Rating - 3: worth reading once (borrow it from a library)
Very enjoyable. [Rating update: it remains a 3, because I do not know that you will want to read it more than once in your life, but this is one of my most highly recommended books of the year. It is a really good 3.]
Steve Almond takes a tour of America's smaller candy bar producers, reveling in his passion for candy and those who share it. It is a decadent journey with cascades of chocolate, experiments in mango filling, tears for the economics of the small-scale confectioner, and Mr. Almond's personal trauma of using chocolate to fill the gaps in his emotional life.
This is a very personal book, which is partly to say that it is not a serious or studious work. Despite obviously having some, Mr. Almond explicitly scorns research in support of his candy quest. He talks to the candy makers who will talk to him. He eats the candy that falls before him, which is quite a bit when you are touring candy bar factories.
A great highlight of the book is the description of consuming various candy bars. This is obviously a passion, with great care given to half-page descriptions of just how peanuts and nougat interact in a particular bar. Care is given to tastes, smells, textures, and how they change in the eating process. This is book is not just about candy bars, it is about eating candy bars. Pornography expresses less vivid sensual joys.
I respect Mr. Almond's scorn for haughty chocolate. You can find candy descriptions that sound like wine snot guides, with descriptions of a particular woody taste from beans harvested under the full moon in a certain region of Ghana. This is mostly crap. Mr. Almond's descriptions of the eating experience are not like that, though he exhibits a love for various kinds of chocolate, along with a hatred of shredded coconut (like all good-hearted people). When I see a $5 candy bar, I assume that someone is trying to get away with something, rather than "this could be the best candy bar of my life." But I might try a Five Star bar.
The book is also personal in that Mr. Almond inserts himself into it at various points in a non-candy-sensitive context. He repeats that he has always used candy as a support when his relationships with others have let him down, back to his childhood. His therapist gets several mentions. And then he goes back to saying how much he really likes candy bars. He successfully suggests both that this is a serious problem, that Americans consume in an attempt to fill the gaping holes in our souls, but that he is not taking himself entirely seriously. Except for the last chapter, which could be entirely excised, this is an effective sprinkling throughout the book.
The other sprinkling is political and economic commentary. There are gratuitous attacks on President Bush and the Republican party, often couched with the same "of course, I'm a sad sack" self-deprecation. There are several pages on chocolate being the result of exploiting the third world for the instant gratification of a rapacious, obese America. And then he goes back to saying how much he really likes candy bars.
The real economic commentary is about the elephant in the room, the big candy bar makers. The cover font is letters cut from various candy bars, many of which are never mentioned in the text. He avoids Hershey, Mars, Nestle, etc. Partly this is because they are secretive about their recipes and methods; Roald Dahl's Willy Wonka spy drama was based on fact. Mostly this is because he wants to talk about all the little producers who make wonderful little products that you might not see on your local shelves.
It costs something to get on Wal-Mart's shelves or in the impulse items rack. You pay for placement, you give a discount, you supply a nationwide chain, that sort of thing. The little guys cannot do that, so they face a much smaller market, competing against larger and more accessible brands. And then he eats a Snickers bar.
The production of candy bars is shown as an intimate process, and not just at the factories that hand-make them. We see a chocolate engineer who is experimenting with different nations' chocolate and different types of cherry in making a new high-end confection. One Midwestern producer makes a delicate product that ruptures at high altitudes, so it cannot be transported across mountains or by plane. Several have issues with not being able to ship into hot areas because they cannot afford refrigerated delivery trucks. The company president might hand-service finicky machinery, while others are working on recipes for new candy bars.
The variation between candy bars can be subtle but very important. Does this one have too many peanuts? not enough nougat? should we layer them differently? Mr. Almond emphasizes that an important factor in determining what is "right" is what we are used to. Brand loyalty perpetuates itself as you develop a taste for a sort of chocolate. This reinforces the difference between the big and small producers, as you come to expect a particular candy experience. It also opens up a great deal of room for variation, specialization, and getting it all just right, along with the chance for Mr. Almond to describe another bar in its sensual glory.
I wish to pull out two bits that are noted then walked away from. One is that kids today have more candy bar options than they did when there were more candy bar options. Wait, what? Large national distributors have brought a panoply of colors to the candy aisle, as opposed to whatever local brands were available 100 years ago. Things are more similar nationwide, but more diverse locally.
The other bit is that the scale of the multi-national conglomerates leaves opportunities for smaller producers. Wal-Mart is not interested in a small regional market for high end chocolates. They sell millions of bars for a quarter. If you want to run a multi-million dollar boutique business, you are not even competing with them. You are filling in the gaps created by the system that spreads those national brands. We may not all be able to get Peanut Chews or GooGoo Clusters, but there will always be room for small scale production and specialized products.
The secret is, you need to buy them. The national brands will always be cheaper at Wal-Mart, so you need to decide whether that Twin Bing is worth the extra effort to find and buy. You know what you are getting from Hershey; you get to experiment with whether a Spud bar is really for you.
Congratulations to Mr. Almond for successfully combining several threads of writing where I have often condemned others for failing. The political, economic, and personal commentaries rarely jar, and they create an effective side-story to the central action of orgasmic chocolate bliss.
I have previously encouraged you to donate to Room to Read. This time I encourage you to eat a candy bar.