We all know that smells, tastes, sounds and other sensations in the present day can evoke memories of the past. Over the recent Thanksgiving holiday, we were entertaining friends who are Dutch and make their home in Florence, Italy. We decided to break bread together on an early Sunday morning at the Russ & Daughters Café on Essex Street on the Lower East Side. After a lovely meal and much discussion about the lack of Jewish fish purveyors in Amsterdam, we asked for the check. With the check came hard coffee-flavored caramel candy– Hopjes! Instantly, I was taken back to my childhood in a small rural town in Connecticut, where my American-born Hungarian Jewish grandmother always had a bowl of Hopjes on the coffee table in her home. Our Dutch friends immediately recognized the candy…as it is Dutch. They, in fact, read the label in their native language. I, in the meantime, was overcome by nostalgia. It wasn’t until later that afternoon that I started to reflect on how and why my grandmother would have had these particular candies.
Curiosity led me to dig a bit. There is a bit of folklore that surrounds Hopjes! A Dutch candy, Hopjes supposedly originated in the eighteenth century when Baron Hendrik Hop was recalled from his posting as an envoy in Brussels when the French invaded Belgium in 1792. Apparently, he moved into rooms above the confectioners Van Haaren & Nieuwerkerk. As the story goes, the Baron, addicted to coffee, left his coffee with sugar and cream on the heater one night, where the liquid evaporated. The Baron loved the resulting substance! Advised against coffee by a doctor, the Baron asked the confectioner Theodorus van Haaren to make him some “lumps of coffee”. Whereupon, Van Haaren created a sweet made of coffee, caramel, cream and butter. Thus started the Hopjes tradition!
A Google search reveals plenty of references to Hopjes being eaten by Jews. (One European reference is in the book We All Wore Stars: Memories of Anne Frank from Her Classmates by Theo Coster about his encounter with a man who worked at the Rademaker Hopjes factory, an “exhilarating discovery for a child.”) As for America, the proximity of cultures in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century immigrations to New York City on the Lower East Side coupled with an amazing array of candy purveyors in the neighborhood contributed to this cross-cultural exchange.