At first glance and taste, needhams may seem like a Mounds bar—a coconut paste covered by a layer of chocolate. But pureed potatoes are the secret ingredient in these typically-homemade candies, which are an old-timey Maine favorite.
Two questions linger about needhams. One is the use of potatoes, and the other is the provenance of the name “needhams.” A little digging reveals that the answer to the former lies in practicality, while the other is more about spirituality.
The typical needhams filling is made with butter, dried coconut, confectioner’s sugar, and unseasoned, unbuttered potatoes. Occasionally the filling can be flavored, usually with Maine specialties like blueberry and maple syrup. The sticky mashed potatoes act as a binding agent, keeping the flaky coconut and sugar together without adding a noticeable flavor. Depending on who you ask, though, the potato plays a key role cutting the sweetness of the candy.
But why potatoes at all? Well, until the 1950s, Maine, not Idaho, was the United States’ biggest producer of potatoes, which remain the state’s biggest crop. Maine’s potato pride is strong, and many dishes incorporate the spud. Maine’s Acadian community is especially well-known for its potato preparations.
The name “needhams” itself is more mysterious. One account has it that the candies were named after a famous 19th century evangelical preacher, the Reverend George C. Needham. Needham was known for holding tent services up and down the East Coast, and it’s possible that a Maine candymaker decided to capitalize on the preacher’s famous name. According to Maine writer John Gould, the Seavy Company, a candy producer, was the first to develop and name the treat, sometime around 1872.
One way or another, the name “Needham” was soon on every tongue, although the potato candy has long outlasted the once-famous preacher it was named after.
Need to Know
While the most famous maker of needhams, Seavey's, is gone, many Maine candy stores still carry needhams, and it's easy to find recipes online.
Where to Try It
Not only has Len Libby's been selling needhams for over 80 years, but they also make needhams ice cream.
Perry's Nut House45 Searsport Ave., Belfast, Maine, 04915, United States
Open since 1927, Perry's sells fudge and needhams in an atmosphere reminiscent of a sideshow attraction.