This is Mary See's town. We only live here.
See's Candy has owned L.A., chocolate-wise, for more than 80 years. Charles See may have come here from Canada, but he understood this burg -- he opened his second store in Grauman's Chinese Theater and his third on the route of the Rose Parade. He made a point of putting his shops on the shady side of the street, knowing that in our climate more pedestrians would be walking there.
He understood our eager susceptibility. Even today, whenever you go into a See's store, they give you a free sample of candy, knowing that you're sure to buy something.
And so, over the years, See's chocolates worked their way into our lives. For my part, I remember a golden era when my sister worked at a See's store in Van Nuys and often brought home a sack of mixed creams or walnut clusters. How cool could a job be? Why was I wasting my time in college? Could you get some with cherry centers next time, please?
Other chocolates have shown up in recent years, proclaiming rarer beans, richer fillings and more exotic flavors, but See's is still our favorite. Like going out to a steakhouse, it's a special-occasion treat, but one that guarantees comfort. The fresh, consistent, buttery candies are a fixed part of the landscape around here, like eucalyptus trees or the Hollywood sign. It's hard to imagine life without them.
A symbol of the city
As has often happened, what worked in L.A. has proved to work in a lot of other places too. The company Charles See founded in 1921 on his mother's recipes expanded in 1936 to San Francisco, where it operates a second factory. There are more than 200 See's candy shops scattered around the western states today, as well as a few in the Midwest and even Tokyo. During the holidays, seasonal shops open in many other places.
In short, at peak chocolate-eating times you can get See's just about everywhere. And if you're really isolated, it's available online.
Yeah, sure, you can get the candies at lots of places, but at heart, See's still really means L.A. When you fly back into LAX from some town where the airport shops are selling sourdough bread or smoked fish or chili mix and you spot a black-and-white See's cart on your way down to baggage claim, you know you're home.
The man who has seen the most of the company's history is Charles Huggins, who has been with See's since 1951, from the days when people could remember Mary See herself (and Huggins worked in the packing department). In 1972 he oversaw the See family's sale of the company to Warren E. Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc. He is still the chief executive today.
So have any candies stayed the same since the start?
"I have the original recipe book from the '20s," Huggins says, "and I believe about 30 recipes from Mary See's own kitchen are still current. Some of the old pieces that are the same are Mayfair, Bordeaux and Victoria toffee."
In case you're the sort of person who wants to know what's inside a candy, rather than the sort who just makes a leap of faith and picks anything with a promising look, the Mayfair is a round milk chocolate with a center of buttercream, walnuts and chopped glace cherries. Victoria toffee is entirely coated with milk chocolate and chopped almonds, and it's sold in one-pound slabs or as bite-sized Toffee-ettes.
That beloved Bordeaux
As for the Bordeaux, probably See's most famous chocolate: "That goes way back in our history," says Huggins. "What makes it a Bordeaux is that it has brown sugar as well as granulated sugar in it, which gives it that special quality which is like caramel but also cream and butter, like a buttercream. It's a special brown sugar made for us by C&H."
The Bordeaux is the round piece covered with tiny chocolate sprinkles. See's also makes a Bordeaux fudge, and at Easter there are Bordeaux eggs.
By the way, it should be obvious that there's no connection between the Bordeaux chocolate and a certain wine-growing region of France, apart from a suggestion of elegance and luxury. Chocolate names are often quite arbitrary.
Despite the long life of some of these favorites, there are fashions in candy. "We have tended away from pieces that were made with frappe, egg whites and what I call 'strange centers,' " says Huggins, "to things with more fruit or nuts in them." As an example of a "strange center," Huggins gives a mixture of sugar, whipped egg whites and finely ground walnuts.
"Over the last 30 years," he adds, "fruit pieces such as raspberry cream and pineapple have become more popular. That has been the trend dietetically over the period.
"And 10 years ago we introduced a whole line of truffles of different shapes and sizes. Partly we did that because Godiva was bugging us. We didn't make our prices as high as theirs, though.