Friday, November 27, 2009

A Pox on Tropical Candy

I have never been one to stand in the way of candy-related innovations. If anything, I welcome newcomers to the pantheon of sweet treats. However, in the rush to expand their brands, candy corporations often go down a dark path and develop the worst of all possible lines of candy: tropical flavors. Starburst, Skittles, Mike and Ike: these are among the brands that force their ill-conceived flavors upon us.

The problem is not necessarily that these expanded tastes do not live up to the original; indeed, as is generally the case, established candy brands become successful because their original incantations are so good. It is only natural that their sequels will pale by comparison. The Godfather IIs, Empire Strikes Backs and Wrath of Khans are the exception rather than the rule. (In the candy realm, examples of candies that have improved upon the original: the peanut M&M, the addition of the fruit punch Sweetart, and the gummi worm--worms are somehow better than bears.) Yes, the originals are almost always the pinnacle.

However, the tropical flavored candies do not even approach the appeal of the original brand products. Let's take Starburst Tropicals as an example. Was there a group of people out there clamoring for "Mango Melon," "Pina Colada," or "Strawberry Banana" chews? Or, in Skittles, was there a call for "Banana Berry," "Kiwi Lime," or "Pineapple Passion Fruit?" Or, in Mike and Ikes, a grass roots movement for the similarly-flavored "Kiwi Lime," "Strawberry Banana," and "Pineapple Banana?" I would think an answer of "no" to all of these questions is logical. However, all of these brands are pushing these inferior products into the market.


There are a number of reasons that I object to these creations. First, only the vaguest notion of "tropicality" ties the flavors together. Second, the American market is most likely not able to identify some of these flavors-- do we eat a whole lot of passion fruit or kiwi on a daily basis, to the point that we want a candy of those flavors? Third, because these flavors are largely foreign to most, candy producers have no real incentive to get the flavors right; and, since the formulations for these new candy flavors are not widely developed (as are orange or cherry, for instance), even those corporations trying to get them right often fail. Fourth, it seems that corporations do not trust the ability of any "tropical" flavor to stand on its own. Perhaps owing to their inability to develop "kiwi" or "passion fruit" just right, or rightly understanding that no one really wants those flavors in the first place, candy brands force together nasty duos of flavors - one flavor we know and one we don't know or like as well. Every tropical flavor is some haphazard hybridization of often incompatible tastes. Why spoil strawberry with the worst candy flavor possible- banana? Why force kiwi upon lime? Why mask pineapple, a flavor that Americans might know and like, with passion fruit?


In the end, tropical flavors are an unfortunate result of the move toward brand expansion. Sure, the gummi Starburst is a solid product, and the Sour Skittle is a triumph; all expansion is not bad expansion. However, some arenas should not be populated, and tropical is one of them. Perhaps candy companies should have tried to expand into that market, but the fact that they persist is unconscionable.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Jelly: Peanut Butter Be Damned!

This one goes out to Spinner.

I remember the first time I got some jelly fish. It was completely by mistake, and I was actually quite pissed about the whole thing. You see, once again, I was in the candy aisle with my cousin – this time at Wal-Mart. As we often were, we were standing with eyes aglow, attempting to determine our maximum candy purchasing power. At this time, I was relatively new to candy, and I was especially enamored of gummi bears. How could I not be? For years, a whole world of confection had been closed to me, and then one day I got that silky, syrupy gummi in my mouth: the explosion of citric acid, the play of soft and taut, the tiny pieces breaking on the palate, bouncing against the inside of my teeth. But I digress…
The point of the story is this: I saw that a package of gummi bears weighing about 3 ounces went for one sum, while a 6-ounze package of what I thought were gummi fish went for the same price. “Two for one,” I said, to myself. “How could an error like this have slipped through the cracks? Do people find the fish form somehow less appetizing than the bear?” Perhaps in reaction to my lording of, well, a lot over him in the past or maybe because he, too, was fooled, my cousin said nothing as I grabbed the generic package of jelly fish, and he grabbed a sac of gummi bears.
My disappointment registered almost immediately when I opened the package in the car. There was no play of soft and taut on the teeth, only the even texture of a pallet knife cutting through sheetrock mud. I had gotten the wrong product, and as I feverishly turned the package over and again, looking for some explanation, I saw the word “Jelly” where “Gummi” should have been. One cannot fully understand the dismay of a young boy who has spent his last pennies on a bag of candy, only to realize that he has made a bad purchase. I attempted to make some unbalanced trades at the rate of 3, even 4 jellies per gummi, but my cousin was no fool. He knew after my free taste test offer that he had the superior good.
Do these even look like gummis? Man, I was a neophyte...

I look back on that experience with a wry smile, because I am just as apt now to intentionally buy a jelly product as I am a gummi one. Perhaps I over-consumed gummis in a decade-long binge and now appreciate the variety of jelly; or, more likely, I simply understand that jellies are not trying to disguise themselves as gummis in some clandestine attempt to disappoint young boys. No, they are their own medium, with their own set of qualities to be cherished. Jujy Fruit, Dots, Fruit Slices, Swedish Fish, Cinnamon Bears… where would the candy spectrum be without these options? Well, I’ll tell you: nowhere.

While Spinner and I disagree on the relative benefits of various flavors in Swedish Fish, their appeal cannot be argued.

These may be the best of them all; and, notice how cinnamon bears dress up to meet their maker. That's class.

