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A cultural history of candy—how it evolved from medicine and a luxury to today's Kit Kat bars and M&M's
Told through the Kate Hopkins' travels in Europe and the U.S., Sweet Tooth is a first-hand account of her obsession with candy and a detailed look at its history and development. The sugary treats we enjoy today have a prominent past entertaining kings, curing the ill, and later developing into a billion-dollar industry. The dark side of this history is ...
A cultural history of candy—how it evolved from medicine and a luxury to today's Kit Kat bars and M&M's
Told through the Kate Hopkins' travels in Europe and the U.S., Sweet Tooth is a first-hand account of her obsession with candy and a detailed look at its history and development. The sugary treats we enjoy today have a prominent past entertaining kings, curing the ill, and later developing into a billion-dollar industry. The dark side of this history is that the confectionery industry has helped create an environment of unhealthy overindulgence, has quelled any small business competition that was deemed to be a risk to any large company's bottom line, and was largely responsible for the slave trade that evolved during the era of colonization.
Candy's history is vast and complex and plays a distinct part in the growth of the Western world. Thanks to the ubiquity of these treats which allows us to take them for granted, that history has been hidden or forgotten. Until now. Filled with Hopkins' trademark humor and accompanied by her Candy Grab Bag tasting notes, Sweet Tooth is a must-read for everybody who considers themselves a candy freak.
“Kate Hopkins is excellent company – witty, self-deprecating and intensely curious – as she travels through Europe and the United States in search of the story of candy. Packed with nuggets of fascinating history, it is also a gentle chew on the nature of growing up and a search for her eleven-year-old self, who equated sugar with love and lived for the innocent pleasure of a sweet treat. Hopkins is not afraid to address the darker side of sugar’s history, nor the bland hegemony and cynical marketing of today’s mega-corporations – Cadbury World in England is like ‘an ecstasy trip gone horribly wrong’ - but she is still at heart unashamedly and infectiously in love with candy.” —Matthew Parker, author of The Sugar Barons and Panama Fever
“Kate Hopkins’s scrumptious first-person account of her pilgrimage to resolve a midlife crisis by replicating her childhood candy consumption is served alongside her research into the surprising and often bitter history of candy. Hopkins’s post-journey epiphany: Adulthood is when one has the money but has lost the desire to buy every candy in the shop. Sweet Tooth is illustrated throughout with Kate’s Candy Bag sidebars, which describe and rate other treats against York Peppermint Patties: for example 1 York Peppermint Patty is equal to 1 Cadbury Egg but 1,645 black licorice jelly beans. Sweet Tooth indeed!” —Elizabeth Abbott, author of Sugar: A Bittersweet History
"A pleasing chronology of candy through the ages." —Kirkus Reviews
"The author’s track record as a stand-up comedian serves her well, producing good-humored, but never flip, comments." —Booklist
"The worldwide tour is great fun, and it is a delight to read her funny, self-deprecating reports. You can read her book, learn some important world history, and wonder at some very fancy or very plain candies. You won't risk a single cavity or gain a pound, unless (and this is a true risk) you find Hopkins's enthusiasm contagious."—The Columbus Dispatch
The Innocence of Candy
It’s odd, the memories that stay with you. I can recall being about four years old, and my parents had taken the family to a diner that was tucked back in a strip mall in the blue-collar town of Butler, Pennsylvania. I can remember one of my four siblings creating a bit of a fuss over the lack of hot dogs on the menu. I can remember the cup of coffee that my dad ordered, and the plain ceramic mug in which it was served. I can even remember the pattern of the Formica that surfaced the table.
But the event that makes the day most memorable was that this was the day I first spit out a piece of candy.
The candy itself was a Brach’s jelly nougat, a smallish piece of candy that the waitress gave to each of us children while our parents drank coffee and checked the validity of the bill.
The candy perplexed me. The texture of the nougat was soft and gritty, and the jelly pieces stuck in the candy felt oddly out of place. The colors were new to me as well, with the pieces retaining either a matted pink or a dull orange after surviving whatever process the folks at Brach’s had inflicted upon them. What fruits they were supposed to represent is likely unknown to all except the people who made these candies.
It was not as if I disliked the piece of candy. It was chock-full of sugar, and thus had an appeal that would raise the eyebrows of most preschoolers and test the patience of the majority of parents out there. But it wasn’t chocolate. Nor was it a Life Saver, a marshmallow, or even a candy cane. It was something else.
I spat it out into my hand and looked at it. I reflected for a moment on whether it tasted good, setting aside for the time being the fact that it tasted weird. It did pass the sweetness test, so how bad could it be?
