Or, to be more correct, I rediscovered it. Between the ages of five and 12, candy was all I thought about. I couldn’t walk into a drugstore or a supermarket without being attacked by longing. The game Candy Land had a visceral attraction for me: just looking at the board would make me dizzy with desire. I was enamored of the word “gumdrop.” It had an enticing ring that helped me, later, understand the idea of Platonic forms: No actual gumdrop ever approximated the sublime delight the word evoked.
Despite such intense associations, candy reigned for less than a decade in my life. Fearful of acne and obesity, I trained myself to wait for dessert, that more mannered way of delivering sugar by being confined to the end of a meal. Learning to like the attenuated sweetness of dessert was the brand of civilization and propriety, a tarte tatin being to a gumdrop what a Chanel suit is to a G-string.
For years I put candy out of my head. It’s true that I gave it out at Halloween, but since we didn’t get much trick-or-treat traffic, I could get by with a package of fun-size Snickers, a candy I don’t happen to like (see my discourse on mixing chocolate and nuts below). My own children loved candy, but as is so often the case with adults who fear the temptations of their unruly youth, I was scrupulous about keeping it out of the house. I made my kids scrounge for it on their own and hoard it secretly in their rooms (hence, the ant infestations).
The first time I had a Milky Way after years of candy sobriety, I was jolted by the Madeleine experience of the thing. I was transported back to childhood pleasures — the leap into the neighborhood pool, the afternoon spent at the movies, the whispering with girlfriends at the back of the school bus. Since then I have made an effort to reacquaint myself with candy, in part out of a desire to reconnect with that primal past, and in part because, well, candy tastes really good.
But before I get down to specifics, three trends strike me as worth enumerating with regard to the current state of candy:
The rise of dark chocolate. The advent of dark chocolate has finally put a crimp in the long, dreary reign of milk chocolate. As with other milky things, such as milquetoast and milksop, milk chocolate is a diluted and tepid formulation; it lacks character, while dark chocolate has a profile simultaneously sharp and subtle. (An informal poll reveals that women like dark chocolate more than men in keeping with my sex’s more complex emotional life.) Unfortunately, the rise of dark chocolate is associated with the rise of the health food movement, which detracts from its exotic, forbidden allure. Growing up, dark chocolate was the sophisticated, expensive chocolate, a bit louche and improper. To make it politically correct is to lose half the fun. Still, I like it.
The disappearance of black licorice. Unlike dark chocolate, black licorice, another favorite of my youth, appears to be waning rather than rising in popularity. Yes, you see it in Whole Foods — imported from Australia in those serious-looking boxes decorated with koala bears — but it doesn’t have the general exposure that it once did, when you could buy a rectangle of Switzers black licorice in any movie theater. Instead, black licorice has been replaced by its bastard cousin, red licorice. Red licorice is to black as polyester is to silk or bathtub whisky to single malt scotch. Even Good & Plenty, once ubiquitous as the stalwart bourgeois version of black licorice, is growing scarce these days.
The change in candy box sizes. The large boxes now standard in movie theaters initially gave me a rush of delight. With a box this size, you know you won’t have that sad, unsatisfied feeling when you reach the end. On the other hand, the big boxes are too big. They reflect a gluttonous culture that believes giving more will somehow fulfill the “I want! I want!” that defines us. This, of course, is not the case. Giving more tends to kill the desire altogether. Eating a large box of Jujyfruits or Skittles produces that leaden feeling that turns one away from candy forever — which is to say, at least a day and half. By contrast, the “fun size” boxes, meant presumably for the diet conscious and parsimonious, depress me. One feels dinky and cheated in eating one—and the wasted paper involved in the packaging counteracts, ecologically speaking, the presumed health benefits. Thinking on it, I realize that the boxes of yesteryear were just the right size: substantial enough to provide some satisfaction but small enough to leave that vague sense of wanting more that was the emblem of childhood itself. Those boxes also taught the Aristotelian concept of moderation — helping the idea go down with, literally, a spoon full of sugar. But take a medium-sized box into a movie theater today and you’ll be finished long before you get to the main feature (that is, unless you’re one of those annoyingly disciplined people like my husband who doesn’t open the box until the feature begins). I blame this, however, as much on the length of coming attractions, another casualty of our gluttonous age, in which a movie preview has to show all the good parts and make it essentially unnecessary to see the rest. Let us make the previews fit the candy, and abbreviate them both accordingly.
With these preliminaries out of the way, I will now proceed to rate the top 10 candy types, beginning, in David Letterman fashion, at the bottom of the list. I realize the subjective nature of this rating. My predilection for dark chocolate informs some of my choices as does my aversion to the mixing of milk chocolate and peanuts, a combination which I realize has a déclassé sort of appeal for many people. If you like Peanut Chews and Snickers, I respect your taste. I have to say that I veer away from newer candy that tends to try too hard. I like my candy, like my prose, to be simple and direct. I omit Twix from my list, though I happen to like it, because it strikes me as violating the genre of candy and veering into that of cookie. I also banish gourmet candy — it’s pretentious and candy should be “of the people.” I also admit to being swayed by wrappers (unlike a book, you can judge candy by its cover). I also veer away from foolish names (hence my prejudice against Skittles) — and toward names that have pizzazz and class — hence I almost included Three Musketeers for its swashbuckling name and Baby Ruth for its cuteness. I know that some will be offended, if not outraged by my preferences (or more correctly, my omissions) — candy, like politics, is something that people get exorcised over. That said, I stand by my choices for the simple reason that they’re mine. If you disagree, say so. A good quarrel over candy may be just what the world needs.
