CandyFreak Steve Almond is Wrong
I love Steve Almond’s book Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America. For me as for countless other candy lovers, Almond perfectly captures the obsessive pleasures of candy. His introduction to the history of American candy making launched me on my candy research project. As Almond continues to write and speak about candy in America, he is bringing attention to all the wonderful small candy makers still eking out a business, and maybe bringing new customers as well. So I am an enormous fan of Steve Almond.
But something has been bothering me. Take for example the recent piece Almond published in the Wall Street Journal (Jan 10, 2010) titled: “Remembrance of Candy Bars Past.” Almond sings a very particular song about American candy: a sad and mournful song about the good old candy days that have been destroyed by the evil forces of capitalism. For Steve Almond, the best days of candy were in the past.
It’s true, the heyday of American candy manufacture is long gone. After an amazing flourishing of candy making and candy eating in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, the American candy scene went into decline as local and regional candy makers were swallowed up by the “Big Three” and driven out by rising distribution and “slotting” costs.
So that happened. But does the transformation in the U.S. candy industry that Almond describes mean that the best days of candy in America behind us? That’s what Almond thinks. I think he’s wrong.
Change is not the same thing as “everything is getting worse.” When things change, usually it means that some things get better, some things get worse, and they might be better or worse depending on who you are or where you are. For example, we know of hundreds of candy bars made by local and regional manufacturers that have disappeared. But did your average American have the chance to try most of these? No.
In the glory days of American candy, many candies did have national distribution. But regional candies were just that, regional. That means that stock of a shop in Ohio would look dramatically different from the stock of a shop in California or New York or Mississippi. We’ve lost that local diversity, in this age of Mars and Wal Mart, to be sure. But if you didn’t travel around much, “local diversity” wasn’t diverse to you. Today, someone living in a city or town with a Wal Mart and a Target and a Cost Plus has enormous choice in the candies available, not just from around the country, but from around the world.
Some of the old American candies that persist struggle to make their way into the marketplace. It’s true, I can’t get a Twin Bing in my neighborhood store. That’s one of Almond’s favorite nostalgia picks. But I’ve had a Twin Bing. It’s a nasty candy bar, in my opinion: waxy “mockolate” coating and cough-syrup “cherry” nougat filling. It’s easy to think about the past in rosy tones. But the fact is, not everything old is good.
In an interview on Public Radio’s The Splendid Table (March 27, 2010) Almond laments the decline in the variety of flavors and forms of American candy and the homogenization of candies produced by big industries for national and international markets. It is true that many of the flavors that candy bar eaters of yore could enjoy are gone. Spice and floral flavors are almost extinct. We don’t see pineapple or even coconut much outside of specialty items, peach and banana almost never. But what would our 1940s friends have made of our flavor palette? We have goji berries and acai berries, dried cherries and dried cranberries, sesame seeds and hazelnut paste. None of these were flavors known to American candy in the 1940s. (For even more exotic flavor possibilities, see the latest flavor trend reports at candydishblog.com)
In fact, it’s worth remembering that pineapple and coconut in the 1930s were the “exotic” flavors, new fruits just appearing in U.S. markets, just like acai and pomegranate today. As for peach and banana, those popular “flavors” in the 1930s were made in the chemistry lab, not the orchard; the reason we don’t have them any more is because the FDA decided they were probably harmful. and would hardly satisfy today’s more discerning taste-bud. Then as now, the basic components of candy bars were pretty much the same: chocolate, nuts, nougats, caramels, fondants, flavorings. Tastes change and markets change, some things go out and new things come in.
And what about the decline in the diversity of candy overall? Granted, when I just look at the candy bar racks at my local CVS, it looks like everything is Hershey’s and Mars. But if you look more carefully, the question of diversity is more complex. Even the big players are moving fast to bring new products to market, many simply variations on basic themes, but also looking for the next big thing. And new start ups and small candy makers can be big players in the era of the internet. Not to mention the dramatic increase in imports of foreign candies. Industry watcher Cybele May estimates there are some 10,000 candy products available on the planet at any given time. How many of those will make it to your local shop is another story, but the candy variety is indisputable.
Almond tells the story of American candy as a simple story of flourish and decline. But there are other stories to tell of the changing candy marketplace. Consolidation in manufacturing and the domination of big stores pushed many smaller American companies out in the late 20th century. But in the 21st century we see incredible variety and amazing ingenuity in the candy that is available to someone willing to poke around a bit beyond the front racks at Wal Mart and CVS. The big national trade show organized by the National Confectioners Association every May, “Sweets & Snacks Expo” (formerly CandyExpo), expects over 400 exhibitors. That’s a lot of sweets.
My favorite candy bar right now is the Lion bar, a mysteriously creamy-caramely-crunchy-chocolaty confection. That’s a British import. I never knew it when I was a kid. Where in my California suburb in the 1970s could I have found British candy? Now I can get a Lion bar right across the street from my apartment building. Not to mention dozens others I’ve never seen before.
Sure, I miss the Marathon bar. But I’m happy to try a Yorkie, or an Aero. And even though the basic $1 candy bars might be limited to Reese’s, Snickers, M&M’s, and their variations, if we expand “candy bar” to include chocolate tablets selling for $2 to $4, we’re in a whole other universe of new possibilities. We might just as well turn nostalgia on its head, and ask how we could have survived in a world without the blissful creaminess of a Green & Black White Chocolate Bar, or the breathy bite of a Lindt “Intense Mint” Bar.
For a candy lover with a postal address and an internet connection, well, there is no stomach big enough to handle the possibilities. Check out Cybele May’s list of “110 Essential Candies for Candyvores” at candyblog.net. Most of us will never come close to sampling the variety of flavors, textures, ingredients and styles that she lists. And that is just scratching the surface.
There’s definitely more good candy on the horizon. Nostalgia is inspiring new candies and new businesses. I’m looking forward to the release of Shelf Life, a documentary film about a Chicago candy entrepreneur who attempts to recreate a beloved candy from the past called the “Cashew Nut Crunch.” And the attention to flavor and quality that has become a part of American food expectations is creating new opportunities for candy makers. Here in Brooklyn we have some amazing candy artisans. The two women behind Liddabit Sweets sell their candy almost as fast as they can make it; they specialize in innovative caramels and re-mashes of old-style candy bars, all made with the finest and freshest local ingredients. Mast Brothers Chocolate (more photos here) is made in tiny batches by the two Mast brothers, from bean to bar. They are taking the “farm to table” philosophy and making candy out of it.
This is an exciting time for candy. These new candy makers and candy entrepreneurs are steeped in the candy past, but they are looking forward to new markets, new flavors, new technologies, new ideas, new possibilities.
Steve Almond seems so sad when he talks about the good old candy days. For him, it is all gone wrong. But if it was always better in the good old days, what’s the point in moving forward? Nostalgic pessimism can paralyze us.
I say, let’s be nostalgic optimists. Nostalgia can inspire ways of bringing the past into the present, as for many new candy makers. Nostalgia can encourage us to value and learn about the past. Nostalgia can motivate us to better understand what really was, and not fixate on what we wish. There’s nothing wrong with a little nostalgia. There’s nothing wrong with American candy either.
Related post: Langston Hughes Sings the Blues for Penny Candy.