May 2004

Erik Ferguson

nonfiction

Candyfreak by Steve Almond

At first, a book devoted to one man's affinity for candy sounds like junk reading: non-edifying, self-indulgent, and impulsive. However, when the author has spent as much time thinking, talking, and dreaming about candy as Steve Almond obviously has, the subject gains substance. Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America documents the author's travels to some of the country's last remaining small candy companies (presumably for posterity's sake) and the psychological, financial, and physiological effects of one nation's collective candy itch.

The impetus for writing this book, Almond explains early on, was the loss of the Caravelle, the preferred candy bar of his youth. Though this might not seem a deep disturbance, Almond evokes sympathy and understanding through the autobiographical passages of the book, detailing the emotional comfort he derived from candy. He legitimizes candy as a form of self-love and something that he shared in common with his father. Almond is especially adept at crystallizing how he interacted with and experienced candy, from post-Halloween candy inventory to thorough descriptions of the nuances of Kit Kat bars as they encountered his teeth and tongue. It is established that the reader is in the hands of a long-time candy connoisseur (and not in a Ferrero-Rocher, gold foil, faux high-brow kind of way).

Some of the most entertaining sentences, in fact, are contained in Almond's candy critiques. White chocolate, he maintains, is not, in fact, chocolate, and is a crime perpetrated on the public, as are Peeps and Circus Peanuts. Anything containing coconut is not likely to find his favor, and neither are Twizzlers. Though I disagree with him on the Twizzlers, it was enjoyable to be forced to think about what I liked about Twizzlers, to have my candy tastes challenged. Part of the appeal of CandyFreak is its implication that there are a lot of things that we just don't think about enough.

Following this trend of thinking about the unthought, Almond avoids romanticizing candy as a cure-all for life's hardships by pointing out that the foundation of the candy industry, sugar and cocoa, is built largely on underpaid (if paid at all) labor and amoral corporate behavior. At one point, Almond questions the morality of the United States's candy consumption, given the nation's obesity and history of pigging resources and abuse of cheap labor. Almond rightly reasons that most people aren't thinking about sugar plantations when they snag a chocolate fix at the grocery check-out lane.

But how does a candy bar get to the check-out lane? After a tour of the New England Confectionery Company (does your town feature NECCO wafers?), Almond sets out on a quest to visit four small, regional candy companies (Iowa's Palmer Candy, maker of the Twin Bing; Kansas's Sifers Valomilk, maker of... you know, Valomilk Candy Cups, which we have here in Missouri; Idaho's Idaho Candy Company, maker of the Idaho Spud; and California's Annabelle Candy Company, maker of the Big Hunk and Abba-Zaba... if you go to their website, some wacky-ass piano-playing greets you). Almond is our eye inside the remarkably secretive world of candy manufacturing, which he learns, really is subject to the Slugworths you might have thought occurred only in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Almond is clearly on the side of the little guy and allows the company reps time to explain just how the Big Three (Mars, Hershey, and Nestle) have squeezed the life out of most regional concerns. The issue of slotting fees -- how much a company has to pay Wal-Mart, for instance, to get product onto its shelves -- is raised throughout the book, as are the advantages that larger companies have when it comes to offering free product or discounted prices. Almond illustrates the loss of regional candy, like dying dialects, and the seemingly unstoppable spread of a national candy lexicon. But, you could say, it's just candy...

Aside from the financial angle, Almond also investigates just how these candies are made and is oft-times mesmerized by the processes. He encounters enrobers, moguls, nut dispensers, and any number of machines that you didn't realize were necessary to the production of a slab of chocolate, caramel, and peanuts (or whatever the ingredients might be). Part of Almond's premise is that we 21st century Americans don't have to know how our things are made anymore and that seeing production in progress is something of a revelation. Though pictures would have added a lot (or even sketched diagrams based on memory), Almond's clarity of description allows the reader to get a sense of what is transpiring.

A minor caution: by the third company visit, it seemed that everyone had basically the same story to tell (family-owned, struggling against the biggies, hard to get wider distribution, difficult to start up new products, etc), and not a lot happened at the factories other than guided tours. Obviously, Almond is playing with the cards he was dealt (unlike others in the world, he does not seem to have invented any scenes in this nonfictional account), and maybe the similarity of the factories' situation is nothing more than an indictment of the candy industry in general.

Between free candy samples, Almond visits some tangential characters with their own manifestations of the candyfreak. Of these, Ray Broekel, candy historian and owner of 20,000 candy wrappers, is the most effective. He serves both as the source for an essay on the evolution of American candy bars (Almond makes a case for candy bars as the original fast-food) and as a stark contrast to Almond: while Almond's candy addiction is based on emotion, Broekel's is almost completely emotionless and objective. Broekel even claims to not really like candy. As you might expect, the conversation between the two is stiff, at best.

Though it occasionally lists toward notetaking, Candyfreak is a thought-provoking read that calls attention to what, why, and how we eat. Its subject matter allows Almond to riff on consumer morality, the wonders of technology, and the bitch of capitalism more palatably than a book called Concretefreak would.

Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America by Steve Almond
Algonquin
ISBN: 1565124219
260 pages