That title alone ought to be enough to convince half of America to pick up this whimsical, yet occasionally biting look at candy (sorry, it‘s just too easy to make bad puns here). After all, who among us doesn‘t have at least one fatal flaw of weakness when it comes to the confection? Whether it‘s red licorice, a Snickers bar or peanut M & M‘s with no prejudice about the brown ones, Americans have something of an obsession with candy, a sentiment documented in other tomes like Hilary Liftin‘s “Candy and Me“ and Tim Richardson‘s “Sweets: A History of Candy.“
Almond‘s tribute is different, though, and other critics have already identified it as something of a Willy Wonka meets Douglas Addams, primarily in regards to his Fodor-like journeys to candy meccas like Philadelphia (Peanut Chews), Sioux City (Twin Bing), Nashville (Goo Goo Cluster) and Boise (Idaho Spud). When it‘s not out and out hilarious, which it often is, the book is well quite sweet. It‘s also a worthy addition to a growing oeuvre from Almond that includes the short story collection “My Life in Heavy Metal“ and pieces that have appeared in the likes of Playboy, Tin House and Zoetrope.
Early on, Almond explains why he, as he puts it, “has some issues“ with candy:
“The moment I tried Kit Kat Dark I fell deeply in love. The bar, introduced a couple of years ago by Hershey‘s, features a dark chocolate coating that exudes a pudding-like creaminess, and a smoky flavor that puts the standard Kit Kat to shame. Because I knew the bar was a “limited edition“ I took to buying them by the box from a drugstore near my house, which was the only place I could find them. And then one day, they disappeared altogether.
Now, most people in this situation would probably assume their luck had run out. A few ambitious souls might scour the more esoteric online candy sources. What I did was on another scale: I called a local candy wholesaler and ordered an entire case of Kit Kat Darks. That‘s 12 boxes of 36, or 432 bars. I don‘t keep the Kit Kats in my home -- too tempting. Instead, I‘ve arranged to have them stored in a secure, refrigerated location a few miles away. Which is not to say I don‘t have candy in my apartment. On the contrary, I keep anywhere from three to seven pounds on the premises at all times.
It would be fair to say, then, that I have some issues with candy. And I really wish I could tell you this in a purely light-hearted manner. But the truth is, my obsession with candy has a long, dark history.
For me, candy has never been just a sweet little indulgence. It‘s functioned as something more like an antidepressant. My pattern of consumption as a kid was pretty textbook: if one my brothers had beat me to a pulp, or I felt neglected by my parents, or simply lonely, I‘d retreat to my room with a box of Hot Tamales, or a Tangy Taffy, or a roll of Lifesavers, and medicate myself. I wasn‘t just interested in eating the candy. I fondled it. I sorted it by flavor and color. I ran the pieces across my skin, sometimes even lay down on top of it. Other little boys may have needed toy soldiers or action figures to engage in make-believe combat. I‘d set a platoon of gummy bars against a squadron of Swedish fish, smash them together, and eat the resulting mess.
For most kids, candy is a subversive pleasure, because their moms are always yelling at them not to spoil their appetite, or rot their teeth (mine certainly did). For me, eating candy was subversive a much deeper way: it violated the unspoken familial principle of self-deprivation. And this, I think, is why my consumption of candy was almost always linked to some other form of vice.
For instance, my friend Brian Danforth and I used to buy half a dozen boxes of something called Popeye candy, which featured a selection of not-very-high quality taffies. It wasn‘t so much the candy we were interested in, as the boxes that held the candy. We would set them on fire in my backyard. There was plenty of other stuff we could have burned, of course. As ten year olds, we viewed most of the world as flammable. But the ritual called, quite specifically, for us to burn only the Popeye boxes, and, even more creepily, to *eat the candy as we watched the flames.“ *
Almond is deeply, seriously, madly passionate about candy, but there are other things at work in his book, among them, the sense of nostalgia he invokes when it comes to the independent entrepreneurial spirit of smaller American candy companies, as opposed to the big three of the industry, Hershey‘s, Mars, and Nestle. He‘s also a clever wordsmith whose descriptions of the subject are sometimes jaw-droppingly good. So effective and contagious are his extrapolations on the subject that you won‘t be able to read much of the book without having to indulge in something sweet.
It‘s hard to imagine that there‘s anyone more fanatical about candy than Almond, and his obsession translates into revelations that are as informative, quirky, and as personal as they are universal. If you‘re nuts about candy, especially chocolate, then you‘ll find much to appreciate in “Candyfreak,“ and if not, you can kick back and enjoy some fine writing and original observations about it. In a world where so much seems to have gone haywire, especially as of late, “Candyfreak“ offers readers a chance to think about simpler times and pleasures that can still be summoned by savoring the singular sensation that takes place when a favorite piece of candy enters your mouth.