As Maine as lobster

THE ancient rural pleasantry that rhubarb makes better applesauce than prunes do is not without a kernel of wisdom -- when those shoots appear in succulent spring exuberance it's pretty hard to beat rhubarb. But the saying came to mind in another context -- I went to the store to get my package of needhams and the store was ``fresh out.'' The only way to explain to the weary, wayward world of ``away'' what the needham means to Maine is to launch a considerable exegesis: A good century ago now, there was an evangelist of note named Mr. Needham. He came from Needham, a town in Massachusetts. At the moment, he was conducting a series of tent meetings throughout Maine and was enjoying enormous support in Portland. So much so that the Daily Argus printed his sermons in full and reported that ``his name is on every tongue.'' He was a Billy Sunday or a Billy Graham before his time.

And without any relevance to the Rev. Mr. Needham, a candymaker of the day introduced a new item. Mr. Seavey was the candymaker, and he was already well-known throughout the state for his numerous confections. It happened that one of the candy cooks in his kitchen brought forth a chocolate-covered coconut cream and passed it about to see what Mr. Seavey, and others, thought of it. It is important to know that this new kind of candy was square in shape.

Approval by Mr. Seavey and the others was immediate, and the candy was added to inventory. There was a challenge as to what this new candy should be called. Mr. Seavey himself is credited with coming up with the right answer -- let's call 'em needhams, after the popular preacher! There followed the no doubt inevitable remark that they would soon ``be on every tongue.'' And needhams they became and for 100 years they have been a native Maine fruit except for a few areas where they have crossed the line into New Hampshire. Seavey's Needhams are as Maine as the lobster, the first sunrise, and the ayeh. Mr. Seavey's business has changed hands, but his name remains.

When I was a tad in school, going-on a while ago, we could get a recess needham for 1 cent, and there was also a larger size that cost a nickel. Today they come in a fairly plain cardboard box at 15 ounces for about $2, except that when I went for a box the space was empty. Instead, just to one side, was a display of Seavey's chocolate-covered coconut-cream bars, so I nabbed the store manager and inquired.

``I guess they've stopped making them,'' he said. ``I order the needhams, but I get these cream bars.'' And so Seavey's has stopped making needhams? After all these years? I took home a box of the Seavey's chocolate-covered coconut-cream bars and found them to be identical with Seavey's needhams except for their rectangular shape.

So I called on the Lou-Rod Candy Inc., which has become the distributor of the whole Seavey line, and the man explained things lucidly. He tells me they still make the original and identical Seavey's Needham and have no intention whatever of discontinuing it. It's their backbone item, sacred and peculiar to Maine, and shows no sign of losing appeal. The reason my market had coconut bars was somebody's error in ordering or supplying -- and he'd check that out. (The next week my store again had needhams.) But, he said, his company was extending its wholesale range, and there was a big problem with their best item -- nobody beyond the borders of Maine knew what a needham might be. So they just made the same old needhams in a rectangular shape, called them ``bars,'' and business has expanded to their satisfaction.

Except for the shape there is but one other difference -- the letters on the needham boxes are printed with green ink. If you're in Florida, say, and hanker for a needham, look for the same box printed in blue and if you cut one of those coconut bars down the middle, you can enjoy a needham, too.

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