December 21, 2012
A friend recently gave me something I hadn't received for Christmas in a very long time.
"Frangos!" I exclaimed. "I haven't had Frangos in forever."
I stripped away the shiny gift wrap, and it was like opening a door to Christmas past. A dark green box emerged, a blast from the 1990s, when Frangos were my holiday gift of choice.
Back in that primordial age, I was a Frangophile. I routinely passed Frangos out to my colleagues, stuffed them in my suitcase for relatives, lugged them to Fiji, France and Russia to present to foreigners as the quintessential Chicago candy.
So what that Frangos originated in Seattle? That was as irrelevant as the fact that the White Sox started life as the Sioux City Cornhuskers.
Marshall Field, Chicago's quintessential department store, bought the Frango trademark during the Great Depression, and for decades afterward, Frangos carried a strong Chicago flavor, along with the chocolate and mint.
But how the Frango has fallen.
"Frangos?" a colleague said, plucking one from the box, when I took my gift into the office. "I love Frangos. I haven't had one in years."
"Wow," said another, as I continued on my candy delivery route. "I haven't had Frangos in a long time."
"Frango?" I chirped to a young colleague, extending the box.
In the moment of his blank look, I realized just how much Frangos had shrunk in the city's collective consciousness.
"What's a Frango?" he said, or something to that astonishing effect.
What's a Frango? Who's Richard M. Daley? Who's Mike Royko? Who's Harry Caray? Chicago. They're all Chicago.
Like a centenarian explaining the advent of the electric washing machine, I lectured him on Frango lore.
Yep, sonny, Frangos were once the Chicago candy. Sold at Marshall Field, back before Field's morphed into Macy's. Made in the candy kitchen in the State Street store, before the operation moved to, shudders, Pennsylvania.
A candy kitchen? In the store?
He looked at me as if I'd said, "Yes, Jared, there is a Santa Claus."
Frangos were especially popular at Christmastime, I went on, when you might have to stand in a long line, juggling boxes, to score enough stocking stuffers.
He bit into one. "It's good," he said.
To hard-core Frangophiles, however, good is not enough. Hard-core Frangophiles still lament that Frangos no longer feel like a native offering. The candy kitchen closed in 1999. Macy's, of New York, bought Field's in 2005. You can buy Frangos in almost any Macy's anywhere now, though you can't buy them at O'Hare International Airport, where you could once pick them up as a last-minute gift that said Chicago.
"Frango still resonates as a Chicago brand," said Andrea Schwartz, a Macy's spokeswoman in Chicago.
The store still stocks a lot of it, she said, which means people are buying it. And small subset of Frangos (but not the classic, chunky kind) have been made here in recent years. Some Frangos are packaged in Chicago-themed boxes. One even says "Marshall Field."
A hard-core Frangophile can appreciate Macy's efforts to keep that old Frango feeling, but the hard truth is that the allure of authenticity has faded, and with it Frangos' high place in Chicago culture.
"I don't even know what they look like inside," said Rachel Hessen, who was studying the Frangos display when I stopped by a Macy's this week. When she wants to give chocolates, she said, she usually buys boutique Chicago fare, but the Frangos sale price was tempting her.
Go for it, I said. They taste great. It's just not the folkloric taste of Chicago.
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