Indeed, the jelly is not the ugly step-child of the gummi, but perhaps, fittingly, a cousin, who only wants to be recognized in his own way, in his own place. “The world is too much with us,” Wordsworth once wrote; on that day some 20 or more years ago, I should have settled down, tasted the jellies I had, accepted them for what they were and become a better man for it.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

It's Been a While...

It's been a while since I have purchased any candy. I cannot identify a reason, really, except that I haven't been in the mood. I always want a little of the sweets around the house, but recently, I have been stuck on donuts, brownies, ice cream-- no candy. Sure, there is some residual candy laying around, and every day or so, I eat a bear or a few beans. I have not gone cold turkey or anything. But I also have not bought any new candy in at least a couple of weeks, I think.

Granted, I have been super busy, so I have not had a lot of time to waste; however, as anyone with a crutch knows, the stressful times are the best times to relax with a nice baggy of the good stuff-- whether it be nose candy or the regular kind. But come to think of it, recently I guess I have been hyper-aware of the lack of variety in the candy aisle. Whereas in the past, a seeming plethora of options dazzled the eye and teased the imagination, now, most candy displays are all the same: plain, boring iterations of how some marketing model says that a limited number of candies will sell best. There is no variety, no style, no panache, and as a result, nothing jumps out at me and into my basket. Oh, I could pound down a box of Jujys, or I could force feed a score or two of Junior Mints, but where is the romance? Where is the narrative?

There could be an image here; however, I think I will allow you to project your ideal candy aisle in the space. Doesn't it look incredible?

I declare right now that this malaise shall not stand. I will find the passion again, if I have to search hill and dale. Somewhere out there, outside of the Krogers and CVSes of the world, there is a display of the kind fabled in my memory. I will find such a place, and I will plunder it. And the world will make sense again.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Looking Back: A Self-Reflexive Project

Anthony Giddens, a noted cultural scholar, argues that our ontological security is defined by how we define our own narratives. He says that we constantly amend, alter, shift how we think of ourselves and present ourselves to others, that all of our machinations are parts of a self-reflexive project of personal identity formation.

Anthony Giddens.

A friend of mine last night noted that this blog seemed to have a wistful theme, a pining for youthful days. This is undoubtedly true. First, the majority of my most poignant candy experiences happened as a wide-eyed youngster, and so, it makes sense that a blog about my-life-in-candy would highlight those formative moments. Also, though, I'd like to write myself back to a time when I was less cynical, more apt to be truly happy, unlikely to get, as I put it often, into "fuck it mode." As such, I'd like my narrative to drift back to happy times, when a fistful of candy and a lake swim or a tree seat meant nirvana.

However, just to show that this blog need not be all rainbows and lollipops, I will tell you a tale of my youth that I do not look back on through rose-colored lenses.

Once I became a bit older (I don't remember exactly how old), I got an allowance of 5 dollars per week for performing weekly chores-- dusting, vacuuming, washing the dishes, mowing the lawn. It wasn't a lot of money, but it allowed me to fuel my two young passions: baseball cards and candy. I was a huge Darryl Strawberry fan, and in a few short years, I had collected over 200 of his cards, over 100 of them distinct. Each week, my cousin and I would get our grandparents to take us up to the local flea market where a baseball card collector had a booth. Once he noticed that each week I would come in looking for Strawberrys, he would have any new or obscure cards he could find waiting for me. I was able to amass an impressive collection, indeed.

The Fleer rookie: once worth $30! The gold standard (excepting the Topps 1983 "extra rookie card," which I never could afford.)

Usually, too, if we had not spent all of our money on cards, we would ask our grandparents to stop at the local grocery store/drug store so that we could pick up some of the sweet stuff. When we went to the grocery store, we would go to the by-the-pound display of individually wrapped candies. You could buy samples for a nickel a piece (on the honors system, too--you just put a nickel in a box on the display!) or you could fill a bag and pay by weight. This was a Brach's display, and the candies available were unique to the display-- most could not be purchased in packaged form. Two varieties I remember distinctly were gumballs surrounded by a cherry candy coating (a blow-pop without the stick, but flavored differently) and a selection of caramel-like chews of all flavors. They were caramel-like in the texture, and some were actually caramel. But there were also maple flavors, chocolate flavors, fruit flavors within caramel, maple, or chocolate flavors, etc. Man, those things were so f*&$%ing good! Of course, you can no longer find them, and the world is worse for it. (Uh oh, there goes the wistfulness again.)

If we didn't go to the grocery store, we headed next door to the Rev-Co (later bought by Rite-Aid). There, of course, you could find all of the normal candies, pre-packaged and glowing in their brilliance. On one occasion I can remember, I steered away from my usual fruit-and-sour pick of candies and bought some chocolate: a Snickers bar and a Zero bar. {I have a great Zero bar story to tell later, so someone remind me of that if you don't see it soon...}

The Zero bar: the only time white chocolate is OK- and, the perfect combo of nougat and almonds.

Anyway, of course my cousin and I were steady woofing down some of our candy in the car. I went for the Zero bar, and my cousin (the misguided soul) went for some Twizzlers. Though the store is only about 3 or so miles from our house, we had each finished our first candies by the time we got half-way home. To my credit, though, I was trying to be good. I restrained myself from eating the snickers, opting to save it for later. If I could bring it out the next day, after my cousin had already eaten his candy, well, I could throw it in his face, couldn't I, moaning and closing my eyes in ecstasy as I slowly ate the chocolaty goodness.

