Love is complicated and uncontrollable and easily misunderstood. You never know when it will strike. You probably thought it was yucky when you were a kid — but then a few years later, maybe you found yourself head over heels, swooning. You have to nurture it, grow it, explore the world with your love! Love is grand and difficult, all at once.
My love, in this particular case, is for black licorice.
It is not a flavor for which many people harbor any affection. Children do not even consider it to be candy. There is not much data to measure the popularity of licorice, but anecdotally, it seems to be one of the most polarizing flavors. Some have called it “The devil . . . in candy form.” BuzzFeed once published a quiz called “We know if you like black licorice with just one question,” and it was a yes-or-no question: “Are you 80 years old?”
I didn’t grow up loving the flavor. According to a survey by the National Confectioners Association, only 3 percent of people said that licorice was a favorite candy when they were a child. It always makes the lists of most-hated Halloween treats: On a FiveThirtyEight ranking of 86 candies, Good & Plenty — those pink-and-white licorice pills — come in dead last. Chiclets, the world’s worst gum, ranked three spots higher.
Maybe I was primed to love it because my mom liked to make brownies with a splash of sambuca when I was a kid and bought Italian pizzelles every Christmas. Or maybe my taste buds just grew up. But when I stopped picking the black jelly beans out of the bowl and learned to love licorice, I discovered a whole range of flavors that most people don’t even try to understand.
Of course, there are black Twizzlers and Good & Plenty and Jelly Belly, whose spokeswoman tells me that licorice is actually the brand’s third-most-popular flavor, according to customer polling. But some of the best licorice comes from Northern Europe and Australia. (Where some brands call it “eating liquorice.” As opposed to . . . non-eating licorice? Huh.) I like my licorice pillowy-soft, like the Finnish Panda brand — which notes that “Liquorice has in the past been used to protect against evil spirits.” And the German Haribo brand has a number of gummy-licorice hybrid treats in all kinds of whimsical shapes, like cats or vampire bats. There’s a type of super-salty licorice that’s popular in Nordic countries, but it’s only for the toughest among us — I can barely handle one piece of it.
And it’s not just candy, either. Real licorice comes from the licorice plant, but it has flavor compounds in common with fennel and anise. I love a bulb of fennel, the star of a simple salad with some butter lettuce, radish and green goddess dressing. Jägermeister, the subject of many a frat-guy joke, is delicious with tonic water. (Seriously. If you like licorice, try it.) You can settle your stomach after a big meal with Underberg, the tiny bottles of anise-flavored digestif from Germany that have garnered a cult following. And there’s the memory of the ancient, cozy ouzo bar I visited in Athens, or the summery sips of cloudy pastis. On a recent trip to India, one of the highlights of a meal was the sugared fennel that restaurants would bring out afterward, as a breath-freshener. The flavor of licorice can transport you around the world.
But chances are, you’re one of the people who think licorice is disgusting. I’d say you’re missing out, but I’m just as happy for licorice to stay the way it is: misunderstood by many, and loved by only a few. Licorice lovers don’t need external validation. But they do need to be careful: A recent FDA warning said that eating too much licorice can cause heart palpitations.
Kind of like love.
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