The sweetest thing

An excerpt from the book "Candy and Me: A Love Story," a romance with all things sugary.


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Hilary Liftin
August 15, 2003 11:40PM (UTC)

It all began when my brother entered the fourth grade. His new school let out too late for our carpool to the suburbs, so he had to take the city bus. One day he came home carrying a Bubble Burger. The Bubble Burger was a pioneer in the less-than-inspiring category of bubble gum shaped like real-world objects. I was still in the third grade, and I looked at Eric's Bubble Burger with wonder.

"Where did you get it?"

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"In a little store called Alban Towers," he said nonchalantly, as if we'd had the freedom to buy whatever candy we wanted every day of our lives.

"How much did it cost?"

"A quarter," he said with his mouth stuffed.

"Will you get me one?"

"Sure."

The next day Eric brought me my first Bubble Burger. I chewed it, probably swallowed it (I always found the concept of gum frustrating), and plopped six allowance quarters down on his rug.

"You want six?"

"Yes," I said. Eric shrugged. It wasn't a total surprise. I had been stealing his Halloween candy for years.

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I continued to supply Eric with money for Bubble Burgers until a thought occurred to me.

"At Alban Towers," I asked him, "do they have other kinds of candy?"

He rolled his eyes. "Of course they do."

"Like what?" I asked.

"Everything," he said. I had no idea what everything was. I racked my brain to remember the kinds of candy I had seen at the grocery store. Finally, I dumped eight quarters on the rug.

"Just get me anything."

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Candy is almost pure sugar. It is empty of nutritional value. It is an extravagance. It dissolves in water. It melts in your mouth, not in your hands. It's the icing on the cake. Candy is so impossibly sweet and good that eating it should be the simplest thing in the world. So how can there be anything of substance to say about it? And yet, candy's meaning has more subtlety than its taste. It affords a fleeting spike of pleasure, sometimes guilty or elusive or bittersweet, like an impossible love affair. I've thought myself addicted and tried to quit. I've embraced my candy-lover identity and championed the cause. I've eaten it for joy, to relax, to celebrate, and out of boredom. I've eaten it through thick and thin and not-fat-but-not-thin. I love it, I hate it, and it's always been there, through childhood, adolescence, and into my adult life. Candy, and its erratic, delightful, fattening, odd rainbow presence, is an obsession that has fueled and flavored my life. When I walk into a candy store, the shelf of assorted treats evokes a series of individually wrapped memories, ready for the tasting.

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Bottle Caps Nostalgia

Candy is a food group. Those of us who give candy its due respect as a food understand that it isn't really possible to have a favorite candy. Hungers vary. One wants something rich, or chewy, or tart, something chalky or plasticky. One has seasonal or on-the-spot cravings. One simply must have a Starburst, and must have it now. But everyone has a front-runner, a desert island candy, the candy that one will never refuse. For me, this is Bottle Caps.

Bottle Caps are round sugary tablets, like SweeTarts, but they are "the soda pop candy," coming in cola, root beer, grape soda, orange soda, and cherry soda flavors. Bottle Caps are not easy to come by. They aren't in most East Coast drugstores or candy stores, although they aren't above making appearances when you least expect them. The lack of Bottle Caps distribution may be the reason I go overboard when they are available. The rarity gives me an excuse to purchase as much as I might ever want -- for the rest of my life! -- because who knows when I might find them again.

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Most candy is chocolate- or fruit-flavored. Chocolate is a primary flavor, a natural food. Fruit candy is a secondary flavor -- candy made to taste like a natural food. But Bottle Caps have neither primary nor secondary flavor. The genius of Bottle Caps is that their flavors are artificial flavors representing artificial flavors. Bottle Caps simulate root beer and cola beverages, which are already weird chemically manufactured flavors. Even the orange and grape Bottle Caps are genuine efforts at creating the taste of orange and grape soda, which are themselves approximations of fruit. Bottle Caps have tertiary flavor. This puts Bottle Caps in a rarified league, keeping company with the likes of bubble gum ice cream; certain Jelly Bellys (there is not only a lemon Jelly Belly, but also a lemon drop Jelly Belly), and some easily dismissed popcorn varieties. In the competitive world of layered flavor allusions, Bottle Caps may not have the biggest market share, but they have a dedicated following of at least one.

