Why is Maine’s favorite holiday candy an odd combination of potato, coconut and chocolate, and why is it named for a colorful evangelical preacher who wasn’t even from Maine?
Right now, parents, grandparents, and aunts and uncles across Maine are whipping up Needhams — essentially, shredded coconut, powdered sugar and mashed potatoes (and butter in some recipes), which is shaped into a square or rectangle and dipped into semi-sweet melted chocolate.
Though they’re good any time of year, Needhams are a particular favorite around the holidays, as they keep for several weeks (if they last that long before being gobbled up) and can be made in big batches and given out as gifts, often alongside other homemade sweet treats, such as peanut butter balls, peanut brittle and fudge.
So why, exactly, are they called Needhams? The answer to that seems a bit out of left field, in terms of why on earth such a candy was named after a guy like George C. Needham, an Irish immigrant and evangelical Protestant preacher who rose to fame in New England and the mid-Atlantic in the early 1870s.
In his obituary in The New York Times in February 1902 — among the only sources of information on the man, aside from his voluminous writings on spiritual matters — it states that he was born in Ireland in 1846. His obituary claims that when he was 10 years old he was put on a ship bound for South America, and was tortured by the captain and tattooed against his will during the long journey. Eventually Needham was taken ashore in Patagonia, where he claimed he was taken captive by “cannibal Indians” who were going to “make a feast of him,” but they stopped when they saw his tattoos.
(Given that there is absolutely no historical record of the Tehuelche people of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego ever practicing cannibalism in any form, this seems a particularly dubious and, unsurprisingly, racist claim.)
As an adult, Needham became a preacher, first in England and Ireland, and then eventually in New England. It’s there that he became famous (or infamous) for his fervent preaching of the gospel in tent revivals across the Northeast, promoting faith healing, predicting the imminent second coming of Jesus Christ and railing against Catholics. He became a famous name in New England, publishing six books and going on preaching tours of Japan and China. He eventually settled on Boston’s North Shore, where he died in 1902 at age 56.
So why is a Maine candy named after this colorful traveling proselytizer? According to a 1986 story in the Christian Science Monitor, a Portland confectionary company called Seavey’s supposedly came up with the odd combo of potato, coconut and chocolate in 1872. According to the newspaper, the owner of the company said something along the lines of “Let’s call ’em needhams, after the popular preacher!” And, well, that was that. The Needham was born.
Though Needhams were initially sold commercially, the recipe was easy enough for home cooks to make in their own kitchens. The candy truly became popular during the Great Depression, as potatoes were a cheap and plentiful ingredient that thrifty cooks put to use in lots of recipes.
Seavey’s continued to make the candy until sometime in the mid-20th century, when the candy began to be produced and distributed by Lou-Rod Candy in Lewiston. That company closed in the mid-2000s, but today, lots of other small candy makers continue to produce the iconic treat, including Bixby & Co. in Rockland, Maine Needhams in Saco and Wilbur’s Chocolate in Freeport.
For many Mainers, however, the best makers of these odd little candies are the generations of folks who spend an afternoon or two each December dipping little squares of potato and coconut into chocolate to give to loved ones for the holidays.
Though there are variations on the recipe that call for butter in the potatoes or shortening added to the chocolate, beloved former Bangor Daily News columnist Brownie Schrumpf’s recipe for Needhams likely hews as close to the original recipe as possible.
¾ cup boiled and mashed potatoes (no seasoning or milk)
4 cups powdered sugar
4 cups shredded coconut
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
½ teaspoon salt
4 squares baking chocolate
1. Mix mashed potatoes and powdered sugar. Stir in coconut, vanilla and salt, and blend well.
2. Press into a buttered pan so that the candy is about ½ inch in depth.
3. Melt chocolate over warm, but not hot, water. (Too hot water causes melted chocolate to have white streaks when it hardens.)
4. Slice mixture into squares and dip each square with a fork into the chocolate, letting each square cool on wax paper. Or pour chocolate over candy, then cool and cut in squares. Serve.
Do you have a favorite twist on Needhams? Leave a note in the comments.