10. Milk Duds: Despite the fact that these are aggressively milk chocolate candies and go against my fear of what chewy candy can do to middle-aged teeth, there is still an undeniable appeal to Milk Duds. They’re a challenging candy to eat: How long can you savor the dud, unchewed, in the mouth, delaying, again and again, the inevitable point when you bite and the thing disappears? There’s an existential element here that I will leave you to ponder. Malted Milk Balls are, by the way, the alter-egos of Milk Duds — it says a lot about your character as to which you prefer: chewy and wet or crisp and dry.
9. Tootsie Pops: Like Milk Duds, there’s a related principle of delayed gratification in eating Tootsie Pops. This is supplemented by the delightful mixture of the hard candy with the chewy chocolate center. Surely, there’s nothing quite as ambrosial as the taste of the chocolate Tootsie Roll pressing through the lollipop coating as you near the end. I must note here that the variation on this, the bubble gum-centered pop, is repellent to me. To suck and then to chew in prolonged fashion perhaps activates some primal fear regarding injury to the mother’s breast. And I am a baby of the 1950s and wasn’t even breastfed.
8. Butterfinger: Let’s face it: This is a classic. The taste of a Butterfinger is indescribable, both sharp and subtle at the same time. Best, of course, are the little slivers that fall off as you eat. I have to say that I only fully enjoyed this candy when I ate it with a cup of coffee. Its full potential, in other words, lay unrealized during my childhood and only came to full fruition in my maturity, an idea that has a powerful existential appeal.
7. Good & Plenty: This candy was my favored childhood choice in the movies and one of the few remaining sources of black licorice that you can find nowadays. Black Crows, also a former favorite, seem to have disappeared entirely, gone to that great candy cemetery in the sky. I should note that Good & Plenty, despite its fine qualities, is also a dangerous candy. It requires a calibration of desire — eat no more than 20 at a sitting or you are guaranteed to feel pretty sick. A hint: Keep the box hidden in the cupboard and leave it there for a while. Stale Good & Plenty are better than fresh; they last longer and the process brings out the sharp, feral quality of the licorice with its link to absinthe and Pernod.
6. Mounds: This is a simple but elegant candy, one that has been around forever but will never die. It is one of the few instances of a candy that started as dark chocolate, proving its inherent sophistication. The combination of chocolate and chewy coconut is one of those classic taste combinations impossible to improve on.
5. Sour Patch Kids: This is a newer candy that, despite its unfortunate name, must be given its due. To be sure, it is not a good candy for your teeth and capable of generating serious belly pain if eaten in large quantities. Still, in moderation, it is a compelling candy as it mixes sweet and sour, delivering these contradictory flavors without guile or subtlety. It is a perfect oxymoron of a candy.
4. Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups: Despite my dislike of nuts and chocolate, I make an exception here because the peanuts have been transformed into peanut butter, an entirely different thing. The sheer richness of this candy, its creamy intensity, makes it the closest among the cheap and familiar candy products to a fine torte. It’s nice, too, that Reese’s now comes in so many different forms — not just sizes and shapes, but ice cream and even liqueur. It can be dressed up or down: the little black dress of candy.
3. York Peppermint Patties: This is a fabulous candy. I will eat it in any form: the large patty or the smaller ones. Also, Junior Mints (manufactured by Tootsie Roll, where the Patties are by Hershey’s) are bite-size nuggets of the same basic sort (Internet polling has them surpassing YPP’s in popularity). I recall in my impressionable youth being taken with After Eight Mints, the same basic candy but with an attitude; i.e., more pretentious packaging.
2. Raisinets: Raisinets have a special relationship to my childhood, since they were my mother’s favorite and as such glow with maternal associations. Raisinets are surprising without being pretentious, much better than their more mundane cousins, M&Ms. There’s also the sense that Raisinets are healthier than other candy containing as they do kernels of dried fruit. Variations like dark chocolate Raisinets and Raisinets with cherries are fine, but in the case of this candy, such changes don’t really matter. As with a gin and tonic, it’s the mixing of general ingredients that counts — milk chocolate and raisins, like house gin and supermarket-brand tonic, will do just fine.
1. Milky Way Midnight: An ambrosial concoction, the Milky Way combines malt nougat with caramel and covers the mix with chocolate; this dark chocolate version elevates the bar to true sublimity. I like to put it in the freezer for half an hour. Almost frozen, it has more snap to the caramel and nougat, and it lasts longer. You can cut a sliver off and nibble it with a cup of coffee or even a glass of red wine.
To conclude: Candy says a lot about people — whether they like it or don’t (not to is to be, I suspect, sadly severed from one’s childhood self), and if they do, which candy they favor. I suggest that we engage in candy profiling, figuring out what candy tastes say about personality and then recording what people reach for during interrogation.
Studies show that candy sales spike during recessions. The Great Depression was the Golden Age of candy when, priced at a nickel a bar, some of the classic candy was introduced: 3 Musketeers, Mars, and Mounds bars, for example, as well as some waning favorites like Mary Janes and Baby Ruths. Candy bars during this period also had disconcerting names like Vegetable Sandwich and Chicken Dinner (vegetables were in the one, but chicken was not in the other).
Our present recession continues the trend of rising sales in candy, with gourmet chocolates in particular showing noteworthy growth. The rationale is that people like a bit of luxury and will take Godiva or Ghirardelli when they can’t afford Prada or Louis Vuitton. Personally, as I’ve noted, I oppose this trend. I like my candy retro and cheap. That seems to me to be what makes it candy: safer than cocaine, less pretentious than French patisserie. In short, candy evokes a simpler time of uncomplicated pleasures, when life was young and we didn’t have to worry about tomorrow. • 15 July 2010