Friday, February 27, 2009

Appetite for confection

Book review: Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America
by Steve Almond
Algonquin books of Chapel Hill, 2004
ISBN: 1-56512-421-9

Yeah, you read that right. Candyfreak was published in 2004, and here we are in 2009. I've never been one for punctuality. (Actually, I just heard about the book from muffinmare, who is an artisan baker.)

If you don't like sweets, don't bother reading this book. You will understand neither the candy nor the freak. Also, you will be offended when Almond writes:
Every now and again, I'll run into someone who claims not to like chocolate or other sweets, and while we live in a country where everyone has the right to eat what they want, I want to say for the record that I don't trust these people, that I think something is wrong with them, and that they're probably—this must be said—total duds in bed.
Agreed.

If, however, you do have a sweet tooth, you must read this book, but not until you are properly prepared. Arm yourself according to the following formula:

candy stockpile = (261 × M × E × S) + N

How quickly do you read? Take the minutes per page (M), multiply by the book's 261 pages, then multiply by E, the normal rate at which you eat candy while reading (pieces or ounces per minute), and by S, your suggestibility factor (which can be determined by considering how much more of your favorite sweet you would eat after watching a commercial or cooking show about said confection). Finally, add in N, the nostalgia factor, because your favorite forgotten candy bar from childhood will surely be mentioned. And there you have the size of the hoard of candy you need before opening this book. Trust me. 

The book is, appropriately, roughly one part candy, in which Almond describes his lifelong obsession with candy and his trips to various candy factories in the US, and one part freak, in which Almond writes about the role that sweets play in his emotional life and the American psyche in general. 

Aside from a few minor stumbles in describing the technical details of candy-making machinery, Almond's writing about sweets is clear and evocative. He spends a lot of time describing details of taste and texture but completely avoids sounding like an overeager wine critic, whose snobbish writings he describes as "the curdling of expertise into hauteur."

For me, the real highlights of the book are in the descriptions of how the different confections are made and the decades-old machinery that many regional candy companies still use. What a shame there were no pictures! Many of the methods are proprietary, as the basic ingredients of candy are, for the most part, similar: some combination of sugar, corn syrup, chocolate, nuts and a few flavorings. It's the production process that differentiates between the Abba Zabbas and the York Peppermint Patties of the world. 

Almond's freak interludes are charmingly neurotic. His confessions about family, insecurity and the emotional surrogacy he found in candy tie together the otherwise random details about sweets that, in a lesser writer's hands, could become tedious. The book is billed as a memoir of Almond's cross-country tour of candy factories, but his research is not exactly objective reporting—it's more along the lines of a Trekkie writing about a Star Trek convention. The style works, though, and it's a quick and tasty read.

With the book finished, I'm still hungry for more. Specifically, for more of Almond's writing and for a Valomilk, a Kansas City marshmallow-filled chocolate cup. Valomilks cannot be shipped over the Rockies because they explode at high altitude, so of course I want to try one. 

***

Almond's website: stevenalmond.com

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