Candy Freak

Steve Almond

Candy Freak.

“I suppose I was aware, in an abstract way, that there were men and women upon this earth who served in this capacity, as chocolate engineers. In the same way that I was aware that there are job titles out there such as bacon taster and sex surrogate, which is to say, job titles that make me want to weep over my own appointed lot in life. But I had never considered the prospect of visiting a chocolate engineer. I could think of nothing else for days.”

The paragraph quoted above comes from a very funny book by Steve Almond (yes, that's his real name!). Titled Candyfreak, it's one guy's tribute to the candies he grew up eating, especially the ones that no longer exist. When Almond couldn't find many of his childhood favorites anymore, he embarked on an expedition to hunt them down – hence the subtitle, A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America. Part memoir and part part social history, Candyfreak is also a tribute to the survivors of the golden age of the candy bar in America, the small, local producers of sweet treats that have managed to resist being taken over or driven out of business by the big three (Hershey, Mars, and Nestlé).

“Most Americans had never heard of chocolate in 1893, when Milton S. Hershey attended the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. (The question that leaps to mind here, rather stubbornly, is why on earth they would want to go on living, but I will leave that aside for now.) Hershey himself made caramels, but the moment he saw and smelled the exhibit devoted to producing chocolate bars he knew he was witnessing the freak of the future and snapped up the entire operation. He spent a decade figuring out how to mass-produce milk chocolate bars and, just as important, sold them in previously unheard-of venues – groceries, pharmacies, diners. The empire has expanded to include Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, Milk Duds, Almond Joy, Heath, Whatchamacallit, and some dozen other bars. (Fun fact: The S stands for Snavely.)

Almond deals with the other two of the big three, but it is the smaller, local producers (the “little guys”, as he terms them) that really intrigue the author. In his search for those little guys, the independents, he encounters candies that sell in very specific markets, either because they don't ship well, or because their producers can't afford to pay the slotting fees that stores charge to put the products on their racks.

“Echeandia explained that the larger retail chains charge tens of thousands of dollars to place a particular candy bar in the racks near the register. Very few people, after all, head into the super-market with Twix on their shopping list. Instead, they get stuck in the checkout line and the candy rack starts to call out to them, sirenlike, and they take a look a the wrappers and get a freakbuzz, accompanied, invariably, by the Guilt Hammer, which strikes them just behind the left ear.”

Heading out in search of the “little guys”, Almond regales the reader with tales of candy bars such as the Idaho Spud (and where might you imagine that one's made?), the Peanut Chew (a venerable bar hailing from the great state of Pennsylvania), the GooGoo Cluster (pride of Nashville, TN!), Valomilk (made in Kansas City, KS, by the Sifers family), the Abba-Zabba (from the Annabelle Candy Company of San Francisco), and the Twin Bing (a very peculiar-sounding candy bar produced in Iowa). Never heard of some of these? Neither had your staff writer prior to encountering Candyfreak. But, given that it's almost Halloween, be sure to read all about it!

Copyright © 2005, S. Halversen.
All Rights Reserved.