A recent trip to Lincoln, Nebraska made me realize I am part of an elite group of people with very refined taste. We like licorice.

Licorice is one of those iffy foods, like cantaloupe and cilantro. Those of us in the Licorice Lovers Club will go to great lengths to have some when we can. I drove all the way to Lincoln, Nebraska to get my licorice fix.

Lincoln is home to the Licorice International store, with the largest selection of licorice in the United States. There, the confection is available in all sorts of shapes and sizes and is imported from 12 countries. Depending on its country of origin, the flavor of licorice can be buttery, salty, slightly bitter, or mixed with marzipan. (And I don’t care what you say, red Twizzlers are not licorice. They’re twists.)

I wanted to buy a few varieties to bring back to friends who have blatantly advertised that they can’t get enough licorice in their lives. (*See the last paragraph to learn why.) So I checked out the store’s offerings and settled on three varieties from three different countries.

First, I got licorice wheels from Italy. These soft, sweet ribbons rolled into 1.5-inch-diameter wheels had an old-fashioned, traditional licorice taste. The string of licorice unrolled from itself as I tugged at it with my teeth, earning it the most-fun-to-eat award.

Second, I decided on salmiak rocks, mostly because I’d never heard of salmiak. It’s a salty flavoring added to some licorice that causes the mouth to pucker like the tannins in red wine do. This is the licorice flavor the Dutch prefer, who don’t call licorice “licorice” but simply “drop. ” (The Netherlands boasts the highest per capita consumption of licorice in the world. Each person over there eats more than four pounds of licorice per year.)

The salmiak rocks were the softest to eat which made them the least favorite of my group because licorice is supposed to have some heft and be really chewy. Salmiak was the middle child—the peacekeeper—of the licorice siblings.

Last, I went for the black tire tracks from Finland. These flat squares of licorice look like tire treads and have a subtle hint of molasses underneath their strong licorice flavor. The tire tracks had the right balance of sweet/salty/molasses tastes and they gave our jaws a good workout. In my local chapter of the Licorice Lovers Club, the tire tracks were the favorite.

The licorice plant is an herbaceous legume that grows in hot, dry places. (It is called glycyrrhiza glabra by those who prefer botanical names.) The licorice bush is not to be confused with sweet cicely, a shade-tolerant plant we can grow in our garden that produces a seed tasting exactly like Good & Plenty candy (a “starter” licorice in pink and white candy shells). Nor is licorice the same as anise, a seed used to give a licorice-like flavor to coffee, alcohol, sausage and baked goods. Horehound? Tastes like licorice, but it’s not. (My grandmother used to keep a jar of horehound “candy” (medicine?) on top of her china cabinet. I’d ask for a piece and suck on it until all the sugar coating was gone. Then the strong licorice taste came out. That’s when I spit the candy out. Licorice is an acquired taste and I hadn’t yet acquired it.)

Lucky for licorice connoisseurs, multiple health benefits derived from the root were discovered centuries ago. King Tut was buried with ample supplies for his use in the afterlife. Napoleon Bonaparte ate so much of it to sooth his nerves during battle, his teeth turned black. Records back to the fourth century indicate licorice was used for eye ailments, skin diseases and hair loss. For hundreds of years it has been used to sooth colds and bronchitis, to help loosen sticky gunk in the throat and to suppress a cough.

And there’s more! (Can all of this be true?) Licorice reduces stomach acid and soothes irritation and inflammation. It can be used to fight heartburn, indigestion and ulcers. Carbenoxolone, a compound derived from licorice root, may help slow the effects of aging on the brain. Current research conducted at Rutgers University supports the use of licorice in the treatment of prostate and breast cancer. (I can’t vouch for any of these claims. I just know I like the stuff.)

But beware: Long-term consumption may cause serious health problems. Licorice can cause complications for people with high blood pressure, glaucoma, diabetes, kidney or liver disease, and for anyone who has had a stroke or heart attack. (According to the FDA, eating two ounces of black licorice a day for two weeks can cause heart rhythm problems, particularly for people over 40. In 2020, a 54-year-old man died after eating one and a half bags of black licorice a day for an extended period of time, which caused his heart to stop. True story.)

Licorice fans are passionate about their licorice and will find all sorts of ways to consume it. I have enjoyed it in Yogi tea, in ouzo and absinthe. (Although real absinthe is flavored with anise seed and fennel, not licorice. I love the taste of all three.) Licorice is added to brownies and ice cream, it can be crusted on salmon, and is used as a breath freshener. A la Billy Joel in his song, “Keeping the Faith, ” I have a packet of Sen-sen tucked in my childhood treasure box. Sen-sen isn’t made anymore so it’s a real treasure, no matter that its licorice flavor is so overpowering, it’s worse than horehound.

*Licorice is an aphrodisiac! A study conducted by the Smell and Taste Research Foundation in Chicago discovered that the scent of licorice alone has the ability to send blood rushing where it needs to go for an amorous encounter. No wonder so many people love licorice!

You may let The Thunker know what you think at her e-mail address, donoholdt@gmail.com.

© 2022 Sarah Donohoe

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