George D. Carameros did not invent cactus candy. But like many other Greek immigrant confectioners his culinary innovations perfected a confection that is said to have first originated with the Aztecs. Again, like many other Greek immigrants of his generation, Carameros’ road to fame and fortune was a long and winding venture.
To begin with (and without going into lengthy details) there are a wide variety of candies made from an equally wide variety of cacti. In Carameros’ case he first tasted (or eventually focused on) the sweet made from barrel cactus. This “candy has a distinct flavor, and the consistency of gum drops. It has been made by Mexicans for centuries and is called ‘Culbertson de viznaga’ or little squares of virnaga. Virnaga is the Mexican name for the barrel cactus from which it is made.” (Denton Record-Chronicle (TX) May 27, 1947.)
Unexpectedly, a wide variety of foods and other uses come from the broad families of cactus plants. A number of distinct candies and jellies can be had from an equally wide variety of cacti. All available public documents on Carameros report that he used the barrel cactus to make his candy treat. In Mexico a wide variety of sweets, candies and jellies are made from barrel cactus. “Echinocactus platyacanthus, also known as the giant barrel cactus, giant viznaga, or biznaga de dulce, is a species of cactus (family Cactaceae) that is native to central Mexico in the Chihuahuan Desert. This species is the largest of the barrel cacti. In Mexico…a traditional candy is produced by boiling the pith.” The only difficulty with this candied treat is that traditionally it had to be eaten very soon after it was made. For whatever reasons, traditionally forms of this candied food were and remain subject to mold.
Carameros did not journey directly to the United States. Through family connections Carameros first settled in Mexico City and began as a laborer working to manufacture candy and bottling soda. The turmoil of the Mexican Revolution in 1918 forced Carameros and his extended family to Texas. Carameros and his extended kin bottled beer and soda until Prohibition killed that business, too. At this point published accounts vary as to how Carameros learned about cactus candy.
The legend of Carameros’ first contact with cactus candy was reprinted many times in the press. These accounts point to 1917 as the year the young Greek first tasted cactus candy. “Thirty years ago George D. Carameros, a $7-a-week-soda fountain clerk, was walking through south El Paso when he saw an outdoor stand selling home-made candy bars as big as his fist for a penny. He was curious to know what kind of candy sold for that price. Even thirty years ago that was cheap. He sampled a piece, and it was good. He offered the stand owner $5 to show him how it was made. That led to the building of a business that now sells cactus candy in every state of the union and abroad.” (1917 Amarillo Daily News (TX) May 23, 1947.) Yet it was an extremely slow rise to national and later even international prominence.
The candy is made from the meat of the Barrel cactus. Barrel cacti are various members of the two genera Echinocactus and Ferocactus, found throughout the deserts of Southwestern North America…Carameros hauls his cactus on burros from the Organ Mountains between El Paso and Alamogordo between 20 and 40 miles away. It is handled carefully so as not to bruise it. It lasts indefinitely, piled in the yard of his plant. First, the cactus is stripped of its thorny spines. Then the rind is peeled off and the cactus is quartered sliced, cut into small pieces and dumped into a cooker where it is boiled from four to six days and reduced to pulp.” (Denton Record-Chronicle (TX) May 27, 1947.)
To complete this general description of cactus candy production – while still a liquid the production batch “is poured for cooling, wrapped and packaged. Some of the (cactus candy) boxes carry a picture of a Catholic mission, others of Spanish dancers doing the jarabe tapatio or hat dance. The factory once consisted of a small kettle and a kitchen range. Today it has three 200-pound retorts, four gas-fired furnaces, four 50-gallon kettles, and 500 wire trays on which the cooked pulp is placed to drain. There is, of course, other equipment, and the factory is the largest of its kind in the world.” (Brownsville Herald (TX) May 22, 1947.)
Somewhere along the line a secret process was used – a process Carameros invented to preserve the candy. In the old days, all such cactus candy quickly molded – but not after Carameros’ innovation. And here we must pause. Carameros most certainly did not come upon his method of preventing Cactus candy from molding overnight. “For six years, he experimented with his candy cooking before developing a preservative process that remained his secret during many years of successful merchandising.” (El Paso Times November 27, 1988).’
“For those who may question this whole process need only see ‘Cactus Sweets!’ the 1933 British Pathe newsreel on YouTube of Carameros’ crew harvesting cactus and then the step-by-step processing of the cacti into a candy treat.” (El Paso Herald February 12, 1929.)
The unexpected downside of Carameros’ national and eventually international success was, for a time, the barrel cactus was over harvested and so almost wiped out. Consequently, Carameros’ process of preventing cactus candy from mold allowed for not just the mass production of this confection but also for its shipping across the nation and the world.
Carameros is not the first Greek confectionaire to alter the very history of candy manufacture. In 1955, Alex Doumak patented a new manufacturing method called the extrusion process. This invention changed the history of marshmallow production and is still used today. It now only takes 60 minutes to produce a marshmallow. Before Doumak’s innovation it took some 24 hours for individual marshmallows to set using methods that were said to stretch back to the Egyptians. Today, there are only three manufacturers of marshmallows in the United States, Favorite Brands International (Kraft marshmallows), Kidded & Company, and Doumak, Inc.
A host of news reports document Carameros’ breakthrough production method of cactus candy production to the early 1920s. By 1928, “according to Mr. Carameros 250,000 boxes of the (Cactus candy) product were retailed in the United States last year.” (El Paso Herald February 12, 1929.) Sales only grew over the years. By 1930, Carameros’ Cactus Candy Company, located at 427 W. Second in El Paso had expanded its cactus candy production area alone to a building 42 by 120 feet, (with) six furnaces, three steam cookers and nine kettles.” (El Paso Evening Post October 27, 1930.) At this time Carameros’ annual payroll was $4,000. Other factory expansions were necessary over the years.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Carameros was selling about 75,000 pounds of his cactus candy to tourists (Akron Beacon Journal (OH) September 23, 1951.) Even this astonishing figure is on the conservative side given that Carameros had also contracted with a number of railroads that traveled through El Paso and the southwest providing them with his signature candy. These railroad companies distributed Carameros’ cactus candy and also served it abroad their trains throughout the southwest.
On June 23, 1970, George D. Carameros died in El Paso, Texas. Carameros did not invent cactus candy but his innovations in the cooking/processing of this centuries-old confection finally made it a treat to be enjoyed around the world. Sparked by Carameros’ success others soon began to experiment to solve the issue of why cactus candy molded so quickly. That a Greek immigrant, struggling to make a living in a foreign land, perfected a confection that others had been unable to – since the time of the Aztecs, should be more widely known.
Steve Frangos, c. 2019