So, once I got home, I put the Snickers under my bed, smiling about my plan for the next day. However, I awoke to a horrific experience. Immediately upon waking, I reached for the candy bar. It was there, where I left it, but something wasn't right. As my hand emerged from beneath the comforter, the issue became clear: the Snickers, and my arm, were covered in ants. Apparently, they, too, were candy lovers and had found their way into my room and had cut a small hole into the wrapper. They were all over the package AND pouring out from the hole. This was straight out of Hellraiser, ya'll.
A life cut short...

Indeed, I cannot fully explain to you the horror of this event. First, I absolutely HATE insects, especially ones that come en masse. Swarming or hording bugs make me ill. And second, of course, the ants had taken my prize. I danced around, shaking ants off me, throwing the candy out the door, itching all over. The rest of the next two hours or so was me on my hands and knees, my face down near the blue carpet, crushing ants. I am scratching myself all over as I write this. So nasty.

The moral of the story, I guess, is that when you plan to use candy for ill, fate has a way of punishing you for your hubris. Let that be a lesson to you all... and an example that not all of my young candy memories are happy ones.

Monday, September 7, 2009

So Eden sank to grief

We moved to that house in the middle of my third grade year. When we first visited the house the summer before, it was a mess. The neighbor spoke about how the previous owner had stood naked on the front porch and peed into the yard. I remember picturing the man relieving himself through the faded trellis that surrounded the porch. I also remember the wallpaper in the kitchen-- white with a blue, naked woman print. There was trash everywhere, and the yard was overgrown and wild. I wondered how we were going to live there, amidst all the filth. But once my Dad had worked on it for just a few months, it was the best of homes. He was a superman with a tool belt, and I could not worship him anymore. The neighborhood also loved him for recuperating the property, and we loved the relative serenity and isolation of our home.

Even though we were in a pretty populated neighborhood, ours was the only road off the highway for miles. We were at the base of the Appalachian Mountains. The summers were mild and the winters wintry enough to please a young boy who loved snow. Just behind the house, a massive hill rose up to what seemed to me a thousand feet. It was so steep that I could not even fully climb it. All along the hill were brambly bushes, prickly berry plants and thick undergrowth.

I sometimes traded cut up legs and arms to eat a few berries.

I liked to imagine what was on top of the hill, but I never dispelled my fantasies by getting up there. A lot of my time was spent in a young maple tree that grew about ten feet up the base of the hill. It hung over the tool shed that abutted the hill. By climbing up to the top of the shed and standing on the roof, I could climb into the tree and onto a branch that hung out over the shed and yard. I was so small and the branch so shaped that it made a perfect seat for me. I sat with my back against the trunk and my legs stretched across that limb for hours a day. If I looked straight out or to the side and not down to the roof of the shed, I was up about 15 feet, on top of the world.

When I wasn't in the tree, I was biding my time until Daddy sent me and my sister to the convenience store at the intersection of our road and the highway. It was the only store for miles. It had all the basics and a deli that made killer sandwiches. Usually we were just sent to pick up some bread or milk, but occasionally it was steak sandwich night. I still remember the smell of the meat on the flattop: a warm, garlicky cloud, with that milky, fecund smell of cheese melting on the grill. We never had that much excess money, so getting these sandwiches was a treat unparalleled. As a result, when we were sent to fetch these sandwiches, we simply hurried down, ordered them, ran home and ate hearty.

However, when we were sent to pick up various sundries, occasionally my sister and I would ask if we could pick up a treat for ourselves. At that time, you could still get Bazooka Joe's for a penny, Atomic Fireballs and Jaw Breakers for two pennies, and small boxes of Lemon Heads or Red Hots for a dime. We never asked what candy we could get- only if we could get some - but we durst not ever get more than those single or small packages. The $0.30 candy bars were way out of our range, and we knew it. We never got candy, and we were used to watermelon and cantaloupe for dessert. Only this convenience store even made us bold enough to ask for candy. We were there so much, and the aisle was so alluring, that there was an unspoken agreement between father and children that if we asked rarely enough, and if we showed proper restraint, we could all be happy.

My favorite of the small wonders was the box of Alexander the Grapes. Made by Ferrara Pan, they were the grape-flavored equivalent of the more famous Lemon Heads. A crumbly, sweet purple grape casing surrounded a chewier, sour center. The combination was heavenly, and there were a good 15 or so candies, even in that small box.
Just looking at this box makes me want to cry for lost youth.

The candies now go under the name "Grape Heads," and the formulation has changed. They can never approximate the joy they brought me all those years ago. Many a day, I sat on my branch, looking out over the street to the mountains in the distance, sucking on Alexander the Grapes until I could not stand it any longer, and bit into the center. So powerful, in fact, was my experience with candy from that store that I once let greed overtake my judgment.

On one of those special days when my sister and I were sent to pick up some sandwiches, I felt I could reach up and touch the sky. I had not asked my Dad if I could get any candy, and I had no reason to-- we were getting the sandwiches, an occasion not to be taken lightly. However, as my sister went to the counter to order the sandwiches, I wandered over to the candy aisle. I poured up and down, looking at all the options, wondering what so many of them tasted like. I wanted the total package-- sandwich, family, candy. I knew my sister, who had the money, would not give me even a penny for a piece. She had been instructed to bring home the change, and we would not steal from our father. Really, I would never even have asked her to. But as an 8-yr old, the pull was too strong. I was a slave to the call of the sugar. So, thinking to myself that I could palm a small piece of candy (a box was too big and would make too much noise), I reached down and grabbed a tootsie roll. Even as I turned and reached to put it in my pocket, I saw the cashier staring at me. "Did you pay for that, honey?" she said. There was no malice on her voice; it even seemed sympathetic. She was giving me the benefit of the doubt. How many times had I been in there, after all?

