Laid up with a nasty head cold, I’ve been enjoying some me-time Candy Professor style, with a sack full of taffy from the Savannah Candy Kitchen and Katherine Weber’s latest novel, True Confections (2010, Shaye Aereheart Books).
This novel is a fun splurge, sort of CandyFreak meets An Arsonists Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England. Alice Tatnall Ziplinsky, admittedly unreliable narrator, seeks absolution for her role, if any, in the series of accidents, disputes, and disasters that seem to trail after her. Alice marries into the Ziplinsky candy family at the story’s outset, and the novel follows her rise from the factory floor to the helm of the company. She’s no Ziplinsky, as her resentful mother-in-law never ceases to remind her, but she claims she is the only one in the family who truly loves and understands the candy business.
Whether Alice is the rightful possessor of the Ziplinsky fortune is one of the puzzles of the novel, which offers many mysteries and intriques along the way and kept me turning the pages. But for the candy crowd, the fun of the novel is really in the background and setting. Zip’s Candy is one of the great American candy makers, founded in 1924 by hard-scrabble immigrant Eli Czaplinsky. Weber has really done her candy history homework for this novel. Along the way, we hear about the family squabbles at Mars, the business canny of Milton Hershey, the rise of the candy bar in the 1930s, the mechanics of candy manufacture, the politics of cacao and sugar, and the transformations in the American candy business as smaller factories were bought up and consolidated into larger companies.
Zip’s Candy has been making the same candy since 1924. Alice has a lot to answer for, but she’s doing her best to bring new direction to the staid and static Zip’s Candy line. Zip’s Candy even has a website, where you can read about the history of the company and order Mumbo Jumbos, Tiger Melts, and Little Sammies (although they all seem to be unavailable at present). Weber is mercifully restrained in her recourse to hi-tech gadgetry and computer-mediated plot device, but the story is unmistakably one of our time. In Weber’s candy world as in ours, the candy blogs can make or break a new confection. All the candy bloggers will chuckle knowingly as Alice’s brilliant new product launch unravels in a fiasco that takes “white chocolate” to its logical but unfortunate conclusion.
And the website: a real find for candy nostalgists. Part of Alice Tatnall Ziplinsky’s new marketing push, one presumes. The highlight of the site is definitly the video clip of Frieda Ziplinsky’s 1958 television commercial for Little Sammies, complete with the “Say, Dat’s Tasty!” jingle. If you like the jingle, record your own version and send it in, there’s a contest!
Although Alice is faithful to her Ziplinsky marriage, she does commit “therapist adultery.” And she admits to making appointments with three different dentists in rotation; each time she goes for a cleaning she is praised for her extraordinary dental hygiene. Things are not, dear reader, entirely as they seem. But whether it is real, or true, doesn’t matter in the end. What matters is that it tastes good. And it does: there’s a bit of candy on every page of this fun novel.
Jincy Willet, “A Passion for Candy,” New York Times Book Review, Jan 14, 2010