How Two Armenian Immigrants Made Turkish Delight An American Hit
In 1921, an ad in The Seattle Times touted a brand new candy called "Aplets," a new confection made "from the finest Washington apples and honey and walnuts." A few years later, Aplets were joined by "Cotlets," a similar candy made from an apricot base. In most of the world, "Aplets & Cotlets" were based on a treat called lokum, a word derived from Arabic, but the British and Americans know it as "Turkish delight."
The origins of Turkish delight are a bit mysterious. According to Sweets: A History of Candy, it was "invented by Arab apothecaries some time around the ninth century." But Sherbet and Spice: The Complete Story of Turkish Sweets and Desserts alleges that it was invented by Ottoman palace confectioners in the 18th century. Versions of the candy are made in the Middle East, Russia, the Balkans and Greece. Though there are variations, the delights are usually made from a sweetener, cornflower starch, flavoring (usually rose or orange blossom water) and sometimes nuts.
The English originally called it "lumps of delight," a name that was wisely changed by the time C.S. Lewis thought to make it the candy that tempted young Edmund Pevensie to betray his siblings in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. If Americans have heard of Turkish delight, it's likely because this book, published in 1950, made the mysterious confection seem like the most delicious candy in the world.
Aplets came to America thanks to two Armenian immigrants — Armen Tertsagian and Mark Balaban — who bought an orchard in Cashmere,Wash., and had to find something to do with their excess fruit. Greg Taylor, president of Liberty Orchards — the company that makes Aplets & Cotlets — is the grandson of both founders. (The unmarried sister of one of the men "got sent over to be the wife of my grandfather," he explains.)
The men met at a YMCA, where Taylor says they were likely "the only Armenian guys within 100 miles." Together, they started a restaurant, which failed, and then a yogurt business, which also failed. But their fruit business has carried on for almost 100 years — even though the orchards were sold long ago, when the owners realized that producing Aplets from farm-raised apples didn't offer the quality control needed to make a shelf-stable lokum.
The business partners had grown up eating lokum and wanted to be the first to produce it commercially in the United States. Thanks in part to the inclusion of Washington apples, Aplets became a popular gift for tourists, and got an extra publicity boost through sales at the 1962 Seattle World's Fair. "It's still our best-selling product," Taylor says, largely because of its popularity in the Pacific Northwest. But Aplets & Cotlets, just like more traditional versions of Turkish delight, can be an acquired taste. Many people find it overly sweet and aren't used to eating desserts with floral flavors.
One of the few changes Liberty Orchards has made to the confection was to decrease the amount of rose flavor. "We got too many negative comments about the flowery taste," Taylor says. Another change was to add pectin to the candies to make it less stringy than original Turkish delight, which can easily be pulled apart like taffy but also gives it a much longer shelf-life.
The company's marketing is a little different, too. Because of historic animosity between Armenians and Turks, Aplets & Cotlets downplayed its association with "Turkish delight" for many years. "At some point we decided, heck, we make Turkish delight and let's not be afraid to say it," Taylor says. "Some of the older Armenians weren't happy that we'd done that."
When asked if he thought the original founders would be proud to see their candy still in stores, Taylor became thoughtful. "I think they'd be proud that the company has lasted this long and that the business is still in the family. But it's conceivable that they'd think, 'Why didn't they do more?' " Taylor explains that most of the company's innovation occurred in the first and second generations, and he sees himself as being "less entrepreneurial."
Despite his misgivings, fans have filled Liberty Orchards' social media with memories of the candy — which evidently still tastes as good as it did decades ago. One man writes about how he used to buy the candy with the money he made from his newspaper route 40 years ago. A woman mentions that her grandmother used to keep the candies at home and "each time I eat one, I have wonderful memories of the time I spent with this special lady." Sadly, for another family it was their dog who enjoyed the treats after breaking into the boxes they'd purchased for holiday gifts.
For now, Aplets & Cotlets remains a regional secret. Yet it exemplifies the very best of American food culture — immigrants who refashioned their childhood treats by using the foods of their new home.
Tove K. Danovich is a journalist based in Portland, Ore.