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Candy – The Allure of Dangerous Sweetness
Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The sweet tooth of humanity is one of the most powerful forces in the world. The craving for sweetness is a deep, inborn drive within all of us, assuring that sweets of all sorts will be forever beloved of consumers of all ages and thereby guaranteeing strong sales of bulk wholesale candy, probably for as long as humans exist. Whether sold at discounts or in high-end chocolatiers, sugar-filled treats will be with us always.

Today we live in a world where sugar in its various forms is one of the cheapest commodities around. However, there was a time when sweetness was a somewhat rare and extremely valuable natural resource, and, like our love of fatty tastes, our desire for sweetness probably has its roots in our need to ingest enough calories to ensure our survival. So trees and other plants, involved in their own battle for survival, bore sweet fruits and vegetables as a way of persuading mammals like us to propagate their species, either accidentally or on purpose. Like fish on the hook, we’ve taken the bait. We benefited in the short term from the calories back when they were hard to come but, all in all, the plants won.

Over time, of course, we’ve become far more deliberate about sweetness. We started by stealing honeycombs from beehives, a potentially very painful and dangerous business, but apparently worth it to early man. Later, we moved on to developing sophisticated processes for extracting the very essence of sweetness from plants like sugarcane, beets, and corn and then combining them with water, various fats, nuts, and, of course, chocolate to create the wide variety of candies we now try to resist. Even some rather effective artificial sugar flavors don’t seem to help much. We know the real sweet thing when we taste it, and we want it as often as possible.

Not that’s there’s anything wrong with that, if we can avoid the twin shoals of obesity and a mouthful of cavities. Candy can be cultural. Just as there are oenophiles devoted to the art of wine making and its appreciation, and gourmands devoted to fine foods, there are candy aficionados who write about confections with the same passion that animates great food writers like the late M.F.K. Fischer and 2007 Pulitzer Prize winner Jonathan Gold. Websites like Candy Addict, which features reviews of all sorts of candies, including a new line of designer lollipops with such adult-oriented flavors as Earl Grey and Dirty Martini, and Jim’s Chocolate Mission (whose proprietor rates chocolates via a 5 pointed diagram) treat candy with the respect the ancient art of confectionery deserves.

True, like the above-mentioned designer lollipops, the products can sometimes seem a bit strange. We were struck by the mostly positive review the Vosges Bacon Bar received from Chocolate Obsession proprietor William Kindler. It’s true that chocolate and bacon are “two great tastes,” but we’re not sure they “go great together” in the Reeses’ Peanut Butter Cup sense. (However, if someone wants to send us a free sample, we won’t say no.)

Moreover, candy can be both philosophical and controversial, as readers of author Steve Almond’s popular 2005 book, Candy Freak learned. Almond, an appropriately named fiction writer with the kind of quirky left-of-center sensibility that will be familiar to fans of This American Life and McSweeney’s literary magazine, worries about the undeniable addictive properties of candy -- provocatively comparing it’s marketing to the propagating of truly dangerous addictive drugs, while waxing poetic about the allure of dangerous sweetness. Of course, this may seem over-the-top. Heck, it is over the top, but that’s we writers do a lot of the time: we dramatize. In any case, any attempt to ban candy would make prohibition look mild – six year-olds would be rioting in the streets on a daily basis. No one wants that.

Candy is complicated. Many of us eat too much of it – much as many of us overindulge in everything from steak and popcorn to whole wheat bread and avocados. We wouldn’t want to live in a world without those fine products, and we feel the same way about candy, whatever damage it may render in the form of increased waistlines and dental bills.

This is better world for having sweets in it – not that we really have a choice in the matter. Whether sold on the cheap or at a premium, we’ll genetically programmed to love our chocolate, our Sweet Tarts, our licorice, and even our baconized chocolate and Dirty Martini lollipops, with a passion. Wholesale candy isn’t going away nor is the craft of confectionery. That’s okay. No art is entirely healthy.