I Imagine me on the left side of this aisle, attempting to will the candy deftly into my pocket.

But I could not be concerned with her tone. My ears were burning, my father's disappointment was on me, and I felt the shame of a thousand criminals. I threw the candy back, ran over to my sister at the counter, and begged her to go. We did not have the sandwiches yet, and I tried to hide behind her until they came out. When they did, I let her go to the counter as I shrank by the front door. The cashier never said a word to my sister, and nothing ever came of that incident, but it must have been months before I would go back to that store. Ironically, the attempt to grab one morsel of candy probably stopped me from getting twenty times as much over the next few months.

A couple years after the incident, we moved away from that house, and I haven't been back since. Still, despite my shame, I have never really felt as comfortable as I did in our small little house, at the bottom of the hill, with a store full of candies and sandwiches at the end of the road.

Monday, August 31, 2009

You Are What You Eat...

I wrote a "poem" for a final project in high school about a man describing his love for a woman in candy terms. One especially compelling couplet was, "Your glowing eyes and flowing hair / Could rival even gummi bears." Also, if you remember, one of the early posts on this blog has me describing "Fructor," the god of candy-- he has licorice hair and jolly rancher fingers. These facts put me in mind of the axiom, "you are what you eat," and how I seem to keep returning to that theme in my thoughts.

It makes me wonder what candies I would ideally construct myself from, if such an awesome thing were possible. I would want to maintain a certain level of functionality as a candy man, but I also think that a flight of fancy requires some jouissance, throwing caution and impracticality to the wind. Additionally, I think that I would want to be able to enjoy eating myself if ever I was stranded without food, or when I felt my life had reached its proper end.

Not the Candy Man I am talking about...

All these things considered, I would want to have a variety of different tastes and textures for the big end-it-all. A completely sour or fruit-flavored body would make my last supper a bit monotonous and blase. Additionally, all hard candy or all soft candy parts would be texturally unsatisfying. Aside from these aesthetic concerns, however, the biggest thing to consider is the material from which the teeth would be constructed. One must be able to chew himself, in all his textures, in order to eat himself. My initial idea on that note is that the teeth should be made of a specially dense variety of Jolly Rancher. As candy eaters know, a normal Jolly Rancher might not be ideal, because the candy tends to shatter into shards when bitten. One would not want his teeth to splinter in such ways. However, if a denser JR could be constructed, that candy would make perfect teeth, because JRs are great to just leave in your mouth for a long time for flavor, and they tend to stick to your teeth when bitten. If one's teeth were made of JRs, not other parts, one would not have to worry about the JR parts of the body sticking to the teeth. I hope that makes sense.

Still not right...

Past that pragmatic concern, though, I am uncertain how I would construct myself per se. I have some basic ideas of what kinds of candies would HAVE to be a part of my candy-Voltron-type body (readers of the blog can guess what a number of those are) but the difficulty, I think, comes in the subtle details. When eating oneself, for instance, what surprises would one like to find? Would fingernails and toenails be of the same substance? If hair were made of licorice, say, would it be of one flavor or multiple? Would sets, like legs and arms, be matching, or would they be disparate? These and many other questions linger and make me think that the candied body is something that will continue to occupy my thoughts. Such a wondrous possibility must not be fired off in a matter of minutes for some high school poem. It must be more carefully considered.


Sunday, August 30, 2009

Birthday Candy

A couple of weeks ago, it was my birthday, and I celebrated by having dinner with some friends. I was already seated at the restaurant with a couple friends as two more entered with a gift for me: birthday candy. How did they know? Is it possible that I have spoken about candy in their presence? I must have, because the choice of candied gift was sublime-- Starburst Jelly Beans.

These little beans are the perfect blend of Starburst flavors and jelly bean texture.

The best part about the gift (aside from the fact that I got me some candy) is that my friends got me good candy, in a large bag. Those details mean they have been paying attention. Sometimes I prattle on, and it might be pretty easy to tune me out. However, my diatribes about hybrid candies and generous portions must have sunk in, as they avoided the surprisingly inferior Sweetart jelly beans and went with a proven, "family-sized" product. Though I wonder at the additions of Green Apple and Grape flavors (as these are not flavors of regular Starbursts) I find the Starburst Jelly Beans to be the perfect size-- small enough that you get more flavor than neutral jelly center-- and having vibrant and non-cloying sweetness.

While this gift reminded me of the importance of knowing your friends, it also puts me in mind of the joy of occasion candy. Already this year, I have received a ton of candy attached to special occasions. At the year's beginning, I was still munching on a few pounds of Xmas goodies. In February, I was home to visit the family, and I got a Valentine's assortment that included one of the strongest candies of all-time: Sweetart Hearts. The family was paying attention, too.

The gold standard.

Later, at Easter, friends and I gathered to share a tremendous meal and ate a couple of sleeves of caramel Cadbury eggs. Then there was my birthday. And coming up is Halloween and Xmas again. It is nice to think about what a place candy has assumed in American culture. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of diabetes. The candied life.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

There's Something about Airport Candy

Not so long ago, I wrote about getting a bad package of Starburst candies-- that was in an airport. However, despite that experience, I still believe that eating candy at the airport is one of life's pleasures. Maybe it is not surprising that my general loves of the airport and candy make their pairing attractive, but I think it is more than that.

