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Before there was candy, there was sugar. My brother and I started staying without a babysitter when I was seven and he was eight. We had a barter/bribe relationship: for every serving of sugar I ate, Eric could stay up an extra hour. We pledged not to tell on each other to our parents.
As soon as they walked out the door, I would pour several tablespoons of confectioner's powdered sugar into a Dixie cup. I eventually figured out that if I ran a few drops of water or milk into the cup and mixed it up, semi-soft pellets formed. The texture of these pellets was dreamy. Sometimes I would add a drop of vanilla extract and a bit of butter. Then, in front of the (also forbidden) TV, I would dip a spoon into the sugar and feed myself.
Our suburban Maryland family room had a pale brick fireplace, wall-to-wall shag carpeting, and psychedelic pillows. Eric reclined on the couch and I sat on the velour lounge chair. We watched the Osmonds, Rhoda, The Wonderful World of Disney. On any night that I started eating sugar, which was every night my parents didn't hire a babysitter, I would have refill after refill. I ate it furtively, afraid that my parents would walk in unexpectedly. I loved the way the sugar became sweeter just before it dissolved on my tongue. Watching illicit TV while eating sugar became a habit. The combined relaxation, indulgence, and jolt of forbidden sweetness that I found in my candy-leisure moments were forever established as sensations to pursue. If Charles Schulz had created a comic-strip version of me at seven, I would have been surrounded by a cloud, but unlike Pigpen's dirty cumulus, my cloud would have been a pure, refined puff of powdered sugar.
At some point Eric stopped calculating the late night hours he was accumulating and threw up his hands.
"I can't believe you're eating all that sugar," he said. "You'll be sick." But I didn't feel sick. Rather, I was astounded that Eric had no apparent interest in the bounty I had discovered. I don't remember ever getting caught or in trouble, although I know my mother must have had some idea that this was going on. I also never wondered why there was always powdered sugar in the house -- even though my mother never baked. It was only later that I discovered that she herself had a secret habit. But eventually she decided not to stock sugar in the pantry anymore, and I had to move on.
In 1954, Trix breakfast cereal was introduced by General Mills. The new cereal, a huge hit with kids, was 46.6 percent sugar.
I loved Trix.
The earliest candy corn memory I have is of my mother carefully spreading several bags of the product across the kitchen table. She was teaching herself to be a painter and was arranging a candy corn still life. Eric and I were instructed not to touch or eat a single kernel. Our mother acted as if this were a perfectly reasonable request, as if she were painting a still life of spinach, or pork lard. One comes into the kitchen, one is young, one is hungry, and one sees a table covered with one's favorite candy. She couldn't have painted a fruit basket? It was a cruel world, mismanaged by adults who knew their own power too well.
Candy corn may seem timeless, but it was born at the Wunderle Candy company in the 1880s. That whole school of candy -- mellocremes -- was already in full swing, in various agriculturally inspired shapes and sizes. Then in 1898 Goelitz Confectionery Company took candy corn into the big leagues, associating the confection with Halloween. It was, needless to say, a big hit. And why shouldn't it have been? Candy corn was made for stardom. Those shiny, waxy yellow ends demand to be clutched by the handful and eaten, top, middle, bottom, top, middle, bottom, in a compulsive rhythm until they are gone. Chocolate gets all the fanzines, but it is the clay of candy. Matte, endlessly shapeable, chocolate is all about taste. Candy corn gets by on looks alone. Odes should be written to its waxy gleam, its whimsical design, its autumnal shades.
I fell for candy corn hard. It was the first candy for which I had a specific desire rather than a generic sugarlust. I loved how it returned, Halloween after Halloween. We trick-or-treated on the overly lit cul-de-sacs of suburban Maryland, compromising our store-bought costumes by donning coats. We ran from house to house, suffocating plastic masks pulled up onto the tops of our heads. One popular house distributed full-size Three Musketeers bars. Candy corn came in slender, oblong boxes or little plastic bags cherishing only four or five kernels. At the end of the night our brown paper bags were awkwardly heavy. It was never enough. I usually ate all of my candy by the next evening, and then started in on my brother's. When I got tired of the sugary candies in our bags, I switched to chocolate, then back again.
Candy corn marked the passage of time. Every year autumn brought a Pavlovian desire for it. I counted the years by Halloweens rather than birthdays, and the taste of candy corn meant a new costume, a new year of school. All summer I looked forward to October 31. I thought that it was my favorite day of the year. But, as is the way with candy, I was never satisfied. I was always waiting for more to happen, or for something to change, although I had no idea what. The day after Halloween I was inevitably sad and disappointed, and would begin planning how the next time my costume would be better, how I would stay out later and collect enough candy to last longer. That cyclic disappointment clawed at me. Every passing year, though I thought candy corn delighted me, it was the constant, stealthy reminder that satisfaction was out of reach. It would be a long while before I would see how alienated and uncomfortable I was in the world, and how young I was when I started hoping that sugar would sweeten the deal.