Any Bottle Caps sighting became a reason to rejoice. On a weekend visit to Rhode Island I found a newsstand selling the green packets -- this was before the new purple version -- and instantly bought twenty at ten cents each. There was always a moment of glad discovery when I first saw the familiar packaging; then I would proceed to purchase a massive quantity, usually in multiples of seven. If I were trying to be moderate: seven. If it had been a while: fourteen. If I knew there was zero chance I would be able to return to the store to stock up: twenty-one. Whether I was a passenger in a car, or at home reading the paper, consumption followed a defined ritual: I poured an entire pack (usually about twelve pieces of candy) out into my hand. The lesser flavors -- orange and cherry -- went first. Then came the three lead flavors-cola, root beer, and grape-one at a time.

I do not suck or savor. I chew. I cannot understand those who do not chew. It is all about chewing. There is no flavor in suck. There is no instant and total immersion in the fine taste and texture. Sucking, they say, is about postponing gratification, about accepting less for longer, drawing it out. But if one wants to prolong the ecstasy of candy, it can be done easily not through sucking pieces, but through eating mountains of them. Why savor less when you can just buy more? I like lots of Bottle Caps; I like them all at once; I like to tear through them, fast and furious, and then to collapse in sated exhaustion. Bottle Caps, as my premier candy, have nostalgia value; they have candy merit; and they make for a fine ritualistic snack experience. But most potently, as I was to discover, when a good thing comes along, memories have a propensity for attaching themselves to it.

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Peanut Butter Cups

It is only the rare deli that stocks miniature white chocolate peanut butter cups. That's right. White chocolate and peanut butter. The first time I found them, I gazed in wonder. These two were meant to be.

I have no argument with Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. They are a topnotch candy. H. B. Reese, a former Hershey employee, set off to make his fortune with peanut butter cups. He really got the "peanut butter" right with his ultra-sweetened, crumbly filling. (So right, in fact, that in the 1960s, twenty years after launching his company, Reese sold it to Hershey for over twenty million dollars.) Somehow Reese, by playing with the formula, removed peanut butter's thirst-inducing density. The cups have a light, perfect balance of chocolate and peanut butter. Natural, homemade peanut butter cups don't compare.

Reese's familiar orange, yellow, and brown branding is so ugly that it's endearing. That packaging is part of Reese's extremely impressive brand extension. Reese's Pieces were stunningly good when they were first released. We finally got to taste the refined version of peanut butter without letting chocolate steal its thunder. It stood alone. Chocolate makes the cups too filling. I can eat Reese's Pieces forever. The candy coating gives the Pieces the delightful crunch of M&M's, but with superlative filling. Their ubiquity has diminished their appeal, but whenever I run into them, I am reminded of their lasting goodness. Especially in movie theaters. Recently the less-than-memorably named Reese's FastBreak hit the market. FastBreak adds chocolate and peanut butter nougat to the mix, with excellent results. The FastBreak is a dangerous path for me. I feel that if I went down it, I might never come back.

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But white chocolate takes peanut butter cups in a brilliant direction. They are much sweeter than the milk chocolate sort; one can almost taste grains of sugar in the white coating. I like to eat three in rapid succession, and they are so sweet that I occasionally actually have the feeling that I don't want any more. I don't worry, though; it passes quickly. (As I've said, satisfaction isn't the right word. Candy does not offer satisfaction, only saturation.)

"I can't believe these exist," my husband Chris said. "Who knew?"

I knew. And since they're near cash registers in delis around the city and I've witnessed fluctuating supply in certain of those delis, I know I'm not the only devotee. But it is a stealth candy. I have never, ever seen another person pick one up.

