by Steve Almond
Published by Algonquin Books
264 pages, 2004
Reviewed by David Abrams
Steve Almond opens his new book Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America with a section called "Some Things You Should Know About the Author." Item #1: The author has eaten a piece of candy every single day of his entire life. He then asks us to say a little prayer on behalf of his molars.
In truth, it's our teeth we should be worried about because, if you're anything like me (and if you aren't, then why the hell not?), after reading Candyfreak, you'll go out and binge-gorge on chocolate bars. And not just any candy bars, mind you -- the candy that's lovingly produced in small factories like Marty Palmer's in Sioux City, Iowa where conveyor belts carry a daily parade of Twin Bings ("Imagine, if you will, two brown lumps, about the size of golf balls, roughly textured, and stuck to one another like Siamese twins. The lumps are composed of crushed peanuts and a chocolate compound. Inside each of the lumps is a bright pink, cherry-flavored filling.").
Even before turning the last page of Almond's mouthwatering love letter to American candy, I was at the local Gas-n-Go snatching crinkly-wrapped bars off the racks. Unfortunately, all my local store had to offer were the bland products of the Big Three chocolate companies -- Nestle, Hershey's and Mars -- and I had to satisfy my craving with boring brown planks of chocolate-nuts-nougat like Snickers, Baby Ruth and Milky Way. I was sorely disappointed in the mild, crumbling chocolate, the mealy, deflated crisped rice and the varnish-colored caramel (to paraphrase Almond).
What I really wanted was an Idaho Spud.
Those of you who didn't grow up in the immediate neighborhood of the "Famous Potatoes" State probably haven't heard of the Idaho Spud. Your loss. And I weep for you.
I live in Alaska now, miles and years from my childhood home in Wyoming, but I can still taste the Spud on my tongue. Shaped like a Twinkie, it's a chocolate-and-coconut-covered lump made of marshmallow filling flavored with maple, vanilla and dried cocoa. Until I read Almond's book, I hadn't realized that the ingredients also included ager ager, a seaweed derivative. That's not enough to dampen my lust for Spud and reading about Almond's trip through the Boise candy plant made me teary-eyed with nostalgia for the days as a teenager when I'd smuggle Idaho Spuds into my bedroom, carefully, quietly tearing open the brown wrappers so as not to trigger parental radar. Then I'd sprawl across my bed, sink my teeth into the slightly-firm chocolate shell and feel something akin to a prepubescent orgasm when that spongy marshmallow-maple-vanilla-cocoa-seaweed filling slid through my mouth. I'd read my Hardy Boys books or think about all the wonderful things I'd do with Tracey Albrecht if by some freak miracle I ever got her alone in my bedroom, savoring with masturbatory pleasure those bites of Spud which were always gone too soon. Then I'd carefully brush the flaky crumbs of coconut from the front of my shirt onto the floor where I ground them into the carpet with my shoe in the vain hope that my parents wouldn't notice the detritus of my pleasure. So, yes, Spuds filled my veins for many years, as did the sugar of Charleston Chews, BB-Bats, Big Hunks, Wacky Wafers, Cup of Golds and Mallo Cups.
I mention this because we all have stories about candy that was an intimate staple of our youth. Reading Candyfreak is bound to bring those memories to the surface. Indeed, the book came about because of Almond's own longing for candy which seems to have inexplicably disappeared from stores over the years.
Oh where are you now, you brave stupid bars of yore? Where Oompahs, those delectable doomed pods of chocolate and peanut butter? Where the molar-ripping Bit-O-Choc? And where Caravelle, a bar so dear to my heart that I remain, two decades after its extinction, in an active state of mourning?
Candyfreak is the funniest, most endearing book I've read in a long time. Almond, whose previous book was the short-story collection My Life in Heavy Metal, is spot-on in his evocative descriptions of not only the Candy of Our Youth, but in the way we lived back in the 1970s. He rhapsodizes about how candy triggers nostalgic secretions in our brains then goes on to describe how he burned heads off Gummy Bears in his ninth-grade science class ("I loved the way the little gummy bear heads would sizzle and smoke, and the syrupy consistency of the resulting mess."). He talks about Halloween with the kind of reverence some folks reserve for Christmas ("There's something incredibly liberating about a holiday that encourages children to take candy from strangers.").
This is candy porn for the undiscriminating palate. Speaking of palates, did anyone else besides Almond and me suck on Jolly Rancher Stix until they softened and you could mold them with your tongue to the roof of your mouth in retainer-like fashion? ("At a certain point, this habit morphed into an ardent belief that I could use candy to straighten my teeth," he writes.)
This is just one of many moments of personal connection I felt while reading Candyfreak. I should add that I don't always agree with his opinion of certain candies. He has unkind words for marshmallow Peeps and coconut. But I immediately forgive him when he also trashes Jujubes:
The young and fortunate reader may not have heard of Jujubes, and this candy will be hard to describe in a fashion that makes it sound suitable for human consumption. They were basically hard pellets the size and shape of pencil erasers. Indeed, if one were to set Jujubes beside pencil erasers in a blind taste test, it would be tough to make a distinction, except that pencil erasers have more natural fruit flavor.
In these pages, we learn that Oliver R. Chase invented the lozenge cutter which began producing Necco wafers in 1847 -- later a staple of Union soldiers in the Civil War; that there was once -- briefly -- a pineapple-flavored Mars bar; and that people used to buy something called the Vegetable Sandwich (dehydrated vegetables covered in chocolate).
We also learn about "slotting fees," the book's most unforgettable villain. Some of the nation's larger retail chains and supermarkets charge tens of thousands of dollars to stock a particular candy bar in the racks near the register, squeezing out the smaller companies who cannot possibly compete with the big-budget Big Three. Slotting fees are partly responsible for the extinction of the beloved Candy of Our Youth.
Almond's fascination with candy initially leads him to send letters to manufacturers asking for factory tours. When he's rebuffed by the big mega-corporations -- who, as it turns out, are paranoid about industry spies stealing recipes and techniques -- Almond turns to the little guys, the barely-struggling companies spread across the nation. The account of his journey through the sweet, chewy center of America is fresh, funny and, at times, heartbreaking as we witness the hanging-by-a-fingernail survival of these small, independent candy companies. Most of them can't afford the slotting fees to be placed on the checkout-stand impulse racks at Wal-Mart, chain supermarkets, or even the grocery stores in their own home town. So, even though Almond writes rapturously about velvety chocolate commingling with satiny marshmallow filling, we're left with the taste of bittersweet chocolate on the tongue. When it comes down to it, the book's really about the David and Goliath battles being fought every day in the candy industry. One factory's aging machinery is literally patched together with Band-Aids and duct tape.
As Almond says in the closing pages of Candyfreak: "In the end, the laws of the candy world were the laws of the broader world: the strong survived, the weak struggled, people sought pleasure to endure their pain." Almond does a marvelous job of turning a candy memoir into a broader statement on cutthroat economics which threaten to homogenize society, turning it into one big, bland nougat. Candyfreak will make you laugh, cheer and cry -- but mostly it will make you hungry.
Now if you'll excuse me, I must go inject some marshmallow filling directly into my veins. | July 2004
David Abrams is a January Magazine contributing editor. He has written for Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, The Readerville Journal and other literary magazines.