The confection looks simple enough: an otherwise nondescript cube of yellowy caramel, devoid of embellishment or even a hint of what lay beneath the sticky exterior. But go down a layer to the marshmallow core, and you’ve embarked on a kind of sugary archaeological dig.
This is the modjeska, the signature sweet found at Muth’s Candy and named for Polish actress Helena Modjeska, whose talents captivated Louisvillians around the turn of the last century.
Like the modjeska, the East Market Street shop is rather nondescript on the outside but full of history and wonder on the inside. According to Martha Vories – whose great-uncle and great-aunt, Rudy and Isabelle Muth (rhymes with Ruth), founded in 1921 what is now Louisville’s oldest candy store – Louisville once was a big candy town, and downtown was everything. Then people started watching their waistlines and downtown went into decline. Today, East Market has been reborn as “NuLu,” and the candy trade continues to thrive – albeit on a smaller scale. One constant? Muth’s Candy.
Vories represents Muth’s third generation—and it doesn’t end with her. As Vories describes it, ex-doughboy Rudy and his wife “Belle” worked at candy wholesaler Bradas & Gheens before opening their own place. After their deaths – Rudy’s in 1953, Belle’s in 1981 – Muth’s went to Belle’s younger sister, Vories’ grandmother, who had worked there since she was 16 and ultimately put in 70 years before her own passing. “Then my parents took over, then me,” Vories says, “and I’ve got three children.”
Today, Muth’s has nine full-time employees, and virtually everyone is related. “Belle and Rudy wanted a place where the workers felt like family and the customers felt like friends,” Vories states.
As well, other candy makers felt like neighbors ... which brings us back to the modjeska. “There was a candy maker named Anton Busath,” says Vories. “He was on Fourth Street, close to the theater where Madame Modjeska appeared in the 1890s.” The fortune of both the Muth and Busath families took a turn in 1947, when the shop, run by Busath’s son Edgar, burned down over Thanksgiving weekend. The Muth family let Busath use its kitchen to fill Christmas orders. “Back then, candy makers shared with each other,” says Vories, “but when it became clear Busath’s couldn’t relocate, they went out of business.” One thing survived, however: a grateful Edgar gave his hosts his prized modjeska recipe.
While Muth’s modjeskas are famous, you can find all sorts of chocolates, creams, jellies and brittles at the shop. “All through the year, we make two kinds of brittle: peanut butter, and popcorn and peanut,” Vories says. Between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, six additional kinds are available: black walnut, cashew, pecan, coconut, almond and all-nut.
Despite the long line of sugar in the blood and many late nights spent working as a kid herself, Vories says her children were the ones who truly grew up in the candy store. “When I got pregnant with Stephanie, my oldest, my dad rearranged the building for a playroom, so I brought her with me every day until she started school.” Two other children, Matthew and Sarah, followed. While all three have been educated at University of Louisville, the younger two are already involved as the fourth generation. “They’re making the website a lot nicer, and they’re reaching out to a new market on Facebook and with the NuLu Fest,” Vories says.
Muth’s Candy, at 630 E. Market St., is open Tuesday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Their website is www.muthscandy.com. The shop can be reached at (502) 585-2952.