Copyright © 2003 by Hilary Liftin
In a serious moment in this entertaining book, the author describes the complexity of her feelings about candy: "It was interwoven with emotions, with secrecy, with illicitness, and with the ever-present shadow of future weight gain." Reading about Liftin’s intense, lifelong love of sugar (a "battle between health and desire"), groups will inevitably be drawn to consider an issue many of us face -- finding solace in food, and our reliance on external comforts when life fails to satisfy.
Group members may find common ground in Liftin’s struggle with emotional dependence on sweets, and her hope to one day "be free of the need for willpower." This is also a book about friendships -- forged through necessity, circumstance, or even over circus peanuts -- and book groups will have a lot to say about how friends weather hardships, how trials can tear friends apart or, surprisingly, bring them closer.
But as Liftin says, "When a good thing comes along, memories have a propensity for attaching themselves to it." When your book club meets, be prepared for digressions -- whether it’s Bottle Caps, Hershey’s Kisses, or Fireballs, everyone is bound to reminisce about their favorites. While Candy and Me will certainly be a fun pick, in Hilary Liftin’s search for love, acceptance, friendship -- and of course, candy -- we think you’ll find it provides substantial nourishment for your reading group. Elise Vogel
Discussion Questions from the Publisher
1. Hilary's memories are attached to different kinds of candy. As she writes about Bottle Caps, "when a good thing comes along, memories have a propensity for attaching themselves to it." Did candy play a similar role in your life to its role in Hilary's life? Is there another lens through which you recall events in your life?
2. The subtitle of Candy and Me is "A Love Story" and candy is a love of Hilary's life, both real and metaphoric. How does her relationship with candy evolve in the course of the book? Do the different "eras" of her life resonate with your own passage from one life stage to another?
3. What are your favorite candies? What are your family's favorites? Did/does your family have seasonal or ethnic favorites for different holidays or do you have a single favorite that you have to have daily or weekly? Have these favorites changed over the years? Are your childhood favorites different from what you like now? If so, why do you think that is?
4. Have you ever forged a friendship or bond over candy or some other food, the way Hilary does with cocoa powder and Circus Peanuts? Have you ever forged a bond over a common dislike of a certain food? Have you ever had a disagreement or a fight over the relative value of one candy or food over another? Which is superior, dark chocolate or white chocolate?
5. What are some of the ways that foods help us connect with other people or distinguish ourselves from other people? Do you trust people more who like the candies or foods that you like?
6. What makes a really great candy? What do Junior Mints represent for Hilary? How are they (metaphorically) different from Circus Peanuts? What about the candies that repeat themselves, like Bottle Caps and Marshmallow Eggs? What candy likes and dislikes repeat themselves in your life?
7. Hilary alternately calls candy "evil," and "a simple joy." Which is it? Is Hilary's relationship to it healthy or sick? Is addiction always undesirable or can it lead to a deeper understanding of life and self?
8. Hilary's parents try different approaches to dealing with her obsession: They forbid candy; they give her an unlimited supply of butter and sugar; her mother tells her she'll be fat. Do you agree with their tactics as she describes them? Does she really seem out of control in her eating? What would you do if you had a child who wouldn't stop eating candy? How do you put limits on your own indulgence in candy or foods or activities that you love?
9. In Candy and Me, the chapters are very short. Hilary doesn't tell how her affair with her camp counselor ends, she only says "One person moves away, or the other gets bored, or they run out of things to talk about." Is she holding back critical information? Does a complete picture of a life emerge? How is this personal history told differently from other memoirs?
10. Some chapters, like "Trix," are trivial, and some, like "The Assortment" and "Fudge" deal with serious, sad events. Is this jarring to you? Can candy as a metaphor effectively straddle light and heavy issues?
11. Hilary marries Chris, the man who wins her with Bottle Caps. Does Chris feed or quell her candy addiction? Do you have friends or partners who make it easy or hard for you to stay balanced in how you live or what you eat?
12. What critical candies were left out of the book? Does chocolate deserve more attention? Is there a difference between people who eat chocolates and people who eat sugary candies?
13. The chapter "I Know What You're Thinking" says "What about tooth decay, weight gain, acne, diabetes? I don't want to talk about any of those things." Why does Hilary address the reader directly here? Were you thinking what she guesses? Did she deal with these issues in the book? Why or why not?
14. At the end of the book, Hilary says of Meltaways, "The three of us make a fine pair." What is she saying about her relationship with candy at this point in her life? Is it resolved? How does a couple best manage different tastes?
Posted July 19, 2003
WOW!! i just finished reading this b%k and i LOVED it!! it only t%k me a few hours to read because i just couldn't put it down!! it's funny and sweet and i really really enjoyed it!!! Hilary Liftin is a terrific writer and i can't wait to read more from her!! buy this b%k ~ you'll b SOO glad that you did!! =)
1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 23, 2003
Posted June 2, 2003
Loved it. A quick, laugh-aloud read about the candy we all know and love and eat too much of. Reading it is like sitting down with a friend and hearing her reel off a series of massively entertaining confessions.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.