Monday, June 2, 2008

Get Yer Freak On

I hesitated to read Steve Almond’s memoir/essay Candyfreak: A Journey through the Chocolate Underbelly of America for more than 2 years. It sat on the shelf, its hardcover bound in chocolate-colored paper, because I knew it would make me crave candy. It does not, in fact, really resemble at all Tim Richardson’s Sweets, a much more academic study, less about the personal recollections than the history (to be fair, both authors possess humor, a much-needed additive in such a sugar-fest). (Sweets is also decidedly British. It was the first place I had ever heard about rock, which I could never quite figure out. What was the point? What did it even look like? It did describe to me jelly babies before I ever saw or tasted them, as well as a few things I did recognize like Cadbury. Why didn’t Sweets mention Kendal mint cake or Welsh toffee waffles?) Candyfreak is as American as Sweets is British.

Candy brings Almond back to a state of child-like bliss. He describes the smorgasbord of Halloween in a way that is totally resonant to me, sorting the haul, trading with siblings . . . and I stopped trick-or-treating at an even older age than Almond did (perhaps the one time in my life my youthful physique has come in handy). He also makes frequent allusions to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (the movie of which had a similar effect on me as to crave chocolate). I loved this book as a child because I loved fantasizing about an entire factory of candy. I learned last year upon reading Roald Dahl’s autobiography Boy that he had been a sort of taste-tester in his youth in Cardiff for Cadbury or Rowntree or one of them. What Almond notes is that there is little exaggeration in the depiction of jealous candy-makers determined not to lose the secret formulae of their cash cows.

One of the most entertaining parts of the book is when Almond describes, with rapture, his favorite candy as well as Mistakes Were Made (including two of my sister’s favorites, Peeps and circus peanuts). He is a big fan of Kit Kat Darks as well as the Caravelle. Don’t ring any bells? Obviously you’re not his definition of a candyfreak. When Almond deigns to be factual and historical, he does well, too, describing the monopoly of the Big Three (Nestle, Hershey, and Mars) in America as well as Hershey’s momentous chocolate discovery in 1893 (lots of things happened in 1893). He describes the familiar story of chocolate’s beginning in Aztec culture (anyone who’s seen ‘60s Doctor Who knows this already) and repeats the oft-repeated story about Moctezuma fortifying himself with cocoa before he visited his harem. I wonder where this purported fact began. It could be true for all I know, but just because most of what we know about the Aztecs is from Cortez, who we know to have been a propagandist rather than a truthful historian, well . . .

(The French, according to a poll I saw in one of the British papers last year, are among the Europeans most likely to believe that chocolate has aphrodisiac properties. This was certainly exploited in Chocolat—the film. The book is, surprisingly, rubbish.) One thing that I did not know about the history of candy bars was that they really picked up in popularity in the Depression as they were portable, cheap, and sustaining. (I do recall reading in a costume book about War-Era British women fancying the American G.I.s because they had chocolate bars.)

Though Almond claims to teach creative writing, it was drilled in my creative writing classes that memoir writing was not supposed to be a therapy session (or, to use Almond’s term “oversharing”). His confessions that he uses chocolate as some sort of love substitute, plus toward the end of the book when he’s convinced he’s got cancer and reflects on his lack of meaningful romantic relationships, is both a bit cloying and genuinely sympathetic. (According to the book jacket, he is also an anthologized erotica author, so I can only imagine all the chocolate that goes into his porn.) To be fair, people exposing themselves and seeming like pathetic fools is, despite what they tell you in class, something of the point: in workshop, no one wanted to hear me analyze Phantom of the Opera and why I loved the Phantom so much: they preferred to hear about my crappy lack-of-a-love-life. So perhaps Almond’s statement to himself, You are unworthy of love. Candy will not save you is less worthy of my derision than my alcohol-soaked pat on the back. Rephrase it as You are unworthy of love. Just like the Phantom and you’ve got my version of Candyfreak, I guess.

Erm, enough about me. Candyfreak does make attempts to sound serious. He notes the hypocrisy of candy adoration when cocoa and sugar are harvested in Third World countries and suggests that candy is “crack” for kids. He thinks chocolate—and materialism in general—become surrogate child-rearing for children whose parents are too busy for them, which the candy companies know and try hard to exploit. He goes into an extended bitch-fest about the recent (2002) U.S. elections that installed Bush and then exclaims he doesn’t have any right to complain since he didn’t vote . I guess he’d better stick to describing candy rather than trying to validate it.

Speaking of which, you can’t read a book about candy and not consider the candy experiences in your own life. My best chocolate? Well, I love Lindt, their 70% cocoa chocolate is great (though go to 85% and even the likes of me is sick to the tummy). Of the American brands, I prefer Ghirardelli. I’m an unabashed fan of chocolate and peanut butter combinations, so Reese’s Pieces, Butterfinger, and Reese’s peanut butter cups are high on my list. In the UK I’ve found that the Cadbury Crispy bar (I think that’s what it’s called) is excellent. I also like all Ritter Sports, especially the marzipan variety, and also Kinder Bueno. Of the non-chocolate variety, I like black licorice (the strongly-flavored anise variety) and gummi bears. And thank God for companies like the Vermont Country Store, who have revived or found the small factories making some of the regional sweets, and who introduced me to the wonders of Valomilk!

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