My father, of course, solved the situation, demanding that I stop “playing with my food,” not recognizing the moment for what it was. I was tasting nougat for the first time, and I was determining whether it was worth the effort.
What makes this scene so important in my development was that it was the first time I can remember having a surprising moment with a piece of candy. This was the first time that candy had left me intrigued.
This is what makes that moment so memorable. It wasn’t that I mindlessly liked candy. It was the first time that I had formed an educated opinion about food, based on experience and introspection. Not only did I like the nougat, I liked the process that allowed me to reach that conclusion. I vowed right then and there to repeat it as often as possible. I have since had ample opportunity to accomplish this goal.
For the first dozen or so years of my life, candy was the panacea for every trial and tribulation that came my way. If I scraped my knee, my mom would be there with a Tootsie Pop. When I learned I needed glasses, my dad stopped to buy me some Bub’s Daddy bubble gum.1 After the first day of kindergarten, Mom marked the occasion with Smarties. (These would be the compressed sugar Smarties known in the United States, not the candy-covered chocolates known to Canadians and Brits, which were closer in design to M&M’s.) Candy was something that lessened pain and made life a little more tolerable.
But it was more than just that. Candy also made appearances when life was to be celebrated. Easter, Christmas, and Halloween all came with copious amounts of sugary treats. Birthday parties held in the neighborhood ensured that each young guest received a bag of goodies. Trips to the grandparents on my mother’s side promised, at the very least, rock candy, but usually something more. My paternal grandmother was not a fan of candy, and trips to her house meant little chance of a candy high, though she did have a way with cakes, cookies, and pies, so those of us who equated sugar with love were able to welcome visits to her house without fear.
In short, candy was available in good times and bad. It was the initial mixed message that was fed to my siblings and me. This environment set the table for the first few years of my life. Candy was our ambrosia. We tolerated the healthy meals of fish sticks and broccoli but counted the days to the next holiday or birthday party. Mrs. Paul could take a flying leap for all we cared, but Peter Paul was looked upon with an admiration that left him just behind Jesus and Santa Claus. Along with Dolly Madison, Peter Paul sponsored the several Charlie Brown cartoon specials that were shown throughout the year. Only later did I learn that Peter Paul was not a person, but a company, and that the wife of President James Madison had precious little to do with Zingers and Donut Gems.
Then, when I was seven, an amazing thing happened. My father instituted a practice that changed my candy life forever. He offered every one of his children an allowance. Into our greedy, grimy little hands, he placed money, with a promise of more each week. In theory, I’m sure he felt he was teaching us fiscal responsibility. In practice, what we learned was thrift shopping. Why buy a twenty-five-cent Milky Way bar, when for the same price we could buy Lemonheads, Boston Baked Beans, and a three-pack of Lik-m-Aid? Making a big purchase such as a Snickers bar was deemed financially irresponsible.
Economics seemed to filter throughout our family’s candy universe. At Halloween, each of us children would go off with our circle of friends, the older children dressed in costumes of their own creations, while we younger kids wore those prepackaged costumes that smelled of polyvinyl and included cheap plastic masks that chafed the face. Not that the masks mattered, because they would fall off when the cheap rubber band broke fifteen minutes after we set off on our routes. After all five of us had completed our neighborhood rounds, we would compare stashes while a parent looked on.
A currency system was soon created, and trades occurred in great haste. Our living room looked like an elementary school version of the New York Stock Exchange as our entire evening’s haul littered the floor. Soon, a hierarchy of candy developed. In the middle of the value range sat the York Peppermint Pattie. Those above the York Peppermint Pattie were highly valued: Snickers and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups at the top, with 3 Musketeers and $100,000 bars close behind. Those below the pattie line were trade bait, valued more for the quantity one could collect than for the short-term indulgence of the “quality” candy bars that one experienced. These included Chuckles, Good & Plenty, and the worst thing one could get during the Halloween excursions—the dreaded popcorn ball.
Kate’s Candy Bag
YORK PEPPERMINT PATTIE
A mint fondant that’s encased in dark chocolate, the York Peppermint Pattie was created in York, Pennsylvania (hence, its name), where it was purchased by the Peter Paul company in 1972, which became the property of Cadbury in 1978, which sold the confection and recipe to Hershey in 1988. The York Peppermint Pattie was known primarily for two things: coincidentally having the same name as a character in Charles Schulz’s comic strip Peanuts; and commercials that compared the sensation of eating a York Peppermint Pattie to skiing in the alps or being trapped on a glacier. This I thought strange, for when I bit into a York Peppermint Pattie, I got the sensation of eating chocolate right after brushing my teeth.
