A toothsome chomp through the history of Chappies

A toothsome chomp through the history of Chappies
Chef Marcel Marais’ homage to Chappies; Prue Leith Restaurant at the Prue Leith Culinary Institute. (Photo: Adele Stiehler-van der Westhuizen)

We are what we eat and what we all eat is Chappies bubble gum. And grownups probably shouldn’t have erroneously told us that if we swallowed chewed Chappies they would stay in our stomachs for seven years.

Did you know that Chappies bubble gum is 75 years old? Or that, if you were to line up all the Chappies we chomp in a year, they would span the circumference of the earth? Probably not, but even those with no taste for sweet stuff will recognise the iconic cubes with a chipmunk cartoon character gracing the outside of each wrapper. And the flipside’s “Did you Know” fast facts.

Created in 1948 by Johannesburg’s Chapelat confectionary company, Chappies initially sold two for a penny, making them the cheapest chews on the block. In 2023, they still occupy this market segment and are available everywhere from suburban corner cafés to township taxi rank street stalls and rural spaza shops. Such is their ubiquity that the word “chappies” is often genericised within the South African lexicon and used to mean all gum-type sweets. When teachers tell children to get rid of their chappies, they don’t mean that those with Orbit or Beechies in their mouth can keep chewing.

Successful brands move beyond being seen as a product to be purchased and become an element of identity. In South Africa, Chappies (along with Mrs H.S. Ball’s and perhaps Ouma rusks) have made this move. They were a prominent part of the 2020 South African 100 Flavours Exhibition at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town and their logo appears (authorised and unauthorised) on everything from bucket hats to beadwork.  

The danger for businesses achieving such heights is that the trademarked item can escape the grasp of its original owners and go rogue. The ingredients in Chappies seem relatively simple – the packet says sugar, glucose syrup, gum base, corn starch, invert syrup, flavouring, colourants (e124, e104, e133) antioxidant (bht-e321), sulphites – but the context is complex. For Chappies, seeping so completely into the South African psyche has been a mixed blessing. The sweet, fragrant, positive aspects of our identity exist alongside the violence of mastication and the intimate, unnerving body fluid stickiness. Chewed, blown, burst, deflated, discarded but stubbornly sticking. We are what we eat and what we all eat is Chappies.

Rose-tinted childhood experiences

Many middle-aged South Africans associate Chappies with rose-tinted childhood experiences. For most of us the memories begin with being a tiny tot standing on tiptoes to see over the corner café counter, clutching a few cents in a hot little hand. Those were the days when Chappies provided a formative first foray into autonomous, parent-free purchasing power. And often a tentative step away from adult approval. Especially after bubbles popped leaving chins and noses covered in a tacky film.

Oh, the exhilarating optimistic, fresh-flavoured bloom of bubbles. Is there any greater primary school thrill than surreptitious chewing of Chappies in class? It is absolutely worth the risk of discovery and the potential punishment of having to stay after school to scrape last week’s gum off the bottom of desks with a ruler. Often the scraping tool was branded (Make Chappies Your Rule) thanks to the company’s extensive education support campaigns. Can any other material cling so stubbornly or retain such perfect tooth mark impressions? Thinking back, if they didn’t want us to stick it under our workstations, grownups probably shouldn’t have erroneously told us that if we swallowed chewed Chappies they would stay in our stomachs for seven years.

Did you know goldfish see ultraviolet light?

And then, of course, there were the snippets of information offered up on the underside of each sweet paper. Did you know that goldfish can see both infrared and ultraviolet light? Or that “stewardesses” is the longest word that is typed with only the left hand? Or that coconuts kill more people than sharks? If you do, thank (or curse) a Chappie.

Do our children understand or recognise the all-consuming delight described above? Probably not. The posh ones definitely don’t. Some township children still take themselves to the shop but the independence of suburban children has both shrunk and grown in recent years. High walls, anxieties around crime and car culture have limited prepubescent solo outings. Unsupervised milling around the sweetie section of corner cafés is rare. Smartphones mean that many younger brethren know everything and nothing. Google, not a sweet paper, answers questions about life, the universe and everything. While Google offers all sorts of opportunities to plummet down information rabbit holes, the Chappies journey is curated for sweetness – when a bubble gum wrapper tells you that the Roman emperor Caligula made his horse a senator it never sends you on to alarming images of what happened to the horse next.

Is change in Chappies still a thing? It certainly acted as an alternative currency in apartheid South Africa. Comedian Barry Hilton has a routine in which a kid asks for his change at the café and the owner answers in a heavy Madeiran accent:

We are what we eat and what we all eat is Chappies bubble gum. And they probably shouldn’t have erroneously told us that, if we swallowed chewed Chappies, they would stay in our stomachs for seven years.

Am I remembering correctly that there was a power imbalance in such interactions? Did white adults get given their change in Chappies? Maybe my memory is playing tricks on me, but I think that the hard stare and slap down of bubble gum was reserved for children of all races and adult black people.

Bitter tastes extend beyond disrespectful customer service. Did you know that the slang name for prison gang tattoos is “tjappies”? Not only because the faded, greenish, cartoonish tattoos resemble a Chappies wrapper when held up to the light but also because they act as a Did You Know guide to the wearer. Crimes committed, gang affiliation, sexual preferences, it’s all etched into the convict’s skin.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission Chappies

Did you know that there were two Truth and Reconciliation Commission Chappies? Leon “Chappies” Maree and Kobus “Chappies” Klopper both testified to terrifying acts at the TRC. I tracked down the latter, a member of the Vlakplaas inner circle who committed murders with Eugene de Kock. Asked about his nickname he said: “I got the name Chappies at high school in Warmbaths. It was given to me by friends of mine but now everyone calls me that. Except my mother. She calls me Kobus. They called me that because I was always chewing bubble gum. Partly it was because we used to smoke and that wasn’t allowed so we all chewed it. That way the teachers couldn’t smell we broke the rules. But for me it was more than that. I chewed much more than the others. It was my way of chilling out. I was a very anxious boy. I found that chewing calmed me. Like medicine.”

I found a Facebook reference to the other Chappies (the one from the Civil Cooperation Bureau, CCB) as the winner of a 2022 Free State amateur golf event but I didn’t have the stomach to pursue it. I had had my fill of unsavoury chats about Chappies. 

Chef Marcel Marais; Prue Leith Restaurant at the Prue Leith Culinary Institute. (Photo: Adele Stiehler-van der Westhuizen)

Amidst the darkness there is light. The current dessert menu at Prue Leith Restaurant, Centurion, features a deliciously daft homage to Chappies. The plate (created by Chef Marcel Marais from the Prue Leith Culinary Institute) brings a charming, childlike sweetness at the end of an otherwise fine dining, adult epicurean experience. There is something precious and joyful about the delicate, palest of pale pink Chappies flavoured ice cream (garnished with a wisp of Chappies infused candyfloss). Silky smooth, light and refreshing, each spoonful bursts with tutti frutti lusciousness – just like those first few vibrant chews of Chappies. For a moment, jaded adulthood recedes and diners journey back into the hopeful small children that they once were. An excellent espresso restores reality. But it is lovely while it lasts… DM/TGIFood

The author supports the Saartjie Baartman Centre for Women and Children in Manenberg. Their 24-hour crisis response service provides holistic social work support which includes housing and feeding up to 120 survivors of domestic violence daily.


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