Author and appropriately-named candyfreak Steve Almond talks to Pitchaya Sudbanthad about the best unknown chocolate bars in America, espionage within the big candy makers, and what it’s like to set off metal detectors with your mouth.
Name, era of birth, website: Steve Almond. Born just before the Age of Aquarius, appropriately enough, naked. Site: www.stevenalmond.com.
Occupation title(s), both real and desired-in-another-lifetime: Real: Writer. Author of the short story collection, My Life in Heavy Metal, and Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America.
Another lifetime: Chocolate engineer.
Please give us a short primer on the importance of candy in your life:
I’ve eaten a piece of candy every day of my life. I think about candy at least once an hour. I have between three and seven pounds of candy in my house at all times. I know more about candy than any woman I’ve ever been involved with. My mouth sets off metal detectors.
When you were writing Candyfreak, you visited a lot of old-time candy factories. What was the strangest machine that you saw?
That honor belongs either to the ‘Nut Applicator,’ which is the device that, uh, applies nuts to a Goo Goo Cluster, and which narrowly beats out the ‘Coconut Depositor,’ which snows coconut flakes onto a candy bar called the Idaho Spud. I could watch both for hours. Indeed: I HAVE watched both for hours.
You mentioned that there once were thousands of candies in the U.S. Where have all the candy gone? Is there a speculative market in endangered candy bars?
Yes indeed. Companies like candydirect.com have made a good deal of money by selling hard-to-find products. People are so freaky about their favorite candies, that they’re willing to order the stuff off the Internet if they can’t find it in the local stores. God bless ‘em. As for the disappearance of candy bars, this is the result of consolidation. The Big Three (Mars, Hershey, Nestle) buy out smaller companies and discontinue their bars, if they compete with existing bars. This is what happened to my favorite bar, the Caravelle. When Peter Paul got bought out, it disappeared. Sad. Very, very sad.
Favorite books: Good Christ. I’ll keep this brief: Howard’s End; Pride & Prejudice; Jesus’ Son; The Brothers Karamazov; The Visit of the Royal Physician (Per Olav Enquist); Money (Martin Amis); The Great Gatsby.
How much free candy did you get while writing this book?
Several dozen pounds, or, to be more accurate: not enough.
What makes you laugh: Calvin Trillin (on food), George Saunders (on anything), Anthony Lane, South Park.
Who’s on your Candyfreak All-Stars Team? Why?
1. The Caravelle: The greatest candy bar you’ve never tasted. Boasted the same ingredients as the 100 Grand’s caramel, crisped rice, milk chocolate, but was approximately 100 times better.
2. Kit Kat Dark: The bittersweet coating tastes like a fine chocolate pudding, with hints of French Roast. Devotees have been known to drive across state lines in pursuit of this limited edition.
3. Lake Champlain Five Star Bar Hazelnut: This gourmet bar combines crushed hazelnuts, Belgian chocolate, and feuilletine, a crushed pastry that lends the bar its addictive texture.
4. Sifer’s Valomilk: A rich vanilla syrup in a creamy chocolate cup, this confection is built to spill. Your tongue will thank you.
5. Big Hunk: A comely slab of chewy vanilla nougat, shot through with fried peanuts. If you love the flavor of cake batter, the Hunk is your dreamboat.
6. Hershey’s Cookies ‘N Mint: Hershey committed a crime against mint lovers when they discontinued this sublime bar.
7. Twin Bing: Narrowly beats out the Idaho Spud as the strangest candy bar still in production. A cherry cream surrounded by a lump (and I do mean lump) of chocolate and ground peanuts.
Describe Steve Almond’s ultimate candy bar.
A crisp wafer held together with hazelnut paste, topped by crushed hazelnuts and enrobed in dark chocolate. A couple of others:
The Huckleberry Hound: A purple huckleberry nougat wrapped in dark chocolate. I’d never tried huckleberry before I visited the Idaho Candy Company. It’s incredibly fruity and intense.
Just Minted: Light cookie wafers stuck together with mint and enrobed in dark chocolate. There’s just not enough mint in our candy bars. You need a dark chocolate to balance the mint, which has a strong flavor.
Heroes: Abraham Lincoln, Joe Henry (musician), Adlai Stevenson, Freud, my late grandfather Irving Rosenthal.
Is there really a Willy Wonka?
No, though Roald Dahl did base Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory on historical fact. Specifically, the intense competition between two British candy companies, Cadbury and Rowntree. They were constantly accusing one another of industrial espionage. The Big Three are still intensely paranoid. At Mars, outside workers called in to repair machinery in areas considered proprietary are blindfolded, allowed to fix the machine in question, then blindfolded and escorted out of the plant. Nice.
Charity worth giving to: Artists
You put in a few quarters into a vending machine. You press the necessary buttons. The candy is stuck. What happens?
The machine gets kicked. Hard.
Five words that sound great: Enrobe, Feuilletine (a crushed pastry used in certain candies), Chutzpah, Mishagoss, Chana masala.