This has nothing to do with this post.

And, even the tremendous delays that accompany air travel these days has not soured my love of the airport binge; I mean, has anyone tried to get somewhere on a schedule recently? Good freaking luck. The lack of flights and workers has led, seemingly, to a ton of delays, maintenance issues and unhappy travelers. All the more reason, perhaps, to visit the little news stand in the E terminal to purchase a 5 dollar bag of gummi worms or a three dollar Baby Ruth. Of course, there are always those larger bags of sweets that you can get cheaper if you buy two, but only just barely. But none of that matters... because as you sit there on an "aisle" seat in the terminal, watching the parade of humanity walk, run, and ride by, you cannot think of the last time you had such a tasty chocolate covered cashew or orange slice.

Who shops at these airport stores? See, that is something I can think about over a few hundred Skittles.

Indeed, if I am not faced with the promise of an imposed 6-hour delay, I could sit happily for hours in an airport, chomping on over-priced candy, thinking not at all of the world I am escaping. Whether headed to an exciting vacation or home to a pile of work, I never let myself forget to stop and quietly, methodically eat some candy and watch the people go by. If only all the world were so...

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Australia: Land of Licorice

If you have ever eaten a Twizzler, you know what a bland, dull experience "licorice" can be. Granted, I have eaten a ton of Twizzlers in my day, but I have rarely bought them myself to eat. Usually, the giant bag of Twizzlers shows up at a gathering, and of course, it is better to eat candy than to not. However, every time I partake of Twizzlers, I am struck by the relative lack of flavor and irksome waxiness of the product.

These things are OK, I guess, but not really "good."

This is not so of licorice produced in Australia. First, the licorice has no hole in the middle to fudge the actual weight of the candy; this allows for a dense, full bite of licorice. Second, the licorice tastes like the flavor it announces, not a ghostly hint of that flavor amidst a mouthful of wax. The licorice is the star, not the medium. I'm telling you, if you ever get your hands on some licorice produced in Australia, you will never return to Twizzlers. It is a divine, wondrous product that, yes, you will pay a bit more for, but which will be well worth the cost. And, actually, once you factor in the relative lack of weight you get with the ridged, holey Twizzler, I am not that sure you are paying that much more for the good stuff. Convert over, people. You will not be disappointed.
A couple of added bonuses are evident from this photo: there are better flavors (like Raspberry-- and I've had strawberry, green apple, and back licorice flavors, too) and the candy either comes in convenient resealable plastic tubs or this satisfying wax paper bag pictured here. **NOTE: I understand that Twizzlers comes in a bunch of "flavors," but really, they are all just wax with food coloring.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Paul Harvey en Bruxelles

...the rest of the story is that I saw Stella again eight months later in a petit cafe in Bruxelles. I was in a corner table when she walked in. The gray wool pea-coat and the silk pashmina fit the weather, but the maroon camisole was purely for style. As she unwrapped the scarf, she threw her hair back over her shoulder, and her face was ruddy and glowing. She walked to the counter, ordered a cup of black coffee, as was her tradition, and took her tasse to the patio outside. Normally, I'd be out there, but I had wanted to read without the wind interfering. Neither of us had ever minded the cold; still, as she sat, she flipped the scarf back around her neck. It was a brisk March morning.

From where I sat, I could watch her with little chance of her seeing me. She sipped the cafe and sat back in her seat as if she were queen. She just sat there; she watched people walk by; she looked up at the clouds and rubbed her cheeks with mittened hands. For about half an hour I sat, transfixed by this simple scene. It was as if I was in the bedroom and she in the salon, drinking her morning coffee. She always used to get up earlier than I. I would usually wake and watch her for a few minutes before I went to meet her. I've never known if she knew she were being observed, but if she did, she never let on.

So here we were again, a few blocks from the Broodhuis, in the middle of Belgium, sharing this intimate, quiet coffee. When the moment had passed, Stella picked up the cup, took it back inside to the counter, mumbled a "Merci," and was gone into the streets. I sat staring at the the corner she turned, on her way north to who knows where. After a few minutes, I stood, put on my coat, nodded to the woman at the register and walked outside. I turned south and meandered past the square. Renaissance and Baroque edifices gave way to small shop fronts and fecund smells. I wasn't paying much attention to the shops until I spied a quaint little confiserie. If you have ever been to a chocolatier in Europe, you know what a sensory paradox it is. The smells are muted-- rich, but not sweet. They tantalize with the subtlety of a stockinged ankle jutting from beneath a calf-length skirt. Simultaneously, the deep, rich colors of the chocolates warm the body as you gaze upon them. The bright, shining glazes of raspberry and mint and orange jump at you from the mini chocolates, daring you to taste them.

I stood for a moment, trying to think of the French word for caramel, my eyes pouring over the hundreds of choices. Eventually, I stepped to the counter, pointed to three sets of chocolates and said, "Deux, trois, deux." I didn't really know what flavors they were, but they were works of art. Equipped with a wax paper full of bonbons, I stepped back into the street. I bit into the first candy and found a strawberry jelly. The dark chocolate off-set the sweetness of the preserves.