Tootsie Rolls

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Staleness is the plague of the Tootsie Roll. It most often affects the candy bar-size Tootsie Rolls, which may languish on the shelf longer than the finger-size penny candy or the inch-long nuggets. I was on a Tootsie roll and I had been lucking out. The ones at my corner bodega were always soft and fudgy. A fresh Tootsie Roll is always better than one remembers them to be. This has to do with the attempt to flavor them like fudge, instead of straightforward chocolate. But it has mostly to do with their unique, compelling texture. They chew, offering a level of resistance that is both enduring and conquerable. None of that annoying passive-aggressive persistence of flavorless gum. What are you supposed to do when gum flavoring is gone? Keep chewing like a stupid cow? You have to decide when the gum is over. And then you have to choose whether to toss, swallow, or simply add another flavorful stick to your wad. It's too much responsibility. Tootsie Rolls have a natural ending. They chew for a good long time, releasing intense flavor consistently. When they go, it is because they must. They have integrity.

Frosting

Once I was at a wedding where the cake had the very best variety of frosting. A luxurious white fondant, creamy and sweet, with the faintest shell on the outside. The woman next to me ate her cake right up to the edge of her frosting but left it all there, intact. I stared at it for a while. I tried to let it go. Finally I couldn't help myself.

"Can I have your frosting?" I asked like a three-year-old.

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"Sure," she said. "You like that? It's too sweet for me. I like savory." Savory. Ah, yes. I've heard this one before. Choose your team: sweet or savory. And if it's savory, we're wasting our time. If you're savory you'll never understand. Please exit through the door on your left.

Now, ice cream is universal. It has a solid reputation as a decadent dessert. It's sweet and fattening, but popular. Candy consumption may be a bit more covert, but it's out there, in every store and movie theater. Happens all the time. Perhaps my candy consumption is extreme, but it transpires in a relatively socially acceptable manner. I am not visibly aberrant. But frosting is a different matter.

The desirability of frosting may be the ideal litmus test for the true sugar addict. What I want to consume is very different from what I actually eat. Believe me, if I did not exert enormous self-restraint on a daily basis, things would go differently in the baking aisle of the grocery store. Oh, the store-bought frosting that I would buy. Oh, how I would eat it at every opportunity. I can see myself now, lifting delicate spoonfuls out of those round plastic tubs. Vanilla. Lemon. Cream cheese.

How will I ever know what a life of uninhibited consumption would be like? What if, instead of exercising willpower every single time I enter a grocery store, I just went for it? I never do. Instead, I fill my cart with vegetables that may or may not get consumed, cereal, yogurt, cheese, and often a single indulgence (such as the aforementioned ice cream).

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Frosting represents all the temptation I've left to languish on the shelf, day after day, week after week, year after year. If only my body knew about everything I didn't eat. If only I could get credit for it. Where is the reward for all that frosting, inevitably wasted on cakes instead of properly enjoyed from spoon to mouth? What do I get for resisting the bags of butterscotch or white chocolate chips? The brownie mix, the tubes of decorative icing? And in other aisles, the miles of never-purchased cookies, the enormous Cadbury bars, and the lifetime supplies of caramel topping? I want all of it, always. I never buy any of it. And what's my reward? Alas. Nothing.

Willpower is not black and white. I exercise willpower on every trip to the grocery store, but no checkout person watching my selections bump down the conveyor belt would believe it. What I hope for, one day, is to be free of the need for willpower. I didn't need willpower to avoid heroin. I had no natural desire for it. I didn't need willpower to avoid meat. I ate it when I wanted, in whatever quantity I desired. Willpower is a denial of desire. It can be partial ("I'm not having dessert today") or absolute ("I'm not having dessert ever"), but it is always self-denial. I don't want to curb desire. I want either to indulge it or to eradicate it.

