NPR

The Modjeska: A Star On Stage, Sweetly Remembered

The modjeska owes its name to a Victorian-era candy maker's infatuation with a Polish actress. (NPR)

In the back room of Muth's Candies in Louisville, Ky., Jonathon Skaggs and Bobby Masterson are busy dipping marshmallows into a copper pot.

The pot is filled with a top-secret hot caramel mixture. Skaggs and Masterson tap the excess golden caramel off each candy before placing it on a board to cool.

Masterson says it's a rhythm repeated hundreds of times each day.

"They're good ... they're a big-time seller in here in Kentucky, especially right here in Louisville," Masterson says. "There's a lot of people that come and get 'em."

The soft, sticky candy was created by Anton Busath, a French confectioner who immigrated to Louisville. The candy maker spent years perfecting his "caramel biscuit."

He gave his chewy creation an evocative name: the Modjeska.

Busath was enamored with Polish actress Helena Modjeska, who performed in theaters near his downtown Louisville shop in the 1880s. The Shakespearean actress was hugely popular in the United States.

Busath's candy "was a way of encouraging — consuming — your actress," says Beth Holmgren, a Duke University professor who's published a biography of Helena Modjeska.

Modjeska — like the sweet that bears her name — still has a dedicated following today.

"There are lots of things named after her, [but] the candy is the only thing that's still sold," Holmgren says.

"It is a heavenly piece of candy," says Rose Ann Stacy. Her family has run Muth's Candies, on Louisville's East Market Street, since 1921.

Other stores in the region make their own version of the Modjeska, but Muth's lays claim to the original recipe. After Busath's store was destroyed by fire in 1947, his son gave the recipe to Muth's.

The East Market Street neighborhood fell on hard times in the 1960s and 70s, when large numbers of city dwellers and business owners moved to the suburbs. But the area has been making a comeback in recent years, and art galleries, restaurants and antique shops have opened.

It even has a new nickname, "NuLu," short for New Louisville.

With some help from the Modjeska, Muth's has withstood the neighborhood's many changes. The candy remains the shop's most popular treat — thousands of pounds of Modjeskas go out the shop's doors each year.

Guests in some Louisville hotels even find a complimentary Modjeska on their pillows.

And Stacy is always happy to unwrap a free sample for visitors who stop by the shop. She loves watching people melt the first time they try the buttery caramel.

"If anybody has ever lived in Louisville ... they call and get them," Stacy says. "Because they have ... to have their Modjeska fix."

Just such a Modjeska craving brought Amy Harty into the store recently. She's a Louisville native who now lives in New England.

"They have a very special flavor, nothing of which I've ever had before," Harty says. "And people say the same thing in Boston. They're just like, 'Wow, these are so good!'"

Copyright 2014 Louisville Public Media. To see more, visit http://www.louisvillepublicmedia.org/.

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This summer we're telling the stories behind some of the country's most popular regional candies and candy stores. Rick Howlett of member station WFPL reports now about a Louisville confection that dates back to the Victorian era and a man's infatuation with an actress.

RICK HOWLETT, BYLINE: In the back room of Muth's Candies, Jonathon Skaggs and Bobby Masterson are busy.

(SOUNDBITE OF FORKS CLINKING)

HOWLETT: They use forks to dip marshmallows into a copper pot. It contains a secret, hot caramel mixture. They tap off the excess before placing the candy on a board. Masterson says it's a rhythm repeated hundreds of times each day.

BOBBY MASTERSON: They're good. They're a big-time seller in here in Kentucky, especially right here in Louisville. There's a lot of people that come and get 'em.

HOWLETT: The soft, sticky candy is the Modjeska, a name coined by Anton Busath, a French confectioner who immigrated to Louisville. Busath was enamored with Polish actress Helena Modjeska, who performed in theatres near his downtown shop in the 1880s.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HOWLETT: The candy maker had spent years perfecting his "caramel biscuit." He called it, "the Modjeska." The Shakespearean actress was hugely popular in the United States and even today has a dedicated following. This music is from a video tribute on the Helena Modjeska Society's website.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HOWLETT: Duke University Professor Beth Holmgren published a biography of Modjeska.

BETH HOLMGREN: There are lots of things named after her. The candy is the only thing that is still sold. It was a way of encouraging - consuming your actress.

ROSE ANN STACY: It is a heavenly piece of candy. When you watch people for the first time put it in their mouth, they just...mmm.

HOWLETT: That's Rose Ann Stacy, whose family has run Muth's Candies since 1921. After Anton Busath's shop was destroyed by fire in 1947, his son gave the Modjeska recipe to Muth's. It's the most popular treat at Muth's. They sell thousand of pounds of it each year. Guests in some Louisville hotels will find a complimentary Modjeska on their pillows.

And Rose Ann is always happy to unwrap a free sample in the store.

(SOUNDBITE OF CANDY WRAPPER)

HOWLETT: Mmm...ah, that's good. Not too sweet. You would think it would be very sweet, but it's not.

STACY: If anybody has ever lived in Louisville, had anyone that lived in Louisville and received these, they call and get them. Because, they have to have, as they'll say, they'll have to have their Modjeska fix.

HOWLETT: A Modjeska craving brought Amy Harty into the store. She's a Louisville native who now lives in New England.

AMY HARTY: They have a very special flavor. I mean, nothing of which I've ever had before. And people say the same thing in Boston, they're just like, wow, these are so good.

HOWLETT: So good, and long enduring. For NPR news, I'm Rick Howlett in Louisville.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: This is NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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