Of Gummy Bears, Gochujang & The Food We Love To Eat
Image Credit: Haribo's Gummy Bears turn 101 years old today. Wikimedia Commons.

This post was originally published as part of our newsletter, Just One Thing, on April 27. Subscribe here. (We're awesome about not spamming your inbox!)


For apex predators, bears have an uncanny way of featuring in some of our most enduring and aww-inducing inventions. Twenty years after American President Theodore Roosevelt refused to shoot a bear cub and sparked the marketing of the teddy — possibly the most beloved toy in the world — a creation story for another popular bear-inspired treat unfolded across the Atlantic. A German confectioner from Bonn decided he’d had enough of toiling for someone else’s profit, and set up his own venture: a candy-making enterprise he ran from his home kitchen. 

At first, he only made hard-boiled sugar sweets that his wife Gertrud sold off her bicycle. Country fairs were among the places where sales of the sweets were most brisk. These fairs had an attraction that proved irresistible to most visitors: “dancing bears”. “Dancing bear” now seems to suggest the quirky image of a big, clumsy and lovable creature in the mould of Baloo or Winnie or Yogi. Of course the reality was far darker: these were bears bred in captivity from the time they were cubs, trained to “dance” by being made to stand on metal discs placed over a fire, while music played. As the plates heated up, the bear would shuffle from one foot to another to escape being scorched. Over time, they would respond to the music itself, by “dancing”. (Ivan Pavlov had already published his famous studies on classical conditioning in 1897, which this ‘training’ was a form of.) It is unclear if the milling crowds who cheered on the bears at the fairs had any idea of how much suffering their “dance training” entailed.

Anyway, back to our confectioner in his kitchen: Hans Riegel (for that was his name) was busy wondering how he could make a treat that would appeal to even more customers. He was struck by the idea of taking one popular icon — the dancing bears from the fairs — and incorporating it with another. Jellied sweets had been around for a while: first, as traditional delicacies in other parts of the world, like the Turkish Lokum and Japanese Rice Candy; followed by more ‘modern’ tweaks on these flour/starch-reliant sweets, such as Jujubes, Jelly Sweets and the English ‘Wine’ Gum (it contained no alcohol). Influenced by this genre of confectionery, gelatin, bright edible colours, pleasing flavours and a very satisfying chew came together in Herr Riegel’s pots and were moulded into dancing bears to form the world’s first Gummy Bears. 

Herr Riegel came up with a catchy band name for his sweets, using the first two letters of his first and last name and that of his hometown Bonn: Ha-Ri-Bo. Today, 101 years since their inception, Haribo Goldbears are sold all over the globe, and have even inspired countless imitations — including a very cute Disney TV series. 


Extra Byte: Wishing We Were In The Room Where It Happened

We’ve now heard all about the snazzy guest list (Angelina Jolie was there), the décor (cherry blossoms), and even the very fun finale (an impromptu rendition of Don McLean’s ‘American Pie’ by South Korea’s President) at US President Joe Biden’s state banquet for his counterpart, Yoon Suk-yeol. But it is the description of the night’s menu, selected by First Lady Dr Jill Biden that had us wishing we’d been present at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue — even if for a grab-and-go. Listen to this bit from the New York Times' report on what was on the table at the White House, and tell us your tastebuds aren’t tingling just like ours: “The Maryland crab cake was accompanied by a cabbage, fennel and cucumber slaw in a gochujang vinaigrette. The yellow squash soup was followed by braised beef short ribs with butter bean grits, sorghum-glazed carrots and pine nuts. And dessert was a banana split with fresh berries, gingersnap cookie crumble and doenjang caramel.” Yes. Now please excuse us while we go sob into our bland bowls of moong dal.