I wish I'd indulged the frosting fantasy as a girl. Rather, I've only purchased pre-made frosting twice, ever. A remarkable show of control, but it would be wrong to go to my grave like this. On the other hand, I would like to live to a ripe old age, which probably means that this foolish self-torture must go on. There is only one clear solution. I'm going to establish an assisted-living residence called Home Sweet Home, where we'll ice our frosting and top our toppings. Children will look longingly through the windows as we play Jelly Belly bingo. We'll provide custom candy bouquets to our residents. We hope you'll join us for the nightly ice-cream social. And the onsite dentist will provide daily plaque removal. We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams. Willy Wonka, eat your heart out.

No Thank You

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Aging is about refining one's taste, while respecting the taste of others. If one takes things too far, one becomes a crank. I can honestly say that as a guest in someone's house, office, or ladies' lounge, I would gratefully accept any of the below, but these are a few of the candies I never buy:

1. Velamints: Try eating an entire pack of Velamints in one sitting. You will never, ever do it again.

2. Tropical Skittles: As a casual Skittles consumer, I have to say, with due respect, that certain of the tropical flavors clash with each other. How hard can that be to avoid?

3. Chunky: When Chunky was released, the TV ads, whatever they were, were salivatingly good. Imagine my disappointment when I found out about the raisins. As far as I, a non-fruit-eater at the time, was concerned, this was a serious error in judgment. Cheeseburgers are good. Reese's work. But when fruit and chocolate are together, one is melting and the other is resisting. You need two mouths to handle the conflicting processes. The only fruit that I can handle in chocolate is the liquidy center of a gift chocolate. I'm told there are plain Chunkys, but my trust has been violated. Chunky will never earn it back.

4. Black licorice: People either are or aren't. I'm not. But I think it's very classy.

5. Dark chocolate: Again, a sophisticated choice. If I were a dark chocolate eater, my whole life and personality would be different. I would know how to dress "office casual." I would be better at wearing hats. I would be able to tie a cherry stem in a knot with my tongue. I would not find self-deprecating humor funny; instead, I would find it puzzling. And I would certainly have better cooking skills.

6. Mary Janes: The bane of piqatas. Mary Janes are simply too, too much of a challenge for my teeth.

7. Whoppers: The Whopper is a decent stand-in for a Milk Dud, but I would never seek one out.

8. Anything crunchy: Nestli White, Krackel, Crunch, Kit Kat, Reese's Sticks, Snickers Crunch, Whatchamacallit. Crunch brings too much air with it. I realize that the crunch is very trendy. It's a favorite in product extension. I'm not going to argue with the crunch market, but I'm not buying. Except, for some reason, Twix. (Rice Krispies Treats tiptoe the border between candy and pastry. So long as the chef doesn't skimp on the marshmallows, they are another exception.)

9. Hard candies: I like to believe that the inventor of hard candies said, "Let's produce a cheap candy that people buy in order to give away." Hard candies are for banks, retail outlets, real estate agencies. They make good sense anywhere you want to give away candy, but you don't want people to be greedy. Go ahead, put out Hershey's Hugs. They'll last a day. But line your lobby with bowls of lemon drops and you'll refill once a month. Exceptions: butterscotches and root beer barrels.

10. Coffee and coconut: I don't look good in gray or salmon. I think I might be an Autumn. Coffee doesn't work for me, not even coffee ice cream. And Mounds taste like shredded paper. Not my thing.

11. Razzles: What is annoying about Razzles is not so much the candy itself, although the "hidden gum" notion is more successful in Blow Pops and I take issue with gum anyway. The annoying reality is that many people think they are absolutely alone and original in their Razzles nostalgia. This is also true for those pretty candy buttons that can't be eaten without trails of their paper backing. These are the candies that everyone loves to remember, but no one truly loved to eat.

12. Redundant candy bars: Oh Henry and Pay Day. There must be loyal followers, but if I'm going to have nuts in my candy, which is a big if, I'm going to get a Snickers.


Hilary Liftin

Hilary Liftin is a writer based in Brooklyn and Los Angeles. She is the coauthor of "Dear Exile: The True Story of Two Friends Separated (for a Year) by an Ocean," a book of letters she exchanged with Kate Montgomery.

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