My Grandmother’s Horehound


The candy has a rather dusty appearance.

That’s “horehound,” not “whore hound” — though the joke works if you say it out loud, rather than see the word written. While the former might suggest an overly promiscuous feral dog, the latter is an herb that was used long ago to make hard candy.

I hadn’t tasted it since I’d visited my grandmother’s house on the South Side of Chicago as a kid with my twin brothers. We were candy crazy, and as we entered the dark brick house, with its railroad interior, beginning with a little-used sitting room, eventually ending in a den, we found shallow dishes of hard candy at various places along our route. The individual pieces were shaped like blunted footballs, and had a dusty exterior, though the interior was so deeply brown it was almost black.

We were offered the candy, but as soon as we popped one in our mouths, a flood of awful flavor welled up — like a cross between root beer and melted street tar on a hot summer day. We immediately spit the candy out, but the taste lingered.

So it was with some excitement that I rediscovered horehound candy at a saltwater taffy store in Sacramento, California. It was made in Mexico by a company based in Henderson, Nevada, called Gilliam, which has been making these drops since 1927. Though the candy remains none too exciting, when I tasted it this time it was sweet with a mild sassafras flavor, leading me to conclude that either my tastes changed or the candy had been reformulated to make it more palatable.

It turns out the herb (Marrubium vulgare) is a flowering member of the mint family, commonly known as white horehound or common horehound. An extract made from the plant is said to have medicinal properties, specifically as a digestive and in soothing sore throats. Which maybe explains why Grandma kepts bowls of horehound candy around. On the other hand, maybe it really was as my brothers and I believed — that she’d found a candy that no one but her liked, and was hence kid-proof.

The company that makes horehound hard candy is nearly a century old.

A catalog of forgotten candies was available.