Candyfreak: A Journey through the Chocolate Underbelly of America
by Steve Almond
Harvest Books/Harcourt, April 2005
Paperback 288 pp., ISBN: 0156032937
For me, it's a Junior Mint snuggling between my gum and upper lip. Chocolate melts into cottony filling, and this present melts into a past in which I'm standing with my mother in the Big Y checkout line, begging with my eyes for a box, just the small size, of those magic little discs. Finally, she buys.
In his 2004 book Candyfreak: A Journey through the Chocolate Underbelly of America, Steve Almond revels in these sorts of nostalgic moments and in the small pleasures of his own sugar-craving freakdom. For him, though, candy is both pleasure and opiate, a morsel he's always used to combat loneliness. So while he joyously recounts the history of American candy-making and hilariously details forgotten treats like Twin Bing, The Idaho Spud, and The GooGoo Cluster, those specifics are context for his own problems—romantic false starts, aching memories, and general inertia. And as he lurches from “hyper to disconsolate,” the book becomes a complex confection—sweet coating over a bitter center. The lingering flavor, though, is a delight.
Professing to have eaten a piece of candy every day of his life, Almond brings a geeky expertise and a superfan's enthusiasm to this tour of America's candy industry. His best sections put us inside the minds of like-minded candy collectors and inside the walls of independent factories. There, Almond (aptly named) introduces us to the Horatio Algers of the candy world, entrepeneurs like Russ Sifers and Dave Wagers (of Valomilk and Idaho Candy Company respectively), who are rebuilding regional candy empires left to them by their parents.
With panache (and ganache), Almond teaches us the sweet jargon and evokes the rich smells of these Wonka-ish wonderlands. We hear the tales of boom times after the world wars and see the Rube-Goldbergian workings of candy-making machines like The Nut Applicator, The Ball Beater, The Whipper, and Mogul. That these names sound like those of professional wrestlers wouldn't, I don't think, escape Almond, who's perfectly attuned to the potential silliness of candy language, production, and marketing.
Beyond punchlines, though, Almond bemoans the fate of the little guys and criticizes the gargantuan companies, like Hershey, who are greedily swallowing them up like so many Swedish Fish. And it's this mix—Almond's hilarity combined with his sadness, his celebration of candy culture combined with his criticism of corporations—that makes the book.
Almond's candy-obsession—forced in some places—is mostly charming, even when we watch him eating his dozenth candy bar and overstating, as if a Food Network personality, just how sublime it is. Occasionally his prose is purplish, but I think that's part of his point, too. He's bringing high-culture language to low-culture noshing, and making that noshing sexy in the process, as when he describes “the rich tumescence of the dark chocolate.” Foodies of all kinds should remember Almond's warning about this fetishization, though: “Those familiar with other luxury foods,” he writes, “are no doubt familiar with this process: the curdling of expertise into hauteur.”
In fact, the sharpest writing in the book attacks this food-snobbery and over-consumption. Almond, who declares himself to be politically “somewhere to the left of Christ, such that I find most of American culture greedy and heedless,” implicates the candy industry and himself as part of that greed, part of the exploitation of foreign workers, part of a corporatism that brands pleasure and punishes creativity.
Still pertinent now for those reasons, the book also addresses the double-edged sword of nostalgia—nostalgia for a caramel-coated American yesteryear that's become even more pronounced in the post-Bush years. So while he longs for Eisenhower-era candy bars and some of the go-getter spirit that helped produce them, while he romanticizes his own gluttonous childhood days, Almond's careful not to oversimplify. “I had decided to write about candy because I assumed it would be fun and frivolous and distracting,” he tells us. “It would allow me to reconnect to the single, untarnished pleasure of my childhood. But, of course, there are no untarnished pleasures.” Nostalgia and the idea of America both seem to leave a strange, aftertasty burp for Steve Almond—they're half delicious dark chocolate, half rancid coconut.
But while he may be right about untarnished pleasures, Candyfreak itself comes as close to the joy of a slowly-eaten Junior Mint as you're likely to get.January 2, 2011