When I first picked up the book, I expected Candy Freak to be a Fast Food Nation for the chocolate industry. And to a certain extent, it is. Almond ably explores the decline of candy diversity at the hands of big conglomerates such as Hershey's and Mars and the struggles of the few remaining smaller candy makers who once prospered all across the nation. From Boston to the South to California, Almond travels to mom and pop candy-making companies holding on by a thread. He talks to owners and candy bar technicians, taste engineers and marketers who derive pleasure and pride from their product but pain from the process of trying to expand in today's tight market.
These companies face complex challenges that range from antiquated machinery to distribution difficulties (the scrumptious Valomilk, alas, blows up at high altitudes and thus cannot be shipped via airplane or over the Rockies), to ruthless store shelf-stocking fees that border on extortion and keep the small brands out of grocery chains and Wal-Marts.
Almond visits a half-dozen factories and discusses both the product and how the company is faring. He describes the manufacturing process at these plants with such naked want that, if he were to visit Willy Wonka's chocolate factory, he'd have been sucked up the glass pipe long before Augustus Gloop. Almond finds such unique regional bars still holding on as the Goo Goo Cluster, the upscale Five Star bar, the Twin Bing, and the Abba-Zabba.
But Almond is no mere spectator like Eric Schlosser. He is a connoisseur of candy who traces the long-ago discontinuation of his beloved Caravelle bar as the impetus behind writing his book.
"The Caravelle tasted more like a pastry: the chocolate was thicker, darker, full-bodied, and the crisped rice had a malty flavor and what I want to call structural integrity; the caramel was that rarest variety, dark and lustrous and supple, with hints of fudge. More so, there was the sense of the piece yielding to the mouth. By which I mean, one had to work the teeth through the sturdy chocolate shell, which gave way with a distinct, moist snap, through the crisped rice (thus releasing a second graining bouquet) and only then into the soft caramel core. Oh, that inimitable combination of textures! The symphony of flavors!"
The disappearance of the Caravelle was a crushing blow and the author began to wonder how, exactly, a delicious bar disappears into oblivion. But while his initial impulse for writing the book may have evolved out of being denied his Caravelle, Candy Freak, like a good chocolate bar, aspires to much more depth:
"I told him it was about candy bars. But I didn't know if I could explain what I was really getting at: that candy had been my only dependable succor as a child, that it had, in a sense, saved my life, that I hoped to draw a link between my personal nostalgia and the cultural yearning for a simpler age, but that, in the end, the laws of the candy world were the laws of the broader world: the strong survived, the weak struggled, people sought pleasure to endure their pain."
Candy Freak is more than a treatise on the state of the candy bar industry. The author is so laugh-out-loud funny that I'd go so far as to call him the David Sedaris of chocolate. While personably sharing his own childhood traumas and memories, he also ably taps into readers' memories of youthful candy consumption. As Almond describes the sheer hoarding exhilaration of Halloween or the school-yard circulation of such mythic wonders as Pop Rocks or the intimate details of a particular bar's appeal, readers (if they are candy freaks like the author and the reviewer), will be transported back to their own mouthwatering discoveries and moments of childhood wonder.
And perhaps they'll even be encouraged, despite the more grown-up and very real fear of cavities, to revisit some of the chocolates of their youth (if they can still be found) and find new ones as well. I, for one, have a date with a Five Star Bar in the very near future, and if this candy freak gets any more cavities as a result, the dentist bill is going straight to Steve Almond. Candy Freak is a scrumptious, seductive, bordering-on-sinful read.