When we went to England this summer my mom had one request, bring back some Callard & Bowser butterscotch. Sure, I said. We're there for ten days, how hard could it be? And as soon as she asked I felt the resurrection of a faint longing. I kind of missed those coffee-with-cream-colored foil-wrapped ingots, too.
My dad was always a LifeSavers guy when I was growing up, half torn-down rolls in his pockets or on the bench seats of our many station wagons, 5 Flavors, Wild Cherry, Pep-O-Mint and occasionally Butter Rum. But Callard & Bowser butterscotch was the only candy my mom ever went out of her way to buy. She first found them when my parents lived in England in the 1950s and would always stock up every time they returned. Or she could find them when she went home to Toronto, or occasionally, up through the 1980s, in upstate New York, where we lived.
Slim, white, brick-like, about the size of a dollar bill, with a green and purple thistle in the center and Callard & Bowser in a precise black font, the package always looked as if it had slipped through, compact and complete, from some other century. You tore off the cellophane and unfolded the top of the foil-lined bag. Inside there would be a side-by-side stack of silver, pinky-sized ingots. You pried the first one out and turned it over, unfolding the silver foil, (with more thistles on the outside, white and waxy on the inside), to reveal the butterscotch's smooth side. Flip it again you'd find eight slightly rounded corners with a divot running across the middle, which implied that you could easily break the piece in two. Only you couldn't.
In those ancient, nearly unimaginable days, when children were left unbelted and free to roam the way-backs of station wagons, I would be five or six and dangling my arms over back of the front seat on trips from Ithaca to Toronto, asking how many more miles, when my mom would buy me off by pulling an ingot from the pack. Only she then had to find a way to break it in half, as a full piece was too long to fit in my mouth. At home you could smack the back of the divot against a sharp counter edge or bring out the cutting board and a big knife. In the car she usually managed this by using both hands, but it always sheared off like a piece of flint on its way to becoming an arrowhead, leaving you with four soft, round corners and one dangerous edge.
Even a half piece was dense. Smooth and buttery, always hovering on the edge of too rich. And they lasted. You could tumble one in your mouth for miles and miles and never reach that Life Saver moment, the one where you'd think — should I crunch or let it go a little longer? Eventually you'd be down to one sharp ribbon that your tongue could contour against the alveolar ridge at the roof of your mouth, holding it there until it finally dissolved. Each piece was surprisingly self-limiting. You didn't exactly need or want another.
So once we'd settled into our rented North London apartment, finding that white, thistle-embossed package became my lurking quest. I'd just keep an eye out, starting with the tiny markets right there in Maida Vale: Solomon's Best Choice, Food Corner, Elgin Food and Wine, N & S Newsagents. I discovered vast arrays of purple and white Cadbury Dairy Milk chocolate bars, Toblerone, the Curly Wurly, bags of gummy Strawbs, which tasted frighteningly like strawberries, and British versions of Kit Kats and Mars bars, but never that plain white Callard & Bowser package.
As the days counted down the quest began to loom a little more. At the barge cafe on the Regents Canal in Little Venice? The much larger Tesco market a very long block away on Clifton Road? At one of those newsstands as we sheep-dogged the kids through the Piccadilly tube station? No, no, no.
With two days left I thought, this is just weird. How could Callard & Bowser butterscotch just not exist? But of course it could just not exist. Candy species go extinct all the time. That evening back at the apartment, which happened to have wi-fi, I hunkered down on the tan carpet next to the outlet as the iPod charged and thumbed across the web until I learned enough to discover the worst.
In 1837 Daniel Callard and his brother-in-law J. Bowser opened a confectionary in Finchley, only a few miles north of where I sat. They made not just butterscotch, but toffees, desert nougat, licorice and mints. Later in the century they bought Smith & Company, who had started producing Altoids in the 1780s. In the early 1950s Guinness bought Callard & Bowser and in 1982 sold it to Beatrice, in 1988 Beatrice sold it to the British company United Biscuit, in 1993 it sold to Kraft, who sold it to Wrigley in 2004, except Wrigley decided to only continue the Altoids brand, then in 2008 Mars bought Wrigley. The faintly desperate posts on the candy message boards searching for hidden stashes of Callard & Bowser butterscotch begin to trail off around 2005. So somewhere in the last decade, the ingots vanished.
Perhaps this all felt like a bigger deal because it had morphed into an actual quest, but I kind of sagged against the wall. It wasn't just that I couldn't find them, I could never find them, and that's an entirely new territory of loss.
We got back to Providence, layers of life intervened, and it was weeks before I finally remembered to tell mom that we'd failed. That they didn't exist any more.
"Oh no," she said, her voice on the phone dropping a little, the way it might if that restaurant you kept going back to had finally closed. "That's so sad. What happened? Were they swallowed up by some other company?"
"Basically," I said and recounted the condensed corporate recap.
"I've looked for them every time we've been back," she said. "There was a trick to them. Our friends in Oxford used to let the package sit for six months in the cupboard and it would soften up. It would get soft and crumbly, like maple sugar candy." I'd never heard that before and couldn't remember any packages in our house lasting that long. "Oh," she said, "I'm mourning it."
A recipe always allows the way back. You can get to Great Aunt Bert's small, sweet loaves of bread or the chili sauce that once a year made the kitchen smell like tomatoes, peaches and cloves before it ended up sealed in dozens of Mason jars. But this is a sequence of pleasures that were once available and now never will be. And isn't that where a certain kind of happiness resides? Nestled in the comforting thrill of the truly perfect, easily repeatable event?
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