Almond Joy 

Candy-obsessed author documents small-time confectioners' battle with "the Big Three"

Candy-obsessed author documents small-time confectioners' battle with "the Big Three"

Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America

By Steve Almond (Algonquin, 280 pp., $21.95)

The author will appear, with representatives of the Standard Candy Company, at Davis-Kidd Booksellers on May 11 at 6 p.m.

Steve Almond is, by his own admission, a freak. Almond's particular form of freakiness revolves around his lifelong love for candy—candy bars, in particular. He writes with encyclopedic knowledge about such hard-to-find bars as the Bit-O-Choc, the Violet Crumble and the Caravelle. Like any freak, Almond respects quality, but he also savors oddity, such as the raft of vegetable-based bars produced during the 1920s health craze. He stockpiles soon-to-be-discontinued brands in cabinets and dressers. And when he realizes that small-time confectioners are a rapidly dwindling species, he embarks on a whirlwind cross-country tour of some of the country's last mom-and-pop candy factories, a trip that forms the backbone of his new book, Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America.

Almond has been a lot of things in his life—prolific fiction and essay writer, creative writing teacher, journalist, author (of the short-story collection My Life in Heavy Metal)—so it's no surprise that the book is less a straightforward investigative work than a many-headed riff on one man's obsession. Like its subject matter, the book is whimsical, eclectic and over much too quickly. It reads like an extended New Yorker essay, including a heavy dose of self-reflection, but without all the pretension. Almond digs candy bars, but he's not about to argue that everyone else should dig them as well. When he knows he's gone too far, he deftly brings in his friends to check his fervency. (One tells him that his love for the Bit-O-Choc is "bit O boring.")

The book begins with a few chapters that alternate between brief, candy-centric autobiographical notes, the history of candy in America and commentary on the sad state of the contemporary candy industry, in which "the Big Three"—Nestle, Mars and Hershey—have forced many smaller companies out of business. They have done so, Almond explains, not only by developing more efficient production and distribution systems, but also thanks to supermarkets and big-box stores that charge manufacturers enormous fees just to get stocked on their shelves. Hershey's can afford the $20,000 necessary to get inside Wal-Mart; the Goldenberg Candy Company, based in Philadelphia and the maker of Peanut Chews, can't.

The thrust of Candyfreak, though, is Almond's cross-country tour of small-time candy manufacturers. It's a trip that reveals as much about the personality and culture of America's small-business manufacturing sector as it does about the products it churns out. At Nashville's Standard Candy Company (maker of the Goo-Goo Cluster), Almond learns that to make ends meet, many manufacturers—those who don't produce enough to use their machinery seven, or even five, days a week—contract out their facilities to companies that want to stick their name on a candy bar but can't justify buying their own equipment. (An aside: While mentioning the Goo-Goo and the Goo-Goo Supreme, Almond ignores the Goo-Goo Peanut Butter, a glaring omission in his otherwise exacting research.) In Boise, visiting the Idaho Candy Company, he learns that the narrow financial straits of small-time manufacturing often mean rallying used equipment, spare parts and luck to keep the production line humming.

And he finds that while big-business owners resemble one another, every small-business owner is different in his or her own way. Few of his interviewees ever planned on becoming candy makers, having been dragged away from more conventional jobs by the idea of carrying on the family business. "I viewed the family business as an overgrown candy shop," one owner tells him. "It wasn't like: 'Boy, I'd like to come out of college and run that.' " All of them appear, at first glance, happy and extremely motivated. But over the course of his visits, Almond finds that the soul-crushing nature of fighting the big guys just to get your product on store shelves inspires radically different responses—some crash ahead by radically reconfiguring their operations; others retreat into a shallow depression. By the end, Almond has painted a compelling portrait of the difficulties and rewards of American small business.

He falters, though, when he tries to turn the book's analytical edge on himself, mining his candy obsession for clues to his unhappy life history, the evidence for which is never clearly laid out. In a bit of crude Freudian analysis, he finds that his love of candy is a stand-in for emotionally distant parents. Almond may very well have significant emotional issues, but from all he relates in Candyfreak, he seems to have led an extremely normal late-Boomer childhood. As a result, his claims to depression rooted in adolescence come across as little more than early-middle-age whining and pretension. Fortunately, he doesn't stray too often into self-help territory. That said, Almond is such a skilled writer that even the occasional dose of self-pity doesn't upend the book, and Candyfreak is ultimately a fun, interesting look at a part of American life that most people take for granted.

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