Gimme some sugar

Steve Almond knows a thing or two about obsession. Fortunately for us, he writes about it so well that we’re invited to join him, and, like any slippery slope, we’re soon riding shotgun beside him on the premium chocolate highway. Perhaps if his obsession—or “freak,” as he describes it—were for cigarettes, heroin or high-heeled women’s shoes, it wouldn’t be such an easy sell. But who among us doesn’t remember longing looks cast at the baker’s chocolate in our mother’s kitchens, only to find what Almond describes as “a mouthful of bitter goo”?

It’s this familiarity that makes Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America such an engaging book. Most readers undoubtedly will possess more self-control than Almond—who claims to have between three and seven pounds of candy squirreled away in his house at all times, and to think about candy at least once an hour—but it’s possible that our self-control comes only from repeated trips to the dentist and the middle-aged guilt associated with spare tires and high cholesterol.

The real joy in Candyfreak is the way in which it wields nostalgia: the sheer and unadulterated pleasure in a Big Hunk, those strips of chewy white stuff with peanuts, after it had softened in the heat of a locked car. Almond takes those memories on the road, as he stops at what seem to be the few remaining small, independent American candy factories. He’s mastered the vocabulary of candy as an oenophile masters the vocabulary of wine, and debates the finer points of nougat, cream, fondant, peanuts and, of course, almonds, that go into the creation of candy.

And Almond shares his own delight in what he finds at places like the Lake Champlain Chocolates factory, where gourmet chocolate bars are lovingly hand-crafted, and at the resuscitation of the impossibly sloppy Sifers Valomilk in Kansas City, complete with hand-stirred chocolate.

But the book also takes a look at the history of candy production in America, the rise of the regional candy makers, and the ultimate triumph of what he calls “The Big Three”—Hershey’s, Mars and Nestlé—which resulted in the homogenization of Americans’ taste for candy. Marketing and shipping costs, not to mention the exorbitant shelving fees charged by most retailers, have relegated the few remaining independent candy makers to either gourmet niche marketing or small regional markets. This leads us to a candy-limited world in which the Twin Bing can only be found in the upper Midwest, and the Goo Goo Cluster remains a delicacy for Southerners only.

Almond laments this sad state and describes candy as reflecting a larger “radical object disconnect,” a situation in which consumers are so separated from production that they no longer can differentiate between products. To such unfortunates, there’s not much difference between a Nestlé Crunch bar and a package of Crispy M&M’s. It’s up to the candy freak to keep watch for such delights as Dark Chocolate Kit Kats, which have a way of disappearing from the market.

Almond’s analysis of the candy business gives short shrift, though, to the political and human-rights implications of America’s addiction to chocolate. He mentions in passing the enslavement of children to work in cocoa plantations in the Ivory Coast, the source of much of the world’s chocolate. Had he taken the time to explore this side of the candy industry fully, it would have dovetailed nicely with his discussion of the “radical object disconnect.” But Almond makes it a minor point, quickly brushed aside because it’s such a downer, demonstrating that a candy freak cares as much for the politics of chocolate as a dope fiend cares for the politics of drugs. It’s all about gratifying the candy jones, and that’s ground that Almond covers well.