Thursday, February 15, 2007

Candy Fix

I didn’t get a box of candy for Valentine’s Day. That’s OK—I don’t really need it. This candy- and flower-centric holiday got me thinking about candy in general. I love candy. I have a serious sweet tooth and have even been known to eat brown sugar straight. Not directly from the bag off a spoon or anything, but if a little clump happens to fall on the counter while I’m making cookies, I don’t have any hesitation about blotting it up with a finger and eating it. My husband cringes.

I’m mostly a milk chocolate gal, although I’ve been slowly converting to dark chocolate of late years. Right now I can go either way. I’ve tried that oft-recommended dieters’ tip to eat a single piece of very high quality dark chocolate and savor it slowly. I frankly think it’s bull. I’ve done it, but all it does is make me think “That was fine. Now, what’s for dessert?”

As with all children, I started eating candy as a pretty young kid (except some people I knew who were the neighbors of a family friend, who never gave their kids refined sugar—my friend’s son came home from an afternoon spent there one time and, when asked if he had fun, replied in a tone of painful disdain “Mom, she gave us granola for a snack.” I had to agree with him that that pretty well summed up his experience). I got my candy bars at Higger’s Drug Store up the street from my house. They cost a dime. Having heard repeatedly to my disgust and boredom as a kid about when candy bars cost a nickel, I always swore I wouldn’t use that line: “They cost a dime.” How great the divide sometimes between theory and practice.

For some reason when I was younger, I always bought Chunky bars. Except that they weren’t bars. They were cubes of chocolate. Really more of a bizarre trapezoid shape. They looked like pyramids that had had their top two-thirds whacked off. I’m not sure why, because I was perfectly adept at reading, but I could never manage to remember which one did, and which one did not have the raisins in it—the silver wrapper or some other color wrapper. I hate raisins in chocolate bars. It’s an outrage.

I also remember buying Marathon bars. I seem to be the only person who ever did because 1) they no longer make them and 2) I’ve never found anyone else who even remembers them, much less also ate them. They were long braids of caramel covered with milk chocolate. The ads on TV had an image of the “braid” going past and past and past….clearly intending to convey the message that the “Marathon” bar lasted a long time. This characteristic of lasting a long time seems to have been a big feature to promote in candy bars during the late 70s and 80s. The Charleston Chew and, I think, Sugar Daddies and Sugar Mamas, made the same claim. In the 90s they seemed to move to more of almost a “meal replacement” strategy. Snickers bars, as I recall, ran a campaign promoting a Snickers bar as a way to fill you up, and carry you until your next meal.

I always wanted stuff in my candy bars. Peanut butter, peanuts, caramel, nougat (whatever the hell that is), or that fluff in a Three Musketeers bar (whatever the hell that is). I went to Dublin on business once and spent about 50 bucks in a newsagents buying candy bars that we didn’t have in America. I noticed that they had an awful lot of offerings with raisins (ugh), but an equal number with caramel. Fortunately none of them seemed to sully the glorious caramel with the vile raisins. Caramel is my favorite candy bar filling, followed by peanut butter as a close second. Actually, hazelnut anything is my favorite candy filling, but very few of the “big” candy makers offer a candy bar with hazelnuts in it. Too expensive, I would guess.

In high school I went to Australia and was there introduced to three kinds of candy bars that I’d never had before, two of which are now available at my local grocery store. There was the Violet Crumble, which was kind of a grainy sugar, flavored with essence of violet (which sounds gross and weird, but was actually OK). The Flake bar was nothing more than very, very thin leaves of milk chocolate that would have been pretty good, except that they were so delicate that what you wound up with was a candy wrapper full of chocolate shards. You just kind of “drank” the chocolate out of the wrapper, which you opened at one end to form a tube. Then there was a honeycomb concoction the name of which escapes me. I’ve since seen this in Australian cooking magazines called generically “honeycomb” and recommended as being used to top ice cream when smashed to smithereens. It was very crunchy, and did have a distinct honey flavor. Its disadvantage was that it really stuck in your teeth. All three of these, if I’m not mistaken, were manufactured by the Cadbury company.

Cadbury is much bigger overseas than it is in this country. In this country we have Hershey’s, and M&M Mars to pretty much own the candy market. I remember reading that in the 1940s Hershey’s representatives used to go to elementary schools and hand out candy bars to all the kids. The taste of chocolate is (as you no doubt have read), like so many food products, subject to its recipe. A little more of this, a little less of that, and you’ve got a completely different taste, even though it’s still “milk chocolate.” Hershey’s idea was that kids would get hooked on Hershey bars at a young age and would come to think that the flavor of Hershey’s milk chocolate was what chocolate was “supposed” to taste like. Any other recipe would taste odd to them, and they would (in theory) find it to be inferior to the flavor of Hershey’s.

