Candy: A Century of Panic and Pleasure
By Samira Kawash
Faber, 416 pages, $27
I love candy. Last year I turned 21 and had my fun, but any pleasure gained from legal drink pales in comparison with the thrill I felt at 14; employed at a local butcher’s and deli, I would take my little paychecks and peruse the candy aisles. Charleston Chews, Haribo Gummi Bears, Necco Wafers, Sour Blue Raspberry Bubble Tape: The fruits of the modern world were mine. My tastes in clothes, poets, and people changed as I matured, but I continue to appreciate the sweet stuff.
Others, though, are on less friendly terms, and for good reason. Candy makes us (forgive me for using the “F” word, ladies) fat. And it rots our teeth. And spoils our appetite for kale and quinoa. If Tolerance is the Zeus of the liberal pantheon, Health and Diet are a pair of minor gods with some serious devotees. High Priestess Michelle Obama was recently vindicated by Mars Co.’s decision to pull king-sized candy bars off shelves. Oprah Winfrey has made a billion-dollar career out of her quiet desecration (and then subsequent very public veneration) of the altar of self-denial.
Lovers of candy will cheer when reading Samira Kawash’s level-headed new book, Candy: A Century of Panic and Pleasure. Kawash is something of a candy reactionary: “That little jelly bean is just a jelly bean: it won’t rot your teeth, or make you fat, or drive you to drink, or give you cancer. Candy is just candy, a sweet morsel without any supernatural powers.” Not just sweet, mind you, but honest, too: “When I read the ingredient list on a package of Swedish Fish, I recognize every one of the nine substances. Sure that includes tiny amounts of artificial color and food grade wax (for shine it’s on apples too). But at least with candy, I know that I’m getting what I expect.”
Candy is entertaining not just because it is full of quaint facts about innovations during the industrial revolution and tidbits about how chocolate and hard candies once sustained mountain climbers and soldiers, but also because it makes so many unpleasant people—advice columnists, over-bearing parents, government health advisers, religious extremists, nutritionists, abolitionists, advertisers, and consumers—look ridiculous.
Kawash’s interest in candy began with “the Jelly Bean Incident.” Her then 3-year-old daughter loved jelly beans. “A tiny baby fistful of the brightly colored morsels was just about the biggest prize she could imagine.” With her daughter’s enthusiasm in mind, Kawash decided to bring along a few jelly beans to a playdate. She wasn’t concerned whether the little boy, Noah, would be allowed the treat. After all, Noah’s mother, Laura, “stocked their pantry with normal kid stuff—Popsicles and juice boxes and Teddy Grahams.” But when the jelly beans were offered, Laura was hesitant. “Well, he’s never really had that before…I suppose it couldn’t hurt.” Hurt? A few jelly beans, a gram of sugar per bean? Then Noah’s dad, Gary, after giving Kawash a nasty look, sneered at his wife, “Oh, so I guess you’ll start giving him crack now too?”
Ever since Gary’s fuss Kawash has been hooked. She first noticed a candy/controlled substance connection. Kids snorting pixie sticks; teenagers caught in movie theaters and classrooms with “drunken gummy bears”; “rock” being used as slang for candy and crack cocaine. While stupid kids across America are huffing empty whipped cream aerosol cans, addiction researchers at Yale are studying obese women under the influence—of ice cream cones. Their findings: The fat ladies’ brains “resembled the brains of heroin addicts.”
My one complaint about this bookis that Kawash’s blog, Candy Professor, is funnier. Her blog posts are light, witty fare, while Candy often leaves the reader a punch-line away from a snort or giggle. A perfect example of this is when Kawash writes about the only true account of “Halloween sadism.” The short version: In 1959 California dentist Dr. William Shyne handed out over 450 chocolate-covered laxatives to trick-or-treaters. I am not saying that poisoning children on Halloween is funny; I just think it’s hilarious that the only known case involves a dentist armed with laxatives (what he didn’t like going in one end, he made sure came out the other). In Candy the story of Dr. Shyne is a small paragraph sandwiched between thirteen pages of history about trick-or-treating and another four pages that summarize studies showing “Halloween sadism” as bunkum. Compare Dr. Shyne’s lackluster treatment in Candy to the opening sentence of the corresponding blog post: “Dr. William V. Shyne, a dentist in Fremont, California, was having an off day. Maybe his wife just left him, maybe his pants were too tight…maybe he just didn’t like kids.”
I’m not sure why Kawash skimped on the humor in Candy. Maybe she worried her research wouldn’t be taken seriously without some academic stuffiness. Luckily, there are still plenty of pleasing elements. I loved looking at the vintage advertisements Kawash selected for Candy’s plates. Anyone would grin over taglines like “Juicy ripe apples are rich in dextrose sugar—and so is delicious Baby Ruth.” And she’s always great on the subjects of women and motherhood. My favorite sentence in Candy is Kawash’s musing on the title of an early 20th-century candy cookbook for children. “Today, When Mother Lets Us Make Candy would probably be called When Mother Lets Us Get Third-Degree Burns or When Mother Lets Us Get Diabetes.” And tucked into the first chapter of Candy are two paragraphs not to be missed. There Kawash writes about how chocolate is marketed to the post-feminist woman. “Eating chocolate has been depicted as a form of female ‘self-love,’ a private enjoyment that women choose and control.” My curiosity was so piqued that I wasted a solid afternoon combing through YouTube for these types of advertisements. My special favorite is the 2013 WoCavé (pronounced wo-cav-ay) campaign by Nestlé’s Skinny Cow brand of ice cream. In the WoCavé women lounge in pajamas on pink couches munching low calorie treats. The tagline says it all: “WoCavé, a woman-cave where the men are scarce and the Skinny Cow treats are abundant.”
Of course, Candy wasn’t written only to amuse. Kawash is asking a serious question: Why such a fuss over something so simple and pleasing? Her hunch is that candy is the scapegoat for all of our anxieties about processed foods. Personally, I wonder whether it all comes down to a puritanical fear of pleasure. We’re both probably wrong. Either way, this is a wonderful book. I enjoyed it almost as much I did all the gumdrops and Mary Janes I ate while reading it.