At Christmas nearly a decade ago, an aged Englishman gave me a choice gift, one that I’d fantasized about since the age of 7 after reading C.S. Lewis’Chronicles of Narnia. It was a box of Turkish Delight—rose-flavored candy dusted with powdered sugar, nestled in a blush-pink package that glinted with the gilded minarets of Topkapi. The fragrant mystery of the East bulged within, in 20 plump little squares.
In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Edmund Pevensie gobbled up several pounds of this treat in one sitting and clamored for more. The evil White Witch, Jadis, had magicked it up to win his fealty. As a child in Indiana, I hadn’t realized that the confection actually existed. (Nor did I think that “wardrobes” existed anymore—surely, I reasoned, British people had closets by now.) I thought C.S. Lewis had invented it, knowing how much more vivid an imagined pleasure can be than a real one. But I loved to think about what it must taste like. I thought it would be crumbly and buttery and warm, like shortbread with walnuts, just out of the oven, with a rich, molten filling inside. “Each piece was sweet and light to the very center and Edmund had never tasted anything more delicious,” Lewis wrote.
And so, with anticipation, I took a bite of the Turkish Delight. And a second later, spat it into my hand. It tasted like soap rolled in plaster dust, or like a lump of Renuzit air freshener: The texture was both waxy and filling-looseningly chewy. This … this? … was the sweetmeat that led Edmund to betray his siblings and doomed Aslan to death on a stone slab? Watching the movie last week, I cringed watching Edmund push piece after squidgy red piece into his drooling mouth, shuddering to think that children in theaters everywhere were bound to start yammering for the candy and that on Christmas morning or Hanukkah nights, their faces would crumple with disappointment as their teeth sank into the vile jelly they had thought they wanted.
According to Turkish lore, the candy was created hundreds of years ago, when the Sultan Abdul Hamid I “summoned all his confectionery experts and ordered them to produce a unique dessert.” The man who came up with Turkish Delight (“Lokum” in Turkish) was made the court’s chief confectioner. History reveals that Sultan Abdul Hamid I spent his first 43 years in captivity, imprisoned by his older brother. His sibling, perhaps, sensed the culinary nightmare his baby brother was raring to unleash on the world. There’s nothing obviously offensive in the makeup of Turkish Delight—water, sugar, nuts (optional), flavoring, and cornstarch for thickening. One C.S. Lewis fan site gives a simple recipe, as does a site called countrymom.com, which hails it as “a sweet treat from Narnia!” No, there’s no harm in the ingredients, it’s how they come together that’s so distressing.
The man who gave me the Turkish Delight was 70 or so and had lived through World War II, as did the Pevensie children. During the 14 years of wartime and postwar rationing in Britain, which ran from 1940 to 1954, sugar and candy were hard to come by. In 1950, the year The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was published, Britons were rationed half a pound of candy and chocolate each per month (in modern terms, a little less than one Snickers bar a week)—if they could even find it to spend their coupons on. My benefactor remembered a rare day when, as a child, he was served a small portion of Jell-O. In his excitement to get at it, he knocked it off the table. He ate it off his boot, not wanting to waste a scrap. Given that background, his (and Edmund’s) enthusiasm for Turkish Delight is easier to understand.
It’s also possible there’s a cultural difference. Did, or does, the stuff somehow appeal to British taste buds more than to American ones? Since 1914, an offshoot of Cadbury has been churning out a mass-market “Fry’s Turkish Delight” bar, which tastes kind of like taffy. Surely they would have stopped production if there was no profit in it? I polled a handful of British friends to find out if the confection holds allure, in Fry’s or any other form. Alexander, who was at Eton, said, “I thought it frightful on the few occasions I ate it.” Joanna surmised that, though now it tastes “like deep-frozen grandmother’s perfume,” back in the day it was “quite wonderful for children used to cold gruel at their boarding schools and so on.” And Holly, who loathes it “because it’s not chocolate,” mused, “I think it’s not simply an English thing, or a school thing, it’s a my-mother’s-generation thing.” She added, “Mum says it was something about the lightness of Turkish Delight, compared to the awful gray heaviness of an English-gray winter sky, that sang to her. They always had it at Christmas and, because it came from the East, or seemed to, it seemed exotic, imported.”
Two years ago, while traveling through Turkey, I was woken at 5 a.m. along with 40 other passengers during an overnight bus trip to Antalya. Unknowingly, as we slept, we had neared a hill town renowned for its Turkish Delight. The driver pulled up to an all-night roadside candy emporium, creaked to a halt, and exhorted us to arise and shop, smacking his lips and making num-num gestures with his hands to urge us on. Blearily, we left the bus and walked into the shop. In a brightly lit room lined with glass-windowed counters, mustached men in white coats and caps were slinging thick, gummy ropes in the air like lassos, then slapping them down on a counter. With candy-cutting scimitars they slashed the long strands into sushi-sized pieces, then rolled them in powdered sugar, ground pistachios, or coconut. At five in the morning, a caramelly tasting hazelnut piece rolled in pistachio bits was surprisingly delicious. I thought for a moment—”Oh! It’s just the rose kind that’s revolting, maybe this is actually good.” I bought several packages for friends, which the scimitar-wielders wrapped with a flourish.
Back in New York, I handed out the parcels to friends at the office. A week later, I dropped by their carrels and discovered that the candy still lay on their desks, opened but untouched, except for the one or two pieces I had eaten by way of encouragement. The drying, forlorn clumps looked like beef jerky rolled in grass cuttings, but they didn’t taste that bad. What was it that robbed the treat of its luster once it was removed from its native habitat, or from the coffers of wartime memory, or from the pages of Narnia? Maybe, I thought, it really is an enchanted food, after all. A week later, as the Turkish Delight hardened, uneaten, I went by and told my friends they could throw it away.