Looking down too much at my prizes, I bumped into a passing Frau with sensible, padded shoes. "Pardonnez-moi," I said, pretty sure she understood me. She looked shortly at me and pushed past. "Ah--" I said. "'Caramel' is caramel in French," and I walked on.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Sweet and Sour

I went to the candy aisle today to get some Sour Starburst, and I thought they were out for a minute, but as if left there just for me, a package with the word "sour" sat to the side of a large shelf hole where its compatriots used to be... or so I thought. For I found later, upon eating the first blue-wrappered candy, that this was not my sour blue raspberry tasty. No, as I came to realize after fulling reading the package, this was a "new" flavor, no-marketing ploy, no, flavor, I guess: the "sweet raspberry." And the name was perfectly descriptive. The chew was sickly sweet, a treacly abomination, especially for one expecting the satisfying bite and teeth clinch of a sour Starburst.

The Offender.

You see, Mars Corporation, to try to expand its already diluted line of over-stretched brand- I mean candies- has added this new half sweet, half sour package where you get 3 "sweet blue raspberry" candies, three "sweet strawberry" ones and 3 each of the sour watermelon and green apple Starbursts. The package says "Starburst Sour," but to the side of that, it says "Sour 6 chews / Sweet 6 chews." I did not read this part.

Now, I am all for brand development if quality is not sacrificed. A diversified candy world is a great world. However, Starburst mostly has two great fruit chew packages and a slew of trash. There are the original, which are top ten in the candy pantheon, and there are the sours, also very strong. And, granted, their Gummy Bursts and Starburst Easter jellybeans (Joosters) are very nice. Solid additions to the brand. The rest of the fruit chew line, however, is for dilettantes dabbling in the sweet science. Berries and Creme chews? I think not. Am I eating yogurt or candy here? Icy Bursts? What the hell is a Kiwi Snowberry? Where is that grown? In the Arctic Tropical regions? Soda Slammers? Yeah, that's what we've been waiting for: chewable soda.Like I say, these are quite solid. This kind of expansion is fine: take the original flavor and change the vehicle.

Listen, Starburst (Mars), you guys are great-- nobody's saying that you aren't great. But all these perversions of a great product are diluting your brand, not enhancing it. Also, can I have my dollar back? You clearly are marking these packages abstrusely so that people like me will accidentally try these nasty bits you are marketing now.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

A Shortcut to Mushrooms

We were in the car for a long time that day. Or, at least, so it seemed. When you're young, you don't like any rides more than twenty minutes or so. You've all seen it in the movies. Hollywood really nailed that whole "are we there yet" bit. Spot on.

But eventually, I started to recognize some familiar sites. The dizzying turns on those mountain roads began to straighten out, and my nausea subsided slightly. When Dad pulled into that convenience station, I eagerly jumped out to feel the solid ground beneath my feet. The station was one of those small, old-time places, with Coke in 12-ounce glass bottles, off-brand pork rinds and individual beef sticks. But my sister and I weren't interested in any of that; we headed straight for the candy aisle.

We rarely asked if we could get anything, because we had been trained to know that the unasked question often got the desired answer. Sure enough, just looking down at the Bazooka Joe gums, the Atomic Fireballs and the Fun Dips did the job. Dad came up to us and told us to grab something so that we could go. My sister quickly grabbed a roll of SweeTarts, as if she was sure of her choice, but I was more hesitant. I had not had most of these candies before, and I did not even know what a SweeTart was. The one thing I did know was that I did not want to miss out on what my sister seemed so keen on; well, that, and that the SweeTart roll gave the impression of containing the most candy in its class. That roll was way longer than the Rollo one, for instance. So, I, too, grabbed some SweeTarts, and away we went.

Simple. Classic. Elegant.

When I tore open the end of that roll in the car, I noted the color and asked my sister what color hers was. I don't remember her being interested in comparing. But before I could eat the first one, I had to count the candies so that I could ration them. Through the taut paper wrapper, I marked the end of each candy with my thumb and counted 26 lines. That made 27 pieces. Astounding. I could not believe that my Dad had let us each get so much candy. Usually, it was watermelon and yogurt for us. Occasionally, an individual tootsie roll or the like, but nothing like this. I wanted to clutch the roll to my stomach and double over so that it would be impossible for anyone to get at my stash. 27 candies. Sunshine brand became a god to me that day.

I ate the first SweeTart and was even more enamored of my treasure. It was a pink one, and man, was it sweet. I quickly ate the green one that was next, and had to stop myself from scarfing through half the pack. By the time we got to the lake, I had stopped at 3, leaving 24 candies to go. The lake was one of our favorite places, because someone had put up a water-slide that went out into the deeper water. It was just a regular slide that had water running down it. None of these crazy whirli-gigs that are all the rage these days. Just a lake and a slide. I was a little afraid of heights, so climbing up that slide was a bit terrifying, but the ride down was awesome.

The view from below.

That day was a blur of climbing up the slide, shooting down into the luke warm water, running to the car to eat a candy and repeating the whole process. I splashed my Dad and sister in the water and ranked the SweeTarts flavors. I rushed about with the energy of the sugar and felt the sun on my face. I laughed with my sister and wished she was always like this.

Eventually, we tired ourselves out and started the ride back as the sun set. I climbed over the backseat into that station wagon place where a trunk would be and I slept the sleep of the just: with half a pack of SweeTarts clutched in my hand and the sweetest of dreams dancing through my head.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Bulk Candy: The Gourmand's Dilemma

If you have ever been in a modern candy store-- and I mean a real candy store, a place that ONLY sells candy -- you know that almost all candy there is sold in bulk. In fact, many grocery stores, following the example of these fancier 'boutiques,' now often feature a bulk candy aisle alongside the traditional packaged candy section.

