Zac McDorrOne of my favorite treats is a coconut patty dipped in chocolate. In my childhood there were five choices: Mounds, Almond Joy, York Peppermint Patty, Junior Mints, or the square ones wrapped in red waxed paper.

I had no idea that the last choice, Needhams, were a delicacy particular to Maine. And I certainly had no idea of Needhams’ dark secret: They are made from potatoes!

Maine was once the country’s largest producer of potatoes, so it’s no surprise that potatoes found their way into candy. A Machias recipe book from the ‘20s has instructions for a candy called Unbaked Fudge, which is essentially a Needham. An early recipe in the Bangor Daily News called it “Maine Potato Candy.”

The largest producer of Needhams for decades was the Seavey company. According to Maine writer John Gould, the company’s cook came up with the recipe, and Mr. Seavey decided to name the candy after a then-popular preacher and faith healer that Seavey had recently seen in action.

According to his obituary, George C. Needham was an Irishman who went to sea at the age of 10. The captain and crew were extremely cruel to him, beat him, and forcibly tattooed him.

Eventually they abandoned him in Patagonia, where cannibals discovered him and prepared to make a feast, almost becoming the first people to eat a Needham.

Spooked by his tattoos, however, they let him go, and he made his way back to Ireland.

Needham became a preacher and spent some years preaching in Ireland and England, then he emigrated to Boston in 1868. He married a woman named Elizabeth, and the pair traveled around the eastern United States “denouncing Catholicism, promoting faith healing, and predicting the Second Coming of Jesus Christ was imminent.”

Jesus did not show up, and Needham’s wife became disillusioned with faith healing. In fact, she wrote a book denouncing the practice. Needham carried on preaching, however, until his death in 1902.

On a trip back to Maine a few years ago, I searched for the familiar Needhams at the store. Alas, they were nowhere to be found, and I learned that the Seavey Company had gone out of business. Smaller producers have sprung up lately, however, and the Maine treat can now be easily found in clear plastic wrappers.

Source: newenglandhistoricalsociety.com