food for thoughtAs a candy holiday, Easter has tough competition. Christmas stockings bulge with chocolate Santas and candy canes, Valentine’s pastel hearts promise love and sugar, and Halloween offers just about any sweet imaginable. But I have a soft spot for Easter candy.

Maybe it’s because after 40 days of Lenten sacrifice and reflection (or the good intention to do both), sweet indulgence is all the more treasured; I am ready for a sugar high after a month of sobriety. But it also has to do with something more visceral. I’m a sucker for the gaudy, easily seduced by bunnies swathed in grass-green wrappers, eggs dressed in pink foil and neon yellow Peeps with their gritty sugar crunch.

I grew up with all of these confections at Easter, courtesy of the candy display at my dad’s Rosedale pharmacy. But like most Baltimore kids, the prize in my Easter basket was the navy blue and white box that held a Mary Sue Easter Egg (in chocolate or coconut butter cream but never, ever, fruit and nut).

In the weeks leading up to Easter, my sister and I would sing the Mary Sue jingle to each other or anyone who would listen. “Treat your Easter Bunny to something that’s sunny,” Kathleen would start. “Using real butter makes Mary Sue better, and you’ve never had it so rich,” I would admonish. We had no idea that the tune was a knockoff of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “I’m Called Little Buttercup” from “H.M.S. Pinafore” or that a football player named Johnny Unitas was the first to sing it in a television commercial three months before he became famous for playing in the Greatest Game. We didn’t know that the name “Mary Sue” came from the first names of the original owner’s daughters, who both became nuns, or that the company first made marmalade when it was founded in 1948. We didn’t even know that the eggs were made here in Baltimore.

But they were and still are, so on a whim I decide to call Bill Buppert, president of Ruxton Chocolates (the company that owns Mary Sue Candies, as well as Naron and Glauber’s), to ask for a tour. On a windy day in January, I arrive at the small brick building on Caton Avenue with “Mary Sue Candies” painted on its whitewashed side. I find the facility in full Easter egg production mode.

I immediately discover that the way candy is made at Mary Sue is as old-fashioned as the company’s Easter egg jingle. In the large central kitchen, lit as much by sun-filled windows as it is by artificial light, a 60-year-old metal contraption with arms like a spider’s is ready to pull and stretch the warm fondant bubbling several feet away in temperature-controlled kettles. Bags of coconut wait to be mixed into cooling mounds of fondant-based buttercream, and the air holds the warm fragrance of sugar tempered with an undertone of bitter chocolate. It smells wholesome and rapturous at the same time.

As we walk through the factory, Buppert and I pass trays of drying nougat eggs, which look oddly naked without their coating of caramel and pecans. We see stacks of Mary Sue’s current packaging, brightly decorated with pink bunnies and yellow flowers, and color-coded to ensure coconut eggs (denoted by boxes with green trim) aren’t mixed up with peanut butter eggs (which go in orange boxes). Incidentally, peanut butter eggs are the hardest to make, Buppert confides.
“What are they doing?” I ask, gesturing to two women wearing hairnets and gloves who are drawing their fingertips across freshly coated chocolate-covered coconut cream eggs that move toward them on a cooling belt. They’re making identification patterns, says Buppert, explaining that coconut eggs receive a three-finger swipe, but other varieties receive four- or five-finger patterns. “We try to touch every piece of candy,” he adds with modest pride.

In a small room just past the main kitchen, two women mix melted chocolate and pecans then scoop fingerfuls of the mixture into brown pleated paper candy wrappers to make pecan clusters for the assorted box chocolates Mary Sue produces. In another room, darker and chillier, more women pinch clumps of sticky nougat and, with a practiced motion, roll them into eggs before tossing them onto a scale to make sure they are within a tenth of an ounce of the mandated weight for an eight-ounce egg. Later, I watch as a human assembly line passes eggs down a line: one person dips the nougat in caramel, the next rolls it in pecans, and the third places it in a small cradled mold on another vintage machine. Although the company has plenty of male employees, women do most of the candy-handling, Buppert explains, because, of all reasons, they tend to have colder hands (though there are times when even those with the coolest palms must wash their hands with cold water to bring the temperature of the chocolate down).

Aside from a few new flavors (chocolate chip-studded Triple Chocolate Meltdown has replaced plain old chocolate buttercream) and some updated packaging, “not too much has changed,” admits Buppert. Granted, he has only been president of the company since 2001, when, at age 23, the challenge of running a candy company seemed more compelling to him than finishing an MBA program. But Buppert has managed to keep all of the company’s long-time employees (there’s very little turnover at Mary Sue) and expand the brand across the United States. He won’t say how many employees work for Mary Sue or how many eggs they produce. “Enough to pay the bills,” he allows with a grin. Baltimore holds onto its food traditions, and as long as there are folks who can sing the Mary Sue jingle, I reckon there will still be Mary Sue Easter Eggs.

Before I leave, Buppert gives me a tip. Take a pecan nougat egg, he advises, and heat it in the microwave for 30 seconds so the filling warms and expands into a fluffy, exquisite marshmallow mess. “If there’s a God,” Buppert says, “he eats this because it’s incredible.” To which I can only reply, Amen.

Chocolate Coconut Cake

Coconut Cream Cheese Frosting

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