Sweet Words

From Edmund to Laura Ingalls to Augustus Gloop, in children's books, sugar is otherworldly, transcendent, symbolic. In real life, my relationship with sweets is much more fraught.

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The Turkish delight was, in retrospect, a pretty big mistake. We were browsing a Middle Eastern market near our home in upstate New York, a festive, mom-and-pop place where I tend to buy way more than I need. It was winter — cars plowing down Genesee Street beyond the front window throwing plumes of brown slurry — and I needed a pick-me-up in the worst way. When I saw that box of candy, I was basically powerless to resist. It was obscenely large, the size of a cookie sheet or a generous end table, and it was on sale. For reasons that seem a little sad to me now, that candy felt like an opportunity.

My husband looked anxious when I approached the checkout line, box tucked up under my arm like a surfboard. Over the years, Rog has watched me eat a lot of things saner adults revile — like circus peanuts, or those pumpkin “mellocreme” things that taste like candy corn but are somehow worse. I’ve eaten marshmallows so old they’ve fused together in the bag and become indistinguishable. I’ve eaten gummi worms and gummi sharks and ancient, ossified Jujyfruits that threatened to yank the fillings from my head. My lust for sugar is disabling, literally self-destructive.

“I’m not helping you with that,” Rog pointed out. “You’re on your own here.”

“Did I say I needed your help? I’m perfectly capable, thanks,” I smiled.

I was already feeling better about my day.

Because it was Turkish delight, right? Remember how Edmund falls under the spell of the White Witch in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe when she offers him an enchanted box? Each piece feeds in him an unquenchable desire for more; even after the box is finished, he keeps on wanting. “It’s magnificent stuff,” my father, who read the C.S. Lewis series with me when I was seven, insisted. “They’re jellies, but not like any you’ve ever tasted. They’re much softer, and each one comes dusted in powdered sugar.” Sweets held for me then, as they do now, a kind of mythic appeal. My teeth were terrible, and my parents kept me away from candy as much as possible, which had the effect of turning a simple preference into a wicked desire. On Halloween I would return home with my haul in an old pillowcase and watch as my mother pulled every sourball and sugar daddy from the sack and tossed it in the trash. Hard candy dissolved enamel and caramel compromised fillings; I was left with a few Hershey’s miniatures and the odd piece of sesame brittle. I hated those dry little sesame sticks. I wanted my candy bright as jewels, or at least indecently sticky.

More than this, I wanted magic. My favorite books taught me that candy was more than food. It was otherworldly, a means toward transcendence. Think of poor Charlie Bucket, subsisting on watery cabbage soup in his family’s drafty little shack, exalted by the mere smell of chocolate from Wonka’s factory, and by his grandfather’s stories of violet-flavored marshmallows and candy balloons, and crazy Prince Pondicherry’s melting chocolate palace. And when he finally gets a look inside the factory, what he finds is some kind of pastoral paradise — a green valley in the factory’s nerve center, every blade of grass made of mint sugar, each buttercup and blooming rhododendron made of something lovelier still, and in the middle of it all, a river filled with enough melted chocolate to fill every bathtub and pool in the country.

Roald Dahl’s fantasy of excess was all well and good; even better was Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series, which had the gift of making one single piece of candy seem like a miracle. In book number two, Laura sits in her cabin day after day, a very small child sewing on her nine-patch quilt while dull December rains flood the Verdigris river and keep Santa Claus away. Pa shoots a fat turkey for Christmas dinner, but big deal – life sucks without Santa and his candy. You can feel the terrible gloom of Laura’s world in Garth Williams’s classic illustrations: the ominous clouds, the flat land saturated with pools of water, the lonely cabin and outbuildings surrounded by miles and miles of nothing. Then Mr. Edwards shows up wet and shivering on Christmas morning. He’s brought presents from far-away Independence for Laura and her sister — tin cups and shiny new pennies and, best of all, long sticks of peppermint candy which they eat very slowly, licking the ends into skinny points. Candy in the Little House books is all about making that moment of joy last and last. Because after the sweetness is gone, what’s left? Wind and rain, gravy and corn meal mush. Poverty.


Feast or famine in Little House on the Prairie

As a child I loved reading about deprivation. There was something delicious about immersing myself in hardship from the comfort of my bed, then watching the suffering end miraculously. Over and over again I read the tale of Sarah Crew, British boarding school student in A Little Princess reduced to drudgery after her poor Papa dies of the brain fever in India. It was thrilling to see her find a stray fourpence and buy six hot currant buns, even if (noble thing that she was) she gave five of them away to a little beggar girl. Years later and well into adulthood, I would find similar satisfaction in Harry Potter’s life with the Dursleys, how Harry is transported from that dark, spidery cupboard under the stairs, given a wand and a mountain of gold and all the treacle tart and chocolate frogs anyone could want.

Dickensian hardship isn’t exactly the order of the day for many of us in the developed world. Still we crave transport. Last year I bought each of my daughters a chocolate frog at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando’s Universal Studios. The candy came in pentagram-shaped boxes decorated like tarot cards, midnight blue with ornate gold scrolling and the requisite wizard trading card inside. The frogs themselves were beautifully molded, ridged and bumpy in all the right ways, and they were made of exceptionally good chocolate, but the box and the holographic trading card were the real prizes. They suggest clairvoyance, things mystical and strange. Frankly, for all the grief we got at Universal Studios — crowds that rival the Tokyo subway, hours in line, “technical difficulties” when someone puked on the tracks at the Hogwarts motion simulator — those frogs better have transported us someplace. Even (or perhaps especially) at amusement parks, it’s hard to forget that life is basically one long series of mundanities punctuated by moments of sweetness.