A typical stand-alone bulk candy display.

The sight/site of so much candy can, indeed, make one feel like a kid in a candy store. The sheer scope of these displays of candy is astounding. Pounds and pounds of all sorts of confection dazzle the eye and delight the nose. Especially when one enters a candy shoppe, the sensory assault can be overwhelming. Chocolates, hard candies, sours, gummis, jelly beans, bit'o'honeys, gumballs... the list goes on and on. For anyone wanting volume, variety and a sugar-induced coma, bulk candy is the way to go. And in fact, there are many varieties of candy that it it very hard to find in any other form than bulk (in stores or in quarter candy machines in supermarkets).
I admit to having many times gotten a hodge-podge bag of goodness and eaten until I could stomach no more.

These Blox candies and Tangy Tarts are notoriously hard to find in packaged quantities.

, there are a number of negatives when it comes to bulk candy. First, the cost. These days, one can find very few, if any, bulk candy prices that are less than $5.99/lb (and usually, $7.49 is more the norm). This is against the very nature of the pricing of goods. If generic cereals and green beans have taught us anything, it's that we spend more buying the brand,
the packaging, the distribution, and the advertising that come with goods, than the actual goods. None of that applies to these bulk candy suppliers, so why is the candy so much more expensive? When I get some malted milk balls in bulk, am I paying for Whoppers? I think not! I am getting Bill's Candy Warehouse's finest. A further example: I can get a 5-lb bag of gummi bears in pretty much any store for like $10 or so, but I am supposed to pay $6-8/lb in bulk because I can get gummi dinosaurs and gummi penguins? Newsflash! Shape is not equal to flavor! Everyone knows that buying things in bulk is cheaper, yet you, bulk candy people, are selling some ideal of "boutique" to me (I guess) with these outrageous prices. Shame. Shame.

Another draw-back of the bulk candy is freshness/cleanliness. There has been many an occasion where I have tried to dig into a mound of Swedish Fish or Juji Fruit, only to find that the mound is, in fact, a clump. You have to be really careful to verify the freshness of the candy in these things. Also, though there are marked signs that indicate that only scoops should be used to get the candies out of the bins, you know that a TON of grimy rugrats have had their greasy little paws all over a bunch of that candy. And, those bins are not air-tight, so all air-borne bacteria are making quite a home in the bins. You may sacrifice your health by eschewing factory sealed packaging. It's like a bacterial Club Med in there.

Here are the green apple, grape, strawberry, orange and lime strains of staphylococcus.

Finally, you rarely get the premium brands of candy in bulk. As I already alluded to, Whoppers will not be Whoppers, gummis will not be Haribo, and Swedish Fish will be "Scandinavian Water Creatures." So even if you find some
relatively cheap, fresh-looking candy in bulk bins, often you are getting inferior candy stock. And that means no packaging, which is a big lack. I like to know about the candy I am eating and in what proportion the maltodextrin is to the citric acid. These things sooth me.

All in all, though, I cannot say that all these things have kept me wholly away from the bulk bins. There is something about seeing all that candy in such variety. Their siren song will no doubt pull my ship onto the crags again.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


So apparently, these things have been around for about a decade:

While I cannot claim to keep up with the kiddie vitamin market, it surprises me to find that there are gummi vitamins out there. Gummi bears, worms, dinosaurs? Check. Gummi rats, skeletons, body parts? OK. I can accept that. But gummi vitamins? I must object.

But wait, you may be saying: 'Aren't you a proponent of gummis so much so that you cannot go home without your step-mother throwing a bag of bears at you at some point?' Well, yes, and God bless her. And, you might add, 'You support all those other varieties of gummi, so why not vitamins?' Well, I'll tell you.

First, all those other things are just shapes-- molds. Adding vitamins to gummi is an altering of the substance. It is making vitamin what was once gummi. Gummi is not a medium that can take on all additions and remain gummi. Can you add cookies to tacos and still have tacos? No. Stop making gummis taste all strange with your B12s and Niacins, Flinstone vitamin products. The authenticity of gumminess must be preserved.

Second, kids who need to get vitamins through a vitamin product do not need to be eating candy. Sure, I love candy and eat a lot of it; however, know what else I eat a lot of? Food. Turns out there are tens, if not hundreds of different kinds of food out there in the world, a lot of which are not all processed corn by-products and oils. Many of these foods contain vitamins-- plenty, in fact, to support human life. Look into it, parents.

These are products being developed in Dole's new Froots 'N' Vegg-ease vitamin line, expected to drop in Spring 2010.

Finally, parents need to sac up here: stop babying your kids. If for some reason they need to take their vitamins, make them take the vitamins. It should be a relatively unpleasant experience. When young Skippy has an iron deficiency because he won't eat his broccoli, and you won't force him to eat that, he doesn't get a handful of gummis, too! WTF, stupid parents? A big part of life is that there are a lot of unpleasant things that one must go through on a daily basis. Get some object lessons in while the kids are impressionable.

And stop messing with my candy, vitamin people.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Serving Size

One point eight ounces.
Memories of my first love:
SweeTarts, ShockTarts, Sprees.