Now we also have Godiva chocolates, which used to have an air of exclusivity about them, but are now sold in every possible outlet, including gas stations and nail salons. I still think they’re good chocolates, but they’re mainstream now. This move in America to make mainstream what used to be luxury items I think is a large part of what contributes to our dietary problems. Things that used to be special occasion dishes—Fettuccini Alfredo, elaborate desserts made with pastry cream, rack of lamb—are now so commonplace that they’ve lost their impact and we don’t appreciate them anymore. As a result, we consume them too casually. Of course, the antidote for that may well be a return to the days when we ate Hamburger Helper (which of course comes in an Alfredo flavor in the form of Chicken and Tuna Helpers) and Betty Crocker Au Gratin Potatoes for dinner, which I really can’t see as a win-win situation for anyone (except maybe General Foods). Sure, it would make “special” meals much more appealing by contrast, but it would mean we’d be eating dehydrated potatoes three hundred plus days a year, and I don’t know if I could handle that, myself.

As usual, I digress. So instead of Godiva as our exclusive chocolates, we now have “artisanal” chocolates made in small batches by hand. Often these chocolate makers have an unfortunate tendency to try jazz up (as I’m sure they see it) plain old boring chocolate, and they mix in just plain weird stuff like chili powder, black pepper, paprika, and (yes, I’ve seen this) curry powder. I really don’t think that I can think of a more disgusting thing to do to perfectly good chocolate than stick curry powder in it. I love curry powder, but it doesn’t belong in chocolate.

The big candy manufacturers have their own tricks to try to lure us into buying more candy. They’ve created countless variations on old favorites. Where we used to buy Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Crunch bars, and M&Ms, we can now buy Caramel or White Chocolate Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Crunch bars filled with caramel, and M&Ms filled with peanut butter. All of these are perfectly fine, but we’re spoiled with choices. I kind of wish we could go back to the days when my most perplexing candy problem was remembering which color Chunky wrapper had the raisins, and which did not.

I’ve always had a kind of affection for the niche candy bars. I went through phases as a kid (in the post-Chunky era) when I was attracted to Zero bars, Fifth Avenue, Zagnut, and Clark bars. With the exception of Zero bars, all of these are variations on peanut butter flavored candy. The Zero bar is a chocolate nougat, covered with something that I wasn’t clear on—it was white, but it wasn’t really white chocolate. White chocolate is an abomination, and should be outlawed. It’s not chocolate, and it just tastes like very sweet wax. In fact, I’ve found by checking the Hershey’s website (thank you, Internet) that the coating is “white fudge.” Maybe that’s just a fancy way of saying white chocolate, but in any event, there’s so little of it in a Zero bar that it manages not to offend.

In the 80s, when we all became so ludicrously afraid of fat in anything, several companies introduced reduced fat chocolate. For some time I was a devotee of Sweet Escapes candy bars, and we all started buying Three Musketeers because they were “low fat” (which translated, really, to “high air content” but that concept seemed to either elude us or not matter, so keen were we to be able to have our cake and eat it too, or in this case, to have our chocolate but not the fat). Most of these reduced fat offerings seem to no longer be available, as many people have come to their senses. Or at least switched to low carb candy bars, which I think must be pretty disgusting, so I’ve never bothered to try one. Now you can also buy chocolate bars that are enhanced with “nutrients.” This seems the most ridiculous concept of all to me. The idea of eating chocolate and soothing the guilt by reminding oneself that the candy contains calcium, or vitamin A, or something. I say, if you want vitamin A, eat a carrot. If you want chocolate, eat chocolate.

The chocolate I eat these days tends to be mostly in things, rather than just solo. I make things like chocolate chip cookies (with Toll House morsels—no overpriced Sharffen Berger shards for me, thanks). Although I love chocolate, I don’t really like chocolate ice cream, as I think the aftertaste is too strong, and if they put chocolate bits of any kind in ice cream, the effect of freezing on chocolate makes it waxy, which I loathe. I’ve also just discovered chocolate covered Altoids, which they’ve been handing out as free samples as I walk to work every morning. Doubtless these are just Altoids that are in some way deficient—chipped or otherwise deformed—that they coat with dark chocolate, but they’re really not bad. Four of them are a little mouthful, they give me a quick chocolate fix, and offer a little breath freshening bonus. The chocolate softens the usually overpowering peppermint of the mint itself.

Of course, the health reporters of the world keep assuring me that chocolate (dark chocolate, anyway) is good for my heart, and that a little bit won’t hurt me and may even be good for me. While I find this interesting information, I’m not eating chocolate because it might be good for me. I’m eating it because I like it. Even though I didn’t get any for Valentine’s Day.

P.S. For those who live close to a Godiva store, or a Barnes & Noble, and want to stock up, the day after a “chocolate” holiday (Valentine’s Day, Easter, Christmas), Godiva stores and BN sell the boxes of chocolates that have holiday-themed decorations at half price. My husband and I used to go and buy twice as much candy as we could have bought two days earlier, and then hang on to it, eating it a piece or two at a time over the next few months. In fact, I think we still have a box up on a high shelf from one of these buying binges. If you like Godiva chocolates, but are squeamish about the idea of paying 25 bucks a pound for it, this is the way to go.


Anonymous said...

Hi there, for some reason i googled Higgers Drug Store and found your great post. it took me back. Higgers on Conn Ave was my local drug store and i can still remember all the great candies they had there, including the chunky chocolate etc. what a great place in time. Cheers!

TD said...

That's so funny! I grew up going to Higgers--from age 4 to about 18. We probably passed each other in the candy aisle at some point :)