June 13, 2012 7:44:30 AM
The old advice is that you grow up and you are to put away childish things. Journalist and food blogger Kate Hopkins bought into this. She was a fiend for candy when she was a kid, but as you age your view of candy is supposed to change. "No longer is it representative of the happiness that life can bring you," she writes in _Sweet Tooth: The Bittersweet History of Candy_ (St. Martin's Press). "Now it represents the unhealthy, the immature, and the gluttonous." She found that her definition was coming correct: "Adulthood is when one has the means to buy every candy in the shop but no longer has the desire to do so." Fortunately for her, and for her readers, her means of getting her midlife crisis behind her was to travel and research the history of candy. A friend is incredulous, saying, "So you're going to travel the world, claiming you're studying the history of candy, but instead you're using it as an excuse to do a yearlong Halloween?" She does get to binge on some fancy candies, and some Halloween-bag standards, and some historic sweets, and even readers who don't want to admit how much they themselves would enjoy such indulgence will enjoy the witty, wide-eyed report of this binge and the travelogue with its historic views of the sometimes unsavory candy story.
Candy really does not have any redeeming nutritional values. It has sugar, which means energy. If the candy has something like nuts or wafers in it, there's some protein, but that's not why we eat candy. Before we knew candy really was not good for you, we thought it was very good for your physical health. It was expensive, and that made it seem good for the patients who bought it, and it was indeed good for the druggists who sold it. A sixteenth-century apothecary wrote, "Honey and sugar are the druggist's chief stock in trade. He uses it for his confects, electuaries, preserves, syrups, julips and other precious mixtures." So it was druggists that came up with old-fashioned but familiar candies like barley sugar, rock candy and mint cakes. The latter were one form of adding a supposedly medicinal herb or spice to the sugar, and so different flavorings were produced.
The ancient Egyptians may have combined nuts or seeds with honey, but there is no evidence of sugar making until around 500 AD. Honey may have been the first sweetener, but sugar had advantages; it was relatively easy to produce (especially if you could force others to do it for you), and it was lighter and easier to transport than honey. Naturally, the history of candy is closely linked to the history of sugar, and Hopkins does not skip reflections on the darkest part of this history, slavery. "Sugar, the primary ingredient in the majority of sweets, comes with historical baggage that cannot be ignored. The demand for the sweetened substance led to abuses of liberty and freedom of individuals that we are still paying for today." Slavery and sugar are associated with the trade in rum, but Hopkins shows that the sugar trade was prospering before rum became popular. Not only was there a slave problem centuries ago, but we continue the problem today with that other irresistible treat, chocolate. There are horrors of child slavery especially in Ivory Coast which supplies about 40% of the world's cocoa beans. That such things might still be, just to get us our chocolate treats, is a dismal reflection on humanity. There are solutions at hand. Consumers have started asking for fair-price, slave-free chocolates (although their indignation is not as high over the issue as it was over replacing cocoa fat with vegetable oil a few years ago). Hopkins has had her share of Hershey Bars, 3 Musketeers, and Snickers, all of which she writes about fondly, but the climax of her book comes when she goes to Theo's, a candy store and factory in Seattle which not only caters to adult tastes, but also verifies that all its cocoa purchases are fair trade and untainted with slave produce. Ironically, she found Theo's in her own city after traveling the world in search of sweets, and ironically also, with all Theo's adult orientation, she finds her most satisfying candy to be a juvenile treat, Theo's Big Daddy Marshmallow, "little more than a marshmallow placed on a graham cracker and enrobed in chocolate. But it's made by someone who gives a damn."
Throughout the book, Hopkins includes sidebars labeled "Kate's Candy Bag," a nod to her beloved Halloweens of childhood. She gives little essays on different candies. For black licorice jelly beans (she doesn't like licorice, but for this book's research, she boldly finds even licorice she likes), she writes, "While all other jelly beans may have been passable to the palate of a child, finding a black jelly bean among them was akin to finding a dead fly in your pack of raisins. I knew of several friends who felt their Easters had been ruined when they found black jelly beans in their Easter baskets." About candy corn, she writes, "A waxy fondant shaped like corn kernels, candy corn was created in the late 1800s as a means to disappoint future generations of children as they went door to door trick or treating." Halloween plays a huge role in candy sales, and the candy makers know it, but it is a relatively modern holiday. The National Confectioners Association was formed in 1884, partly to improve candy's image; as an example of how easily some people will disapprove of what they see others enjoying, Hopkins quotes one moralist as advising how candy shops were "hot beds of disease," and candy consumption would lead to "intemperance, gluttony, and debauchery." The NCA wanted to clear candy of such charges, and incidentally, to make more money. They proposed a Candy Day, the second Saturday of October starting in 1916, for exhibiting and promoting their candy wares, but in the 1920s trick or treating with candy handouts seems to have started in the west, and moved eastwards. We have our candy day, but it is not Candy Day.
Hopkins goes first to Palermo, where there are ancient confections based on Roman and Arabian cuisines, but in which also she mistakenly enters a shop thinking it sells candy, while it turns out to be the storefront of a wedding consultant. "My first attempt at acquiring candy in a foreign land, and here I was, inadvertently attempting to plan my own nuptials." She goes to Genoa, because of the connection to Christopher Columbus, who influenced candy strongly because he helped in the propagation of sugarcane, but he also failed to influence it even more because it's likely he was the first European to come across chocolate, and he didn't do a thing about it. In Venice, she visits the city most associated with the spice trade of its time; sugar was treated like a spice, and also combined with spices to make flavored candies. In England, a land that loves its toffees and chocolates, she has Edinburgh Rock and Soor Plooms and rhubarb custards. Finally back in the USA, she makes her pilgrimage to Hershey, Pennsylvania, joyously visiting a city founded on chocolate, a visit that somehow her parents had denied her when she was little. The worldwide tour is great fun, and it is a delight to read her funny, self-deprecating reports. You can read her book, learn some important world history, and wonder at some very fancy or very plain candies. You won't risk a single cavity or gain a pound, unless (and this is a true risk) you find Hopkins's enthusiasm contagious.