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A Massachusetts firm is sweet on fruit slices, a traditional Passover dessert

By Meredith Goldstein
Globe Staff / April 15, 2008

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LAWRENCE - During the rest of the year, they might be passed over - no pun intended - for thick slices of chocolate cake and doughy macaroons. But for a week in the spring when Jewish households must be cleared of all things leavened for Passover, these familiar fruit slices are coveted.

Rabbi Asher Bronstein, of the Chabad Lubavitch of Merrimack Valley, puts the treat in perspective: "In a regular house that observes Passover, you go into the house, and the ones that really do it, they have matzo, wine, this and that, but the most important dessert will be this candy."

Passover, a weeklong Jewish holiday celebrating the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, includes two ceremonial dinners called Seders and a week of avoiding food made with leavening agents and wheat flour - that means no bread or beer. After those Seders, which this year fall on Saturday and Sunday, there is, of course, dessert. And for at least 60 years, fruit slices, the sugar-covered wedges of congealed fruit-flavored goo, have been on the menu.

Bronstein says that nowadays it's easier to find fancy kosher-for-Passover chocolates and tortes. But decades ago, when he celebrated the holiday as a child, slices were it.

"Thirty years ago, what did they have?" Bronstein says. "You couldn't really find chocolate for Passover. There were very few items that you could buy as a dessert."

What many people don't know about fruit slices is that like Marshmallow Fluff, which was originally made and sold in Somerville, the wedges can also trace their history to the Bay State. Boston Fruit Slices, a small company with 23 employees, says that the now-closed H.W. Powers Candy Co., once on Medford Street in Boston, was the first business to make and sell fruit slices in the United States.

The Powers fruit-slice line was sold in 1984 to Vincent Aliberti, who founded Boston Fruit Slices. BFS has changed owners twice since then, but the product has been made in Lawrence with the same recipe for 24 years. The current owner is John Morrissey, who runs the company with general manager Rick Hiera. Bronstein does spot checks to make sure the company keeps things kosher. Passover is high season in the Lawrence plant, where employees can be found making and packaging the product Willy Wonka-style in a cavernous old factory building.

There are Boston Fruit Slices competitors, says Hiera, but his company still produces much of the fruit candy sold across the country and has expanded its line over the years to include mini-slices, chocolate-covered slices, and more unique flavors like banana and pink grapefruit.

Hiera boasts that the local product is superior for three reasons: because of the fruit-juice flavor made at a "flavor house" halfway across the country (he won't disclose which one), because of the gelling agent agar (he says other companies use pectin, which makes the candy stick to your teeth), and because of the egg-white and marshmallow mix used to make the fruit-slice rind (other companies simply use white food coloring, according to Hiera). During production, staffers toss bright red, yellow, orange, and green slices in piles of sugar. They carefully package boxes of the slices, lining up the colors to make rainbows.

Hiera won't say how much of his sales are tied to Passover, but admits it's the busy season.

"It's a decent part of our business," he says, adding that it's one he can always count on, even through recessions. "The sales always stay steady."

The candy wasn't originally made for Jewish customers, but Hiera says the Powers company could tie its sales to the Passover holiday as early as the late-1940s, soon after the company began making and selling the treat.

The slices are kosher year-round, but to make it kosher specifically for Passover, the plant replaces the corn syrup ingredient with potato or tapioca syrup. (Corn syrup usually isn't kosher for Passover because its production isn't supervised by a rabbi.) The company also shrinks the number of flavors it makes from 13 to four during the holiday season to ensure all ingredients are wheat-free. The Passover slices come in cherry, orange, lemon, and lime.

At the factory, the day starts at 6 a.m. with fruit-slice makers boiling the sugar and gelatin mix in a stainless-steel cooking kettle only to immediately cool it.

"You can't throw the color and flavor in when it's hot," Hiera says.

Once the mix is appropriately sweet and bright, a layer of the thick syrup is poured on wax paper spread on top of seven long wooden tables in the factory's main production room. On top of that goes the mix of egg whites and marshmallow that makes the rind.

Another layer of syrup is poured into fruit-wedge molds that turn the mix into long, jelly fruit logs that are put through a slicer. Once the wedges come out, they are thrown into vats of sugar, where employees make sure each bit is coated with white.

Then, it's off to the drying room where the fruit slices congeal on stacks of wooden trays.

On any given day, the operation produces about 5,000 pounds of fruit slices. The company also makes a sugar-free version of the sweet, but because the process is more complicated, it doesn't make the healthier option during Passover.

When the slices are dry, they're packaged in various sizes to accommodate big sellers such as BJ's and Stop & Shop and smaller retailers such as The Butcherie in Brookline.

Walter Gelerman, manager of The Butcherie, a kosher market, says that even though more sophisticated desserts are available for the holiday, fruit slices are still the treat of choice for many this time of year.

"People from generation to generation remember what they had as kids," he says. "They pass it down."

Yet they're not for everyone. Bronstein admits that even though he inspects the slice-making process and likes to see the rainbow, he avoids snacking on them.

"Too sweet," he says, but his kids, "they love it."

Kosher-for-Passover Boston Fruit Slices can be found at BJ's, Big Y, Shaw's, Stop & Shop, Hannaford Bros., Roche Brothers, Market Basket, and Trader Joe's locations, and The Butcherie, 428 Harvard St., Brookline, 617-731-9888.

Meredith Goldstein can be reached at mgoldstein@globe.com.