Bulletin for Tom Ridge: The Valomilk candy bar explodes at high altitudes. Just ask Steve Almond, author of Candyfreak, who -- even after being apprised of the marshmallow-filled chocolate cup's potential for stratospheric volatility -- flew from Kansas City to Denver with a batch in his baggage. As he prepared to devour the candy, Almond writes, he discovered that "each and every one of the cups had sprung a leak and the filling had congealed into a Krazy Glue-like substance capable of a great binding force, rendering it difficult, if not impossible, to remove a Valomilk from its paper cup. Not that this kept me from trying."
Part personal journey of self-examination, part incisive account of this nation's vanishing independent candymakers and all panegyric to the wondrousness of chocolate, Candyfreak adroitly pokes at and probes into Almond's -- and many Americans' -- obsession with candy bars.
"The candy bar is a uniquely American concept," explains Almond, 37, over the phone from Boston, where he teaches creative writing at Boston College. "And Americans' relationship to candy is typically American -- that is, there's a lot of mindless consumption, a lot of self-medicating. But like anything else, candy is deep. It is a complex psychological and emotional experience and cultural artifact, and it has really meant a lot in my life. As a candyfreak, the way that I live with the fact that I eat a lot of candy -- which is pretty shitty for the world economy, because basically it's a luxury -- is that at least I try to be appreciative of it."
In Candyfreak that appreciation takes the form of a ping-ponging, cross-country pilgrimage, with Almond making choco-smeared pit stops at the plants of various regional indie manufacturers -- the makers of Goo Goo Clusters (Nashville), Idaho Spuds (Boise), Twin Bings (Sioux City), Goldenberg's Peanut Chews (Philadelphia), Big Hunks (Hayward) and Five Star Bars (Burlington) -- while pondering candy's social history and cultural significance.
Along the way Almond observes what he terms "late-model capitalism" in action, with the "reality of the bottom line being reinforced over and over again" by the little guys' constant struggle to survive in the ever-lengthening shadow of the industry's voracious Big Three: Mars, Hershey's and Nestlé. This "Wal-Martization of America," as Almond calls it, accounts for why "people are so attracted to a weird candy bar that they've never seen before." (The Abba-Zaba! The Old Faithful!)
Almond also witnesses the production of "small-batch bars using 1950s technology" and stares transfixedly -- ecstatically -- as men, women and machines converged harmonically to create chocolate manna. His deepest and most satisfying resultant "freaktrance" is induced by the "enrobing" process, whereby a shower of chocolate coats the marshmallow or peanut butter or nougat or fruity or whatever core of a candy bar. "This is the Willy Wonka waterfall," he rhapsodizes, "chocolate in its liquid form, its dynamic state. Chocolate is something that is solid, and then it becomes liquid in our mouths. When we see enrobing, we could just drink it. Watching candy being made is pornography to me."