Monday, November 28, 2016

Book Review: Candyfreak: A Journey through the Chocolate Underbelly of America

We had a total of nine trick-or-treaters ring the doorbell at Rancho Yesteryear this year.  Nine.  We had enough candy for nine hundred, of course; my mother has this habit of looking at the amount of candy she’s purchased each Halloween, and saying ruefully: “I don’t think this is going to be enough.”  This October 31, she actually ventured out that afternoon to get more candy…just to be on the safe side.  Suffice it to say, we were safe.  Very safe.

Now, in past years—this glut of Halloween candy would not have been a problem…because I would have made certain it did not go to waste.  If you’re a regular member of the TDOY faithful, though, you know that any future trips to Candyland for yours truly were nipped in the bud back in July when my doctor motioned for me to come a little bit closer in order to say “Psst…just between you, me, and the lamppost—you’re diabetic.”  (Let me just take this moment to thank everyone who bestowed well-wishes and empathies upon me at that time…particularly those who refrained from remarking “No sh*t, Sherlock.”)  So, we had this ginormous basket of candy sitting around Castle Yesteryear, and two of its subjects unable to enjoy the basket’s contents.  (The other member of the household, mi madre, doesn’t have much of a sweet tooth…but when the fever does hit her, she now buys the kind of candy I don’t like.)

So, as I was tossing a bit o’trash into the kitchen receptacle last week…my eyes laid witness to the saddest sight I have ever seen.  Mom had thrown away all the leftover candy.  The M&M’s (peanut and plain), the Snickers (regular and the peanut butter ones), the Butterfingers…murdered.  I was devastated.  I wept quietly, and gathered up the trash bag to take out to the bin on the carport, where I presided over a small Mass.  I’m saddened to report that the turnout for the funeral was not what I was hoping for; a couple of the neighborhood dogs ambled by (attracted to the candy corpses, no doubt), and I saw one of the kids on our street pedaling a bicycle in the distance.  Requiems can be a bummer.

The untimely demise of the Halloween candy prompted me to sit down with an e-book (another $1.99 bargain from BookBub) I bought back in June of 2015.  It’s called Candyfreak: A Journey through the Chocolate Underbelly of America, and it was written by an appropriately-named gentleman named Steve Almond (his other books include My Life in Heavy Metal and Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life: A Book By and For the Fanatics Among Us), an author and rock music critic.  First published in 2002, Candyfreak is an ode to one man’s mania for candy.  Almond has eaten a piece of candy every single day of his entire life, and is so obsessed he hoards 3-7 lbs. of the sweet stuff in his domicile at all times.  I knew Steve wasn’t just exaggerating about this in the opening pages of the book, where he says a silent prayer for the Marathon bar, “which stormed the racks in 1974, enjoyed a meteoric rise, died young, and left a beautiful corpse.”

The Marathon: a rope of caramel covered in chocolate, not even a solid piece that is, half air holes, an obvious rip-off to anyone who has mastered the basic Piagetian stages, but we couldn’t resist the gimmick.  And then, as if we weren’t bamboozled enough, there was the sleek red package, which included a ruler on the back and thereby affirmed the First Rule of Male Adolescence:  If you give a teenage boy a candy bar with a ruler on the back of the package, he will measure his dick.

There are not enough words in my admittedly longwinded vocabulary to describe how much I loved—and miss to this very day—Marathon bars.  (I’m told that Curly Wurlys are similar…but I’ll guess I’ll never know.)  In Candyfreak, Almond channels his inner Roald Dahl and makes arrangements to visit the factories of those candies still being produced locally: Valomilk Bars in Merriam, Kansas; Idaho Spuds in Boise; Twin Bings in Sioux City, Iowa (the Palmer Candies company); Lake Champlain candies in Vermont; and Goo Goo Clusters in Nashville.  (The only one of these I have sampled is the last one; I’ve been told that there are Cracker Barrels that carry Valomilks but I’ve not come across one yet.)  Almond also drops in at the Annabelle Candy Company in Hayward, CA (not far from Steve’s original stomping grounds), makers of Big Hunk and Abba-Zaba bars (you might be familiar with this last one if you’ve ever watched Half Baked). 

Did Almond get a tour of the Big Three (Nestlé, Hershey, Mars)?  No, because all that chocolate espionage you saw in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (the 1971 original, natch) wasn’t just a fictional plot device; candy makers really do keep closely-guarded secrets.  (He was denied a tour at Boston’s Cambridge Brands—makers of Junior Mints, Sugar Babies, and Charleston Chews [Mom’s favorite when she indulges]—because Tootsie Roll Industries, which owns Cambridge, said “nothin’ doin’.”)

I’m sure you’re asking yourself right now: why on Earth would a guy who’s had to eliminate his sweets intake read a book about such forbidden fruit?  Well, I never said I was sane (and I have witnesses to back this up).  Candyfreak is such a wonderful read, and it brought back a flood of memories of those halcyon days of indulging in chocolate and candy fantasies.  Remember those mammoth candy counters inside the Sears Department Stores?  The one my mother always patronized had that section planted right where you walked in the front door!

