03 October 2013

Lost City: Wisconsin Edition: Oaks Chocolates

The Fox River Valley in Wisconsin, snaking along the southeastern edge of the state, from Milwaukee to Green Bay, is home to an amazing number of long-standing, family-owned candy shops. Every city surrounding Lake Winnebago seems to have at least one local treasure. Green Bay has Kaaps's; DePere has Seroogy's; Manitowac has Beerntsen's; Appleton has Wilmar's. Oshkosh is particularly rich in this respect: it has both Hughes Home Maid [sic] Chocolate Shop and Oaks Chocolates.

I have been to all these stores, and, over time, I've turned to them for particular items. Wilmar's makes the best turtles, in my opinion. For caramels, I like Hughes. And Oaks makes a superior "oyster," that peculiar treat—a creamy white center surrounded by a shell of chocolate and crushed nuts—that you will only find in Wisconsin, and sometimes only in winter.

Of the Oshkosh stores, I prefer Hughes, largely for sentimental reasons. My family has always gone there, buying candy every Christmas. And I have always been bewitched by the unreal vision of Hughes. The candy store is in the basement of a simple, two-story white house in the middle of a residential block. The only reason you'd know it was there is a small neon sign in the front window. You walk downstairs, places your order, take your box of candy and go. No lingering. There's no place like it.

But I have to admit that Oaks is just as good at what they do. They are, by far, the more dominant company; they have three locations around Oshkosh. (These pictures are of the smaller location on Waugoo Street.) The store was founded in 1890. The outfit is still in the Oak family hands and they use ancient equipment to make their delicacies, like a 100-year-old mixing machine and 19th-century German molds. And they hand-dip and hand-fill each chocolate. Meltaways are their best-seller.

As you can see, the store is charm incarnate. I'm not a nut person, but the roasted nut counter is just plain lovable. Another attraction feature: these are Wisconsin prices. You can buy a whole lot of candy for not much money.

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