These were renamed "Shockers," one of the more spineless moves in modern candy nomenclature.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

School Days

As a junior in high school, I was known as the "candy god." Not because all candies counted me as a deity, but because I seemed to produce the stuff in this jacket I used to wear all the time. I didn't tell anyone, but the only creation story that happened with me was the one where I would stop at the drug store each day before school. They had a lot of candy there. I am uncertain whether some higher power produced it, or whether it was large, faceless corporations. I suspect the latter, but it is exciting to try to envision a candy god. I call him Fructor, and his body is composed of every sugary sweetness imaginable. Created in his own image and all.

Imagine this guy, but with jolly ranchers for fingers and licorice for hair.

To come to the moral, I was the de facto supplier of candy for most of the student population my junior year- at least for those in the know. I was like the corner dealer-- everybody gets a taste, but the second time's a dime. Tell a friend.

One day I was chomping on some of the individual SweeTart rolls modeled after Smarties. At around a dollar per sack and 27 rolls per sack, we are talking a 100% profit with 7 rolls for personal consumption. Individual packaging: one of the gifts that Fructor has bestowed upon us.
Smarties ain't got shit on these.

Anyway, being a gracious dealer, I was also sharing a bag of gummi bears with some of my best clients. Keeps em coming back. As if by divine intervention, I threw a handful of gummis into my mouth while still working on a full roll of mini-SweeTarts. Maybe it was like the moment when someone dropped their Hershey into a vat o' peanut butter, or maybe it was like the synergy achieved when good timing meets good planning - whatever. Point is, at that moment, I pre-saged the coming of a gummi* SweeTart. Long had I considered the two entities to be at the apex of candy production (despite the fact that at that point I was eating Brach's gummis-- ah, youth!). Their union would represent, I thought, one of the greatest moments in the history of sweetkind. Those in attendance that day can tell you that I even drew sketches of the new product; it was as if the very hand of the Creator reached into my brain and implanted the image of what would,
just weeks later, emerge on the market.

The irony , of course, is that though the Gummy SweeTart is a fine product, and the world is better for them, they do not live up to the sum of their parts. A good gummi or SweeTart far outstrips the combination of the two. I often bemoan the fact that I had not the foresight or resources to research the development of the Gummy SweeTart myself; perhaps then the product would be the transcendent experience I envisioned lo those many years ago. As it is, each time I eat a Gummy SweeTart now, a little pang shoots through my body. "If only," I say to myself. "If only." This is what lost dreams look like.

*NOTE: You may note the inconsistencies in the spelling of "gummi/gummy" in this post. While SweeTarts and most American candies prefer the "y" spelling - "gummy" - I, except when referring to branded products, prefer the more whimsical, European "i" spelling - "gummi."

Monday, April 27, 2009

Eroica: A Stroll through Bonn

I gazed up at the parapet at Sterntor, and I felt I could hear a thousand Roman footsteps advancing on my position. It was comforting to think of a time in history when things were so black and white. Though they sacked, pillaged, and raped their way across Europe, the Romans represented the sincerest form of order: absolute power. For centuries, none could oppose the strength of Italy, and none dared even think it. Now, all that remains of so massive a force is a set of ruins here or there, or reproductions like this "Star Gate" spotting the modern cities of Europe. I guess Robert Frost was right: nothing gold can stay.

I walked for miles, lost in reveries of Rome. I remember thinking that Napoleon would have been a Roman were he born to an earlier era. He brought the spirit of Rome back to Bonn and inspired the best of men to stratospheric heights. I walked without direction as I imagined Napoleon as a legionnaire. I never once looked at a map or a road sign. I had no true sense of where I was going, but I knew I was going somewhere. It was as if I could hear the distant strains of some melody, and I ambled toward it until it became palpable. When the sounds became discernible instruments, I looked up to see the the facade of Beethovenhaus.

Beethovenhaus seemed stately and austere on its facade, but once I stepped inside, the warmth of the home, even preserved as a museum, hit my chest like a closed fist. The only sounds were the steps of our shoes on the hardwood floors, but as I wandered through this monument, I sensed the C minor of Pathetique build from a melancholy musing to a hurried jaunt.

By the time I walked back out the front door, the horn of Eroica's first movement blared in my ears. It had always reminded me of the first, unsteady steps of a new relationship. Stella and I had stumbled our way through those first few months, swept away by the novelty of each other. We listened intently to the details of each others' days, of family histories, of childhood traumas, sure that we were building something unique. But it turns out that the horn blasts were only a theme, one that would play out over and again, sometimes with variations, but always recognizable. For a time, there was comfort in the regularity. We drifted through Europe, living the carefree lives of two ex-pats with money in our pockets and romantic ideals in our heads. But somewhere along the way, our footfalls fell too easily into unison. Our playful skipping became a metered funeral march. Horn gave way to orchestra, and we couldn't hear each other through the din. She looked one day at me and turned to walk into a little patisserie in Aix. I did not follow.

After that, I traveled by train, a velo, taxen fliegen, na stopie. It was freeing to flit away the weeks, touring others' histories, ignoring my own, but, eventually, I began to crave a return to order. I needed a standard, a place to fit in, something that would never let me down or bore me, whose repetitive rhythm was not droning or commonplace. As I turned to look once more on Ludwig's birthplace, I grabbed a handful of Haribo Gold-Bears from the pocket of my backpack. The waxy, firm texture felt at home on my teeth. The gelatin squeaked on the enamel and fell apart into manageable chunks on my tongue. "Apres moi, le deluge," I thought to myself, a broad smile on my face as I skipped back to the hotel.