It’s probably been more than 60 years since I bit into a stick of licorice.
The question I ask now is, why so recent?
The only reason I happened to think about it is because April 12 was National Licorice Day. It was also National Grilled Cheese Sandwich Day, come to think, which actually tends to make me salivate.
Not so when I conjure up recollections of licorice.
My experience with the black candy goes back to grade school days. Buddies of mine would offer me a stick and, not being one to turn down free food (and I use the term loosely), I would grab one and take a bite.
I remember licorice in a couple of forms. There were the swizzle sticks, about the same size as a coffee stirrer, complete with the hole.
I guess you could chew on it or use it as a straw. It was sort of like chewing on a plastic pipe.
Then there was the licorice strap, about six inches long and similar in diameter to a No. 2 pencil. It had ridges running around the length of it — don’t ask me why.
Licorice was chewy (I say “was” since I haven’t seen any in decades, nor have I looked for any) but didn’t tend to stick to your teeth as much as Milk Duds. You would chomp on it until it became a black mush ready to swallow — if you had the stomach for ingesting it.
The best way to describe the flavor is to have you imagine blackstrap molasses in solid form. Mama used to make us take blackstrap by mixing it in milk to lessen its biting (some would say robust) taste.
I think Mama believed we needed massive amounts of iron to withstand those summer days spent aggressively complaining that there was nothing to do.
The thing with the blackstrap concoction is that when the milk was gone, most of the thick goo was waiting at the bottom of the glass. Mama was always there to make sure we consumed every drop, despite our cries to the contrary.
For that reason, it’s even more head-scratching that I would partake of those licorice offerings. I suppose I just had yet to hear the phrase, “Just say no.”
But I think it goes much further than that. The more I think about it, the more I’m sure that it was a man-boy thing.
Chew on this theory:
As boys, we were striving to be men. We played sports to emulate our heroes on the ballfields and arenas.
Along with that, we looked to those sports stars for guidance in how to live our lives. When we saw an athlete promoting Bic pens, we wanted to use Bic pens.
If Mickey Mantle or Duke Snider was featured on a box of Wheaties, we were going to eat Wheaties. If they appeared in a Brylcreem commercial, we wanted our hair greased up as well.
So, what did baseball players do while they were on the field? You’re right if you said they kept a wad of chewing tobacco in their jaws.
As boys, we saw it and wanted to be like that. But there was a problem — Mama would buy us Wheaties or Bics or Brylcreem, but no way was she picking up a plug of tobacco.
So we had to improvise. We had to find a way to be disgusting, just like our heroes.
Somewhere along the way, we discovered licorice. We could bite off a big piece, chew it until it was the consistency of paste, then push it up against the jaw.
After a time, we would feel the need to spit. What came streaming out was the brownish-black color of chewing tobacco.
It was then that we really felt akin to Mickey or Duke. We could chew and spit with the best of them.
But lordy-lordy, we still couldn’t hit a lick.
Bottom line? I would trade all those licorice sticks for, well, just about anything.
Larry Penkava is a writer for Randolph Hub. Contact: 336-302-2189, firstname.lastname@example.org.