Local history to chew on A century of candy : Founded in 1896, A.D. Konstant & Son makes peanut brittle and taffy that have many longtime devotees.

January 05, 1996|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Somewhere above the tracks of the Baltimore subway and below the main floor of Lexington Market is a subterranean candy factory where decades-old copper kettles boil away to produce nut-rich brittle and tooth-testing taffy.

Several days a week, unobserved by downtown shoppers, three men hover over long metal tables. They carry saws, spatulas and long knives. They wear thick gloves. Spread out before them is a molten sheet of what looks like candy lava. Soon they have patted and flipped this confection into rectangular sheets of a delicious goo that is still too hot to touch.

Within a few minutes, the peanut brittle or coconut taffy made by A. D. Konstant & Son will be delighting those who have become addicted to these plain and sweet confections over the past century.

Fourth-generation candy-maker Nicholas Konstant, his brother-in-law Gary Shreck and employee Edgar Gray transform corn syrup, sugar and varieties of nuts into nine combinations of the brittles and flat taffies that longtime customers know so well.

"You need good teeth to eat it, but it's a Baltimore tradition, not at all like that boardwalk salt water taffy, which isn't very good by comparison," said pharmacist Douglas W. Campbell, a dedicated Konstant candy customer.

"It is not a pre-packed, mass-produced taffy. I like the varieties with the peanut and coconut, and I remember Lexington Market by the taste of it.

"It is an undiscovered Baltimore secret. It's a very unique candy. And it's not promoted at the stall. It's like you have to have grown up on it or know about it in advance. And when you buy it, they break it up with a little hammer, put it in wax paper and then into a paper bag. I've never had it put in a box. It's one of the little curiosities. The taffy goes in a plain bag."

"We like to get the brittle and taffy as thin as possible. It's more chewy that way," said the soft-spoken Mr. Konstant, 37, whose great-grandfather founded the business at Lexington Market in 1896.

At first, the taffy was made in a Hollins Street rowhouse. When Lexington Market was rebuilt in the 1950s, the candy-making operation moved to the basement there, and that's where it has been ever since.

You almost have to be an insider to master the Konstant inventory of taffies and brittles: peanut brittle, peanut taffy, coconut taffy, peanut-coconut taffy, cashew taffy, Brazil nut taffy, black-walnut brittle and pecan taffy.

If you aren't big on nuts, there are four flavors of something called pull taffy: peppermint, chocolate, vanilla and molasses. This last sweet is more like a hard Turkish taffy. It, too, requires good molars and bicuspids.

The basic brittles and taffies go for $2.79 a pound. The most expensive is the pecan taffy at $4.59 a pound. The candy is also sold in lesser amounts, always broken up with little hammers and placed in bags.

The term brittle is used for the candy that is more crunchy than the ever-chewy taffy.

Oddly enough, the candies that the Konstant business makes are not its best known product. That recognition goes to its bags of fresh roasted peanuts sold just off the Eutaw Street sidewalk of the market. Here people -- up at lunchtime for small bags. Come baseball season, some Orioles fans consider it good luck to buy their peanuts here.

But that's not all there is to the Konstant empire at the market. The family also operates a hot dog and coffee counter that opens each morning at 6 a.m. The frankfurters are served with a chili sauce that is also made on the premises, not far from the copper pot where the brittle boils. And a stall selling pickles, salads and sauerkraut is operated under the old Baltimore name Panzer Goetze.

When it comes to candy, weather has a lot to do with business. "You get a hot spell in April and May and nobody buys taffy or brittle. Then, if it turns cold the next day, it's like a weather switch. We're selling the stuff," Mr. Konstant said.

The candy-maker likes to tell the story of a woman who came in one day and complained about the foreign substance she had found in her taffy.

"I looked at the taffy and thought to myself, 'What she's seeing is part of her tooth or a piece of bridgework. I asked her about it, and she said, 'No, it couldn't be.' So I gave her the money back.

"The next day she called and explained calmly that it was her tooth in there."

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