September 24, 2004

Note:  I will send a prize to the first person who can name both the song quoted in the title and the artist who sang it.  Really!

If you have ever wondered if your fellow people still read books, if words have power, if lives can be changed by a single book, believe me when I tell you they can.  I know this because I have 72 candy bars sitting under my desk, and I have Steve Almond to thank for putting them there.

For those of you who have not been within earshot of me for the past few weeks (note to self:  what is the equivalent of earshot when you communicate via the ‘net?  Fingertipshot?), the story is simple.  I was on my way home from my Labor Day weekend adventures at Snowball’s house.  I was on my second attempt to get home from Denver International Airport, having spent four hours there the previous day only to get bumped from my flight.  I returned the next day only to find out that my plane would be two hours late due to a door malfunction at JFK.  I was in that horrible travel state where I wanted to be at home or back at Snowball’s, but I didn’t want to be at points between.  To kill the time, and to quiet my chattering nerves, I decided to browse at the bookshop at DIA.

I had no plans to buy anything, but it leapt up at me anyway:  Candyfreak:  A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America. It was one of those digest-sized books published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, whose list I have been loving for years.  It included jacket blurbs from Amy Sedaris and Nick Malgieri (who was the director of the pastry program at my alma mater) and Tom Perrotta and the righteous John Thorne.  How could I say no?

Dear friends, I am so glad I didn’t, because Candyfreak is a wonder of a book, definitely the best work of nonfiction I’ve read this year and probably the best I will read for the next five.  And I’m not just saying that because I’m a freak, too, a sucker for chocolate, a plump little grouse bird in love with her chains.  Nor am I saying that because I have a crush on the author – although, let’s be frank, I do.  (I haven’t been this crushy on an author since I read Consumer Joe). 

I’m saying it because Candyfreak is about more than the pursuit and love of candy bars.  It is also about fear and loneliness, creeping existentialism and fear of death.  It is about the primal hold our own freaks, be they candy or bottle rockets or marijuana or reckless adventure sports, have on us; how we can’t use them to skirt the miseries of adulthood, but also how those miseries of adulthood can’t totally squash the thrill of a really good freak.  It is about those screwups that are small in the grand scheme of things, but mammoth when you are going through them (like, say, losing your driver’s license on the eve of a tour of candy companies all over the country).  It’s about meeting people who work at small, regional candy companies, who can’t begin to compete against the candy behemoths of Nestle, Hershey and Mars (who have rechristened their candy division with the howler name “Masterfoods”), who not only come to work to make the candy every day, but also find their jobs really, really neat.  It is about pining for missed opportunities and lost loves, including but not limited to the Caravelle bar, the Choco-Lite bar and my own lost love from childhood, the Marathon bar.  For those of you not familiar with the Marathon bar, it was a foot-long, inch-wide lattice of caramel, coated in milk chocolate.  I don’t remember a caramel outside of a home kitchen that tasted nearly as buttery as that found in a Marathon.  I do remember the little frisson of pleasure I would get when we visited the Cochecton General Store in Cochecton, New York, right over the Delaware River from our home in Damascus, PA, when I knew that I’d be allowed to get a candy bar, and I would hone in on the cluster of Marathons, dead center in the candy rack.  The Marathon wrapper was bright red, with a huge yellow 70’s-appropriate font spelling out “Marathon” on the front of the wrapper and a ruler on the back.  According to Steve Almond, any teenage boy who is given candy bar wrapper with a ruler on it will do only one thing with that ruler, but since I was a) eight years old and b) a girl, it never occurred to me to do anything like that.

You might think that I am overstating the case for Candyfreak.  I am not.  This is a book written by a thoughtful and principled and sharply funny and deeply intelligent fellow, one who acknowledges that candy is a nutritional vacuum food that manages to make children both hyperactive and obese; that food companies target children in ways that are less than principled; that sugar and chocolate are both produced under terrible conditions by some of the most exploited people in the world; and yet, and yet…and from there we are catapulted into the rest of the tale, that wonderful “and yet.” He went to Palmer Candy in Sioux City, home of the Twin Bing;to Boise, Idaho, home of the Idaho Spud and the mythic Owyhee Butter Toffee; to Kansas City, home of the Valomilk, which really is as good as its press would indicate.  He went south to watch the production of Goo Goo Clusters, and he went to North Philadelphia for Goldenberg’s Peanut Chews, a candy that is ubiquitous from Boston to Virginia, so ubiquitous that people take it for granted and rarely actually buy it.  (I’d always thought that it looked like candy for people who didn’t enjoy candy; then my stepdad bought me a bar, and I never looked back.  If you live somewhere where you can’t buy Peanut Chews and you want to try them, I will buy you a bag and ship it to you, my treat to you.  Seriously.)

If it weren’t enough that he went to visit all of these nifty places, and reminded us once more that there should be room for something besides Nestle, Hershey and Mars (sorry, Masterfoods), his turn of phrase is simply amazing.  At the start of the final chapter, he finds himself at the end of the candyfreak journey, facing a hellish series of connecting flights, contemplating his return to teach writing at Boston College,

…where a group of students would be waiting for me with their eyes full of cigarette lust and their hearts shut tight as antique lockets, and it would be my job, presumably, to do something about this.

When I read this line, I thought of another teacher I know who had much the same group of students waiting for her.  I bought her her own copy of Candyfreak to fortify her for the semester ahead.

Should I even go into what ran through my mind when I read his impromptu haiku, composed as he watched melted chocolate pour from a steel hopper at the Goo Goo Cluster factory?

Brown rivers released
From cold silver machines sing
for a stunned wet tongue

No, I don’t think I need to.

It was in this highly-charged state I found myself when I decided to explore some of the links in the Appendix.  Ten minutes later, my order had been placed.  Ten days later, I found myself the proud owner of a case of 24 Idaho Spuds (a little odd, but they’re growing on me fast, literally and figuratively), 24 Boyer Smoothie Cups (a peanut butter cup with butterscotch coating, not chocolate, also weird but successful) and 24 Abba Zabas (the clear winner of the bunch, a slab of white taffy filled with a peanut filling that has to be tried to be believed).  If had not been out of Valomilks, I would have had 96 candy bars under my desk.  No, I am not an unrepentant glutton; I am just stuck in a world where if you want to cultivate the offbeat and quirky and sweet, you might just have to buy it in quantity.

Fortunately, I have the easy solution to this.  “Would you like some candy?” I say to coworkers, to friends, to Lloyd, a wide spectrum of different people in different contexts, but the light in their eyes, it’s all the same, and it’s all the reply I need.

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