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Chicago Sun-Times
Sunday, March 14, 1999, Pg. 4

The Bittersweet Truth
by Bryan Smith

It is small and square, and when you drop it on your tongue it melts deliciously, oh-so-slowly into a yummy lump of mint and chocolate.

And, of course, as everyone knows, it is Chicago -- maybe not quite Wrigley Field and Michael Jordan, but without question a city institution.

Tourists take home boxes as gifts; families give them to friends as "a taste of Chicago."

The Frango Mint belongs to Chicago. Right?

Well, there's, er, this other city. Where the treats were invented. Where they were named. Where they still are made.

Call Chicago the home of the Frango there, and they'll look at you as if you're claiming Starbucks and Microsoft, too.

"I love Chicago," says Robert Spector, Seattle resident and author of The Legend of Frango Chocolate.

"You can claim Michael Jordan. You just can't claim Frangos. I have a lot of friends from Chicago, and I have to set them straight."

In the 70-plus years that the candy has been made on the 13th floor of Marshall Field's flagship store on State Street, it has indeed, in many parts of the country, become synonymous with Chicago. When officials wanted to lure the 1996 Democratic National Convention here, they plied them with Frangos, among other goodies. When a Hollywood party for Chicagoans was held, the flown-in fare included Vienna Beef's Chicago-style hot dogs, Eli's cheesecake and . . . you guessed it.

It is partly why such an outcry has arisen over the decision by Field's parent company -- Minnesota-based Dayton Hudson Corp. -- to shift production from State Street to a Pennsylvania candymaker. That, and the 157 employees who have lost their jobs.

Mayor Daley, a Frango fan himself, plans to talk with the president of Marshall Field's and "the people in charge at Dayton Hudson" to keep the candy's production here.

"It's quite charming," said Jean Godden, a city columnist for the Seattle Times. "I guess we're kind of amused that . . . one of the big old cities back east . . . is claiming our product."

The history of the Frango began not in the Windy City but the Emerald one, around the turn of the century at a now-defunct Seattle department store.

The Frango, it turns out, first appeared at Frederick & Nelson Co. in Seattle as a frozen dessert served in its tea room, said Spector, who also has written corporate histories on Eddie Bauer, Nordstrom and Chevron Shipping.

The candy form, introduced a few years later and an immediate hit, was made from cocoa, distilled oil of Oregon peppermint and 40 percent butter, he said.

It was on June 12, 1929, that Frederick & Nelson sold the rights to the candy to Marshall Field. But contrary to what many might think, Frango Mints still are made in the Pacific Northwest.

Frederick Fine Chocolates Inc. of Kent, Wash., continues to makes them under a licensing agreement with Marshall Field's. The candies are sold through the Bon Marche department stores. "We use our recipes" and sell them in an octagonal box, said general manager Tom Means. "The original recipe."

Means said Field's has changed the recipe over the years.

Where the candy was created isn't the only myth. It often is reported that Frango Mints actually began as "Francos," an acronym formed from Frederick & Nelson Co. The name was changed to Frangos, the story goes, after Spanish dictator Francisco Franco came to power.

Nice story, Spector said. But not true. At least not for Frango Mints.

A department store in the Northwest did change the name of one of its confections called Francos, he said, but it wasn't Frederick & Nelson. He said he believes the Frango Mint actually was named after the tango, with the first two letters of the store name substituted.

Spector also disputes the claim that a Skokie candy researcher invented the mint. Described in his obituaries as the "Father of Frango," Herb Knechtel may have created many wonderful candies, Spector said. But most likely not the Frango.

That honor, his research suggests, goes to Ray Clarence Alden, a Seattle native who supervised the candy kitchen at Frederick & Nelson's. Bob Boutin, executive vice president of Knechtel Research Sciences, which was founded by Knechtel, acknowledges that some question exists over the actual creator.

As for Marshall Field's, spokeswoman Lynne Galia said she was aware that Frango Mints were invented in Seattle and knew they still were sold there. As for the rest, well, she said, she wasn't sure.

As to whether Field's might reverse the decision to make the mints -- the Chicago version -- in Pennsylvania, she would say only, "We made our decision and announced it last week."

Godden had an alternative suggestion: "Maybe they should make them out here. Give us back our Frangos."


Copyright 1999 Chicago Sun-Times, Inc.


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