup are boiled at 313 degrees Fahrenheit into a gelatinous blob, which is then poured onto a table and shaped into a block about a foot long, 6 inches wide, and 4 inches thick.
Once the mixture is the right consistency, the blob is strung over a massive hook.
“It’s very taxing on our bodies,” Mc Hargue says. “It’s like going to the gym and working out for eight hours at 90 degrees.”
The most difficult step is pulling the heavy candy off the hook. This aerates the mixture and makes the candy crispy.
“You pull and you pull and you pull until your arms are tired,” Mc Hargue says. When the candy cools, he shapes the canes around a wooden mold.
It takes three years to teach an apprentice how to make a candy cane, he says: “It’s a science first, but it’s also an art. It’s a lost art. There are not many places I know that pull (the candy) by hand.”
Vincent-Phoenix and her husband have always protected their special candy cane in a wreath on the front door. “To tell you the truth, I’ve never seen my husband eat it,” she says. But now they have three kids.
“We’re introducing our three boys to our candy cane drama. This year I’m going to let them eat it right on the spot. Just smash them and eat them right there.”
I love that these canes have become a treasure. That this happens in the flagship of one of the world’s largest entertainment corporations makes me think old Walt might still be directing things from his perch above Main Street. I think he’d agree that even at this mega-resort, some things are better done by hand.