My Turkish delight should have been one of those moments. I had never tasted any, and I remembered imagining long ago what a strange, ethereal confection it must be. I opened the candy in the car on the way home from the market, which was absolutely typical of me. I’ve been known to dig a pint of Ben and Jerry’s out of a shopping bag in the grocery store parking lot and eat several scoops in the car using the lid as a spoon. Home was ten minute away but I could not possibly have waited.

The candy came in three flavors — lemon, rose, and mint — each piece the size of a small ice cube. The colors were pale and delicate under their veil of confectioner’s sugar. I picked a mint piece out of its fluted sleeve and palpated it. Thickened with cornstarch instead of gelatin, it was softer than a gummy bear but not without integrity. I bit it. The paste yielded willingly in my teeth. The mint was perfect — strong but not overpowering. I pressed the bite between tongue and palate, sucked it against my teeth. It went down easy.

I should have stopped there, and why I didn’t — why I never do — is something I’m still attempting to unpack. It’s not as though I hadn’t made myself ill dozens of time before. Or that I didn’t know about my personal long-term risks. I’d suffered a bout of gestational diabetes already and watched my father struggle with type II for years. Physical dependency is one explanation, and though I’d like to think I have more control than that, it’s hard to deny my addiction. I remember my sister-in-law, a recovering alcoholic from a family of heavy drinkers, remarking once how impressed she was that her husband’s family leaves wine on the table at the end of dinner. Ellie’s tribe slugs back every last drop no matter how much there is. I understand where she’s coming from. I don’t take a lot of pleasure in drink myself, but I know what it’s like to chain chew a whole pack of Mentos inside five minutes, thumbing each button up out of the paper sleeve before the previous one is quite down my throat. I’ve never understood how Roger can keep a Dairy Milk bar in his brief case for weeks. I can’t make one last even a few hours. If I discover his stash, I’ll dig in without a moment’s hesitation. “Hey – I was saving that!” he’ll complain when he finds it missing days later. Saving that. The words don’t even make sense to me. How can you save something like that?

Obviously sugar addiction and alcoholism are different. Sugar isn’t metabolized in the brain, so no blackouts from binging, no delirium tremens on withdrawal. Like alcohol, however, sugar is metabolized in the liver, which converts it to fat, and too much of it may cause hepatic dysfunction — fatty liver disease, even non-alcoholic cirrhosis. Sugar releases the hormone dopamine, which acts as a neurotransmitter, engaging the brain’s reward circuitry the way other drugs do. This doesn’t mean that everyone who consumes sugar is addicted — not everyone who takes Vicodin gets hooked either — but the potential is there. In fact many alcoholics replace drink with sugar after they get sober, trading a habit that is ruining their lives for one that is merely killing them.

Sugar addiction engages me emotionally as well as physically, which I suppose is true of all addictions. I’m not sure where physical addiction ends and emotional dependency takes over, or if that’s even a relevant distinction — body and mind are one, after all. I do know that there’s something about tearing into a bar of imported chocolate or a bag of jewel-tone gummies that sparks my imagination, that feels like travel or discovery or hope. Mere seconds after I swallowed my first piece of Turkish delight, I picked up a second piece — lemon this time. It’s important to note that I didn’t just pop another mint piece, even though my first one felt great. This was a journey into the unknown, and I needed transport bad, a little trip to Istanbul or Oman or maybe Narnia. That mint piece was so upstate New York, so 45 seconds ago.

But the lemon wasn’t nearly sour enough. I need my citrus candy good and sharp, the tart providing refreshing counterbalance to the sweet, and this was so sweet it was actually a little nauseating. I should have cut my losses, but the remaining candy was still right there in my lap, a lovely sensory banquet. I grabbed a rose-flavored piece. I suppose to the trained palate, to someone raised in the Middle East or India for instance, rose water might be exquisite. To me it tasted like hand lotion and damned near gagged me. I didn’t spit it out, though. I don’t think I’ve ever spit out a piece of candy.

Now I felt like throwing up — the sugar-induced nausea was like a fist swelling in my chest — but somehow I convinced myself against all reason that a second mint piece would settle my gut. It occurred to me as that sticky bolus went down my throat that I’d always believed Turkish delight would sort of melt away to nothing in the mouth. That eating it would be a kind of mystic experience, like grasping the ungraspable. Of course, Edmund’s candy was enchanted. Mine was a poisonous knot of sugar and cornstarch. Come to think of it, Edmund’s magical box didn’t do him much good either. Gluttonous children fall prey to evil forces and risk driving the world into permanent winter, or so we are told. My favorite stories have always sent this mixed message — that candy is wonderful, magical, transformative, and also terribly dangerous — a message I’ve been struggling to reconcile my entire life.

My Turkish delight bender was a good fifteen years ago. I don’t binge like that anymore. I’m pre-diabetic, perilously close to getting sucked up the tube like August Gloop, propelled on a wave of chocolate toward an alarming future. Still, I can’t manage to kick the habit completely — one Hershey’s kiss always gives way to two or three, and if I have too many carbs in the morning, by mid-afternoon I’m restless with cravings. Each day I wake and swear this is the day sugar and I part ways for good. It helps to remind myself that candy is never quite as beautiful in the mouth as it is on the page. Of Edmund’s enchanted treat, C. S. Lewis writes, “Each piece was sweet and light to the very center and Edmund had never tasted anything more delicious.” Sweetness and light. The words themselves are delicious. At this point in my life, words really must suffice. • 16 July 2014

 

Essays and stories by Joan Marcus appear in The Sun, Fourth Genre, The Georgia Review, and Alaska Quarterly Review. She lives and teaches in Ithaca, New York.
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