“At about age ten, during a late summer visit to Sears to buy school clothes, I became aware of the concept of candy by the pound.  This was revolutionary.  Here were entire stalls of candy, naked as the day they were born, piled up two feet high and God knows how deep, glittering behind glass windows.  You might have thought I was staring at tropical fish in an aquarium.  Or you might have been the poor clerk forced to sit inside the Sears candy stand on one of the many ensuing Saturdays, which meant you faced an odd decision: whether or not to call security on the little, bubble-eyed goon circling your station, which was me.”

“Candy is the Dow Jones of the kid economy,” Almond asserts, as he reminisces with a trip in the WABAC when the Bubble Yum craze took over in 1975.  And, since it was the death rattle of that Halloween candy Mom chucked out in le garbage that nudged me toward reading this book, I identified strongly with this passage:

“Now: I’m a great lover of visual art and I will happily discuss the color and texture of Van Gogh’s Starry Night, or the way in which the eye is led into Goya’s The Third of May 1808, and even though I don’t really know what I’m talking about, I can get myself awfully worked up, just as a fine sentence or paragraph (say, the opening salvo of Henderson the Rain King) can send me into shivery rapture.  But I can think of nothing on earth so beautiful as the final haul on Halloween night, which, for me, was ten to fifteen pounds of candy, a riot of colored wrappers and hopeful fonts, snub-nosed chocolate bars and SweeTARTS, the seductive rattle of Jujyfruits and Good & Plenty and lollipop sticks all akimbo, the foil ends of mini LifeSavers packs twinkling like dimes, and a thick sugary perfume rising up from the pillowcase.”

My sister Kat can’t stand red velvet cake.  Which is odd, because I don’t have a problem with it…but I have noticed that due to the current sugar smackdown (the only consolation I have made is strawberry preserves on an occasional PB&J…because that sugar-free jam is abominable) I’m not quite as discriminating as I once was.  Kat posted on Facebook that red velvet cake is the disappointment of the dessert world, which led to a lot of jokes along the lines of “Circus peanuts are the red velvet cake of the candy world.”  So I was tickled when I read Almond’s declarations about MWM (Mistakes Were Made) candy, the top two examples being Twizzlers (“Twizzlers bears roughly the same chemical relationship to strawberry as the Vienna Sausage does to filet mignon…which is to say: none”) and Jujubes (“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”).  Here are some others:

Marshmallow Peeps: A candy that encourages the notion that it is acceptable to eat child offspring.  Composed of marshmallow dyed piss yellow and sprinkled with sugar.

Circus Peanuts: Again, a marshmallow pretending to be something else, this time a legume.  An affront to elephants everywhere.

Boston Baked Beans: If you are an actual peanut, why are you not covered in chocolate?  Why are you covered, instead, in some kind of burnt-tasting brick red shell?  Is the idea that you resemble a baked bean supposed to make you more alluring?

Jordan Almonds: Who chose the color scheme, Zsa Zsa Gabor?

Chuckles: A fruit jelly the consistency of cartilage.  Explain.

Sixlets: Those of us over the age of, say, three can usually differentiate between chocolate and brown wax.

White jelly beans: I defy you to tell me what flavor white is supposed to signify.  Pineapple?  Coconut?  Isopropyl?

Lime LifeSavers: The LifeSavers people haven’t figured out by now that no one likes this flavor?  (Ivan’s note: I like Lime LifeSavers.  Or I used to, anyway.)

Author Almond also confesses a prejudice towards coconut—which makes for some giggly moments whenever he must sample candy bars containing his bête noire during his factory journeys.  “Oddly, it isn’t the flavor of coconut that troubles me, but the texture, and specifically that stringy residue utterly impervious to the normal processes of digestion.  In short, I feel as if I’m chewing on a sweetened cuticle.  Anyone who’s eaten a Mounds knows what I’m talking about.”  (I didn’t care for coconut when I was a kid…but I gradually warmed up to it as I started marching toward my dotage.)  Steve’s not a white chocolate fan, either; “When I was eight or nine years old I flew from California to New York with my twin brother, Mike.  We were unchaperoned and therefore doted on by the stewardesses, who snuck us each a special dessert from first class: a white chocolate lollipop.  I wolfed mine down and, shortly thereafter, got violently ill.  This was mortifying at the time.  In retrospect, I’m sort of proud of myself.”

“A few years ago, my friends began urging me to write a book about candy,” Almond explains at the beginning of Candyfreak.  “Their reasoning ran as follows: Maybe if Steve writes about candy, he will shut up about candy.”  Me, I’m glad he wrote about candy—because even though my intake is now limited to nocturnal flights of fancy, I tremendously enjoyed reading a book about one man’s confectionery passion.

1 comment:

rnigma said...

I remember Marathon bars, mainly for their commercials with Patrick Wayne as white-clad cowboy Marathon John, always encountering people who "do everything fast," and daring them to speedily eat a Marathon..a task they never succeeded at, of course. Yes, the Marathon bar was the American version of Cadbury's Curly Wurly.