I am an unabashed candy lover. I eat chocolate at least five times a day, and will travel far to buy a candy bar. So it was with gleeful anticipation that I picked up Steve Almond's new memoir, "Candy Freak."
Almond, a regular contributor on NPR and a Boston College professor, loves candy even more than I do. With low-carb being our new diet du jour, and the media constantly reminding us all that we are unhealthy, it was refreshing to read this tribute to a truly gluttonous and wonderful product.
Almond's candy memoir is essentially composed of two parts. In the first, he describes his obsession with sweets and breaks down its causes. His father, whom Almond dubs "the enabler," got him hooked on sugary snacks at a young age. His addiction was further fueled by his close proximity to the local candy store. He details his favorites (the long-dead Clarke bar) and those he detests (anything with coconut or marshmallow).
The second half of the book depicts Almond's cross-country pilgrimage to four independent candy makers. One of these candy factories is Valomilk, located in Merriam.
The descriptions of these small companies are the high point of the book.
Almond truly relishes Valomilks, saying the chocolate cup has an "astonishing interplay of vanilla and chocolate" and praising the owner (Kansas University alum Russ Sifer) as "attractively fanatical."
The Valomilk factory description is in strong juxtaposition with what comes next in "Candy Freak." During a bus ride from Sioux City to Kansas City, Almond formulates a grim but accurate description of "real Americans" -- "more often than not overweight, beset by children, fast-food fed, television-dulled, strongly perfumed, running low on options and telling their stories to whomever will listen... ." After a string of happy memories and luscious chocolate descriptions, this rant is reminiscent of Willy Wonka's black and scary ride on the chocolate river in "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory."
Rather than writing a light, fluffy piece that may seem to more aptly describe candy and its consumption, Almond reaches top form with such dark and brooding moments.
He also uses dark humor to remind us that the independent candy industry, like so many others, is struggling in the face of major corporations and will likely not survive. Almond makes no attempt to disguise his hatred of the current political administration or his distrust for the three candy bar giants -- Mars, Hershey's and Nestle. In a world where most grocery and convenience stores charge $20,000 just to display a product, Almond clearly sees himself as a candy bar crusader, fighting for the longevity of these moribund products.
A word of caution about "Candy Freak" -- if you don't like candy, you probably will not like this book. The lengthy description of the correct way to eat a Valomilk may be sugary porn for chocoholics, but a bit over-the-top for others. As my boyfriend (who is decidedly not a candy lover) put it, "How can you write a whole book about candy?"
Well, if you're Steve Almond, you write it with zest and passion. You write it so that it is hysterically funny and highly addictive. You write it so that in the end, the book is not simply about candy, but about big business, entrepreneurship and the American dream.