Few food writers could use a line like, "It is possible to say that you have not lived a fully actualized life unless you have eaten a Clark Bar straight off the assembly line" without sounding overblown and thoroughly unbelievable. Fewer still could use the line in a book that embraces pretentious excess like a milk chocolate coating and sound more credible as a result. Steve Almond, author of Candyfreak: A Journey through the Chocolate Underbelly of America, is firmly in the latter category. In this garrulous binge of pot smoking, peanut coating and antiquated technology, Almond follows his freak muse to the homes of America's last independent confectioners--including Boise's own Idaho Candy Company--and portrays a passion for sweetness that is both absurd and strangely admirable.
Almond's highly personal narrative develops around two parallel stories: his own sugar-fueled youth and the decimation of America's candy-scape by familiar corporate lawnmowers. The former takes place in the "blithe, porno-soaked, latch-key seventies," a time when regional candy companies still thrived and each stage of a child's maturation was defined by the new type of candy he hoarded--in Almond's case Jolly Ranchers, Tangy Taffy, Bubble Yum and a long-forgotten caramel and crisped rice bar called the Caravelle. "The candy economy has always been driven by the peculiar, streaky passions of children," Almond recalls, although as an adult he still proudly wears both his passions and his peculiarity like a bright foil wrapper. He is not everyman, he is everycandy. But reach for his Kit Kat Dark, and you'll pull back a stump.
On the other hand, by the twentieth time Almond links his love of chocolate with residual fears of parental abandonment and mortality it is clear that such writing provides the nougat portion of Candyfreak: heavy, structurally supportive, but ultimately puzzling. Luckily, there is much more to the book than just an Almond. From the story's start, the ex-journalist and Boston College professor bemoans the loss of his favorite deceased candies due to staunch competition, big-market recipe thieves and "slotting fees"--a costly requirement of many grocers which all but melts the opportunities for independent candy producers. As a result, Almond performs a preemptive requiem for the staunchest and most unique of the classics, including the Necco Wafer, Valomilk, Goo Goo Cluster, Twin Bing, Abba Zabba and Idaho Spud.
In a whirlwind weeklong bender, Almond visits the tiny companies churning out these and other notable treats, and turns a clever, if inconsequential, essay into a fascinating rebellion against the ruthless Mars marauders, Hershey huns and Nestle nasties. He has equal eye for passionate personalities and unique machinery, and makes families, factories and geographical regions feel like extensions of a single style of candy. That candy's struggles, conversely, map the downfall of an entire culture. Relics like the Bing (est. 1897) and the Spud (est. 1901) are the embodiment of their rustic region's drive to modernization, their quaking machines the noisy emblems of growth--or as Almond puts it, "Foul props of our modern age in service of most innocent desire."
Of his brief stay in Boise Almond has little cleverness worth repeating--suffice it to say, despite any national level football ambitions, our image in East Coast media as a quaint cocktail of prefab and Podunk remains firmly intact. Of Idaho Candy Company president Dave Wagers, though, Almond glows, "Let me go on record as stating that [he] is the coolest president of a candy company on earth ... Dave's basic attitude was: 'I make candy. It's pretty cool to make candy. Do you want some candy?'" That, for Almond, is compliment enough to counterbalance his own mixed feelings over the Spud itself. He seems to find the concoction--whose secret ingredient, it is revealed, is the seaweed derivative agar-agar, rather than gelatin--more of an intellectual treat than a culinary one. His loss.
Other notable revelations sprout throughout the book, such as the flavor of the purple Necco (clove) and the relationship of the late Mars bar to the Almond Snickers (same bar, different wrapper), but for the most part Almond's acute descriptions of his senses drives Candyfreak. Like a true sugar junkie, he fluctuates between long, flowery descriptions of wrappers, smells and the way a certain ingredient sits on his tongue and short, pathetic statements of self-loathing. His frenetic voice is maddening at some points, merely annoying at others, but his passion is infectious nonetheless.
Stylistic head butting aside, there is something genuinely appealing about an excessive consumer like Almond. Someone who is so consciously and unapologetically committed to his chosen mode of intake that he feels genuine rage at a sub par product (Twizzlers and Peeps come to mind) and cries with joy at the sight of a well-brewed hunk of cocoa. So many new treats, so many forgotten oldies--just looking at this gluttonous text will cause weight gain, but it is easily worth unwrapping.