The Maine potato candy known as the needham has always stood in the shadow of the whoopie pie, but generations of Mainers have nonetheless revered the sweet confection.
Mainers find needhams in their Christmas stockings. Maine moms get them in gift boxes on Mother’s Day. Maine grandmas make them at home. And Maine convenience stores display them by the cash register.
Few Mainers know much about the faith healer after whom the needham was named, or that he was a product of historic conflicts between English and Irish, Protestant and Catholic.
Or, for that matter, that cannibals came close to eating him for dinner.
The Noble Spud
The candy itself combines cocoanut, sugar, chocolate and that classic Maine ingredient, the potato. Maine once harvested more potatoes than any other state, and the potato is still a major crop in Aroostook County.
A candymaker, Mr. Seavey, introduced a new item when one of his cooks brought forth a chocolate-covered coconut cream with a secret ingredient — potato. The cook passed it around to see what Mr. Seavey, and others, thought of it. Significantly, the new candy had a square shape.
Mr. Seavey and others immediately approved the candy, but they didn’t know what to call it. Mr. Seavey said, “Let’s call ’em needhams, after the popular preacher,” according to Gould.
And so the candy became the needham, for a century a native Maine delicacy except for a few areas where it crossed the line into New Hampshire.
“Seavey’s Needhams are as Maine as the lobster, the first sunrise, and the ayeh,” wrote Gould.
George C. Needham
George C. Needham himself was almost a tasty treat for South American cannibals, according to his obituary in the New York Times Philadelphia edition on Feb. 2, 1902.
Born in Ireland in 1840, Needham went to sea at the age of 10 in an English ship bound for South America. The captain and crew brutally tortured him.
They beat him, tied him to the mast and finally tattooed his arms and body. At the end of the voyage to South America, they took him ashore in a desolate section of Patagonia where he faced starvation.
A band of cannibal Indians found him and considered him a delicate morsel. They prepared to make a feast of the boy, but at the last moment they discovered the strange tattoo marks on his body. The superstitious Indians let him go.
Needham returned to civilization and entered business, but at 20 he gave up a promising career for the Protestant ministry. He preached throughout England and Ireland until 1868.
Needham then met Boston evangelist Dwight Moody, who persuaded him to immigrate to America.
He started out holding prayer meetings sponsored by the YMCA in South Boston. The story goes that he ran out of money by his second week. A man named Henry Durant read in the paper that Needham was holding services and decided to help him.
“He will soon be crossing over the Dover Street Bridge,” said Durant to himself. He put $50 in an envelope, went to the bridge and gave Needham the money.
Soon George C. Needham edited a magazine called Times of Refreshing, published by Charles Cullis, a Boston evangelist and faith healer. Needham associated with the Clarendon Street Baptist Church in Boston and married Elizabeth Annabel. Together they preached around the eastern half of the United States, denouncing Catholicism, promoting faith healing and predicting that the second coming of Jesus Christ was imminent.
By 1891, Elizabeth grew disillusioned with faith healing, because she viewed it as hooey. She consequently wrote a book attacking it in 1891, called Mrs. Whiling’s Faith Cure.
By 1892 George Needham was reported to be living in Philadelphia, touring the country and devoting most of his lectures to the still-imminent second coming of Jesus Christ.
In November 1892 he preached religion could make you beautiful, according to Preach the Word, Eleven Bible Lectures.
“Some of us are homely enough, nevertheless we can be beautiful; for when the Spirit of God fills mind and heart, and the Word of God abides in us, there will be a spiritual charm and a heavenly peacefulness radiating from the most unhandsome faces,” he said.
By the time George Needham died in 1902, his name was on everyone’s tongue, at least in Maine.
Many years later, Bangor Daily News food editor Brownie Schrumpf included a recipe for ‘Maine Potato Candy’ in her weekly column:
¾ cup mashed potatoes
4 cups confectioners sugar
4 cups shredded coconut
1-1/2 teaspoon vanilla
½ teaspoon salt
4 squares baking chocolate
Mix mashed potatoes (plain mashed, no seasonings or milk) and confectioners sugar. Stir in coconut, vanilla and salt; blend well. Press into buttered pan so that candy is about ½ inch in depth. Melt chocolate over warm, but not hot, water. (Too hot water causes melted chocolate to have white streaks when it hardens.) Pour chocolate over candy, then cool and cut in squares.
For variation, make haystacks by forming coconut mixture into cones about 1-inch high. Allow to stand for 20 minutes. Dip base of each cone in melted chocolate, to cover cone up to ¼ inch. Finally, place on wax paper until candy hardens.
This story was updated in 2020. If you enjoyed reading about the needham, you may also want to read about the revolutionary roots of the fluffernutter sandwich.