Impressions of Steve Almond’s Candyfreak: A Journey through the Chocolate Underbelly of America

[Disclaimer: I rather not write about music cause I don’t know how to, but I will be embedding links to songs to listen to while reading this post or doing other things in your life. Let me know if this is a crappy idea. I have a lot of crappy ideas].

When I was a kid living in Belize, I worshipped at the altar of the Reese’s Peanut Butter cup. I love the combination of chocolate and peanut and the way the heat forced me to eat it quickly before it melted in its wrapper or resting in my hand. The first would be gone in two bites and then I’d eat the second by nibbling on the ridges, encircling the center like a sadistic predator before gobbling it up. One day Reese’s disappeared from all the stores as a result of a nationwide halt of importation on certain “luxury” items.

Four years ago when I moved to Houston, Texas it took me the entirety of six months to be able to make it out of the store without a packet (often the king-sized version containing four, which my mind couldn’t compute).

Steve Almond’s ‘Candyfreak’

I say all that to let you know that I am somewhat familiar with the neurosis of the candyfreak Steve Almond describes in his non-fiction account of the American candy industry circa early 2000’s. Unlike Almond though, I had to put aside my candyfreak ways due a low metabolism and a fear of contracting hereditary diabetes. For the week I was reading Almond’s book though, I could think of little else but the chocolates of my youth and recent memory, but unlike him I abhor any other candy; most likely as a result of being the progeny of a dentist who’d sometimes describe the deplorably cavity-infected mouths of kids I knew from school that made frequent trips to him.

During those reminisces I thought of the Ferrero Rocher chocolates my abuelita brought home from The States and distributed to me and my cousins, the frozen Snickers bars I’d attack with desperation as a teenager, and the dark chocolate bars my former roommate would share with me as we sat stoned and talking about women, religion and physics. In all those moments, like Almond, I felt intense glee as the chocolate smudged my lips, teased my tongue and dissolved into nothingness.

At first I thought Candyfreak would be solely a journalistic account of the candy industry as it was and now is, controlled by the Big Three (Mars, Nestle, and Hershey) and transforming as struggling regional candy companies attempt to maintain their viability. Almond goes to great lengths to describe his visits to independent candy factories and the magical machines that confectioners use to make basic ingredients (sugar, chocolate, water, corn starch, eg) into tasty marvels through precise and varied crafting processes. In these instances, Almond recounts fighting the urge to steal freshly made candies from conveyor belts and his constant astonishment at the optimism of the company’s owners.

This intense focus on the subject matter and his lengthy details made me forget at times Almond’s own ongoing struggle with loving himself or others and how, despite the chocolaty sheen of it all, he was a man struggling with a compulsion to nurse his woes with dopamine rushes via candy bars. Near the end of one chapter, as Almond winds down at a hotel, his demons creep up and tell him, “You are unworthy of love. Candy will not save you (177).” Such instances served to remind me of Almond’s more general concern with American issues of consumerism, happiness and security that mar even his most joyful moments and are prevalent in much of writing.

Top 5 Favorite Candies (in no particular order)

Ferrero Rocher

Milky Way Midnight

Kit Kat

Any Swiss Dark Chocolate Bar

Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup

Read this book if you ever loved candy and want to experience the love you felt without the calorie intake or desire to laugh at the discomfort of others.

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