Candy Exchange Rate:
1 York Peppermint Pattie = 1 York Peppermint Pattie
We were sure it was no coincidence that those who gave away these lame treats were childless. When popcorn ball givers walked the streets of our neighborhood, children would look upon them as if they were extras from Village of the Damned. These miscreants wouldn’t escape our suspicion until the next Halloween, when inevitably they changed from popcorn balls to chocolates or their porch lights were no longer lit.
But really, it was the trading for candy that I remember most. With four siblings in the house, I had to develop strategies in trading. Those of us who traded quickly for Milky Ways and Clark bars often found ourselves without candy a mere three days later. Those of us who traded for the multitudes of Bazooka Joes, Sugar Babies, and the odd bags of candy corn soon found ourselves holding a monopoly over the family candy supply by election day.
Easter was the second most anticipated candy holiday on the calendar. Various Sunday school lessons instructed us that Easter Sunday was the day we celebrated Jesus Christ’s resurrection. What my pack of friends and I believed was that Easter was the day that Jesus, in the form of a bunny, showed up at our houses in the middle of the night, tossed hard-boiled eggs all over the place, and then apologized for the mess we’d have to clean up by leaving a basket full of candy. We started the morning by recovering all the eggs that Jesus had haphazardly thrown around the house. By the end of the day, we were stuffed full of marshmallow Peeps, jelly beans, and loads of chocolate.
It was the chocolate that resulted in the first upgrade in the quality of the candy we were given. When we were younger we received chocolate rabbits, which we thought a tad cruel, and we questioned whether we would go to hell for biting off the rabbit ears first. Over the course of the next few years, this evolved into us children imitating the rabbits as their horrible child overlords chomped into their chocolate flesh. The last year we had chocolate rabbits, our father noticed us screaming in sadistic glee while doing our best bunny impersonations of these confections, pleading, “Oh my god, no! No! No! Don’t eat my…!” and then immediately devouring the rabbit’s head. The next year, each of us received a softball-sized chocolate cream–filled egg, with fondant decorations. While he clearly paid more money for these treats, the cost was likely offset by enabling him to survive Easter Sunday without once thinking we would end up being a family of serial killers. In that light, it seems like money well spent.
When I was a kid, my favorite days of the year could be ranked this way:
3. My birthday
4. Any day that I was able to receive/discover/consume candy
Two of those days are up there because of the abundance of gifts. Four of them involved candy or sweets. When I was a child, life was merely the time that happened in between these days. The truly memorable moments were the ones when candy and presents abounded. When you’re a child, nothing is better than a day when people give you stuff and you are allowed to eat as much candy as you want.
Thirty-odd years later, those types of days seem long gone. I now see Christmas as a cynical marketing enterprise that uses religion as a rationalization for maxing out one’s credit card. Halloween has evolved from a night when I dressed in costume in order to beg for candy from neighbors, to a night when I dressed in costume in order to share whiskey, vodka, and kegs of beer with like-minded college friends, to a night I have to remind myself that the holiday still exists. Nowadays, I end up forgetting about Halloween until the last possible moment, at which point my only options are to either make a dash to the drugstore to buy a bag or two of Hershey’s Miniatures or make sure I leave my porch light off. I’m not sure there’s anything more pathetic than a woman in her forties trying to avoid seven-year-olds dressed as hobos and princesses.
As for my birthday, the less said about it the better.
And Easter? Easter went by the wayside when I could not find anything in the Bible about chocolate rabbits and jelly beans. If Christianity wanted to retain my interest in the day celebrating the resurrection of Christ, it could have at least explained how marshmallow Peeps entered into the equation. If they had found a stain mark on the shroud of Turin that came from the filling of a Cadbury Creme Egg, it’s possible that I would still be celebrating Christ’s ascension with ham and spiced gumdrops.
In other words, I grew up into a cynical adult. No longer does bliss seem like an attainable goal. Instead I have settled for “comfort.” I’ve compromised the joys of my childhood in order to have a better understanding of the world around me.
Candy falls squarely into this worldview. No longer is it representative of the happiness that life can bring you. Now it represents the unhealthy, the immature, and the gluttonous. So I have set candy aside in order to pursue the American dream—a two-and-a-half-bedroom house with a white picket fence, a thirty-year mortgage, and ready access to the local grocery store.
But in middle age, with the brute force of a watermelon dropped from a fifth-floor balcony to the sidewalk below, I had a startling revelation: I was miserable chasing that dream. I didn’t want my life to be defined by a house that was smack in the middle of suburbia. I didn’t want to have political discussions based on whether I could get a better tax rate on my mortgage. I didn’t want to be associated with people who defended wars that allowed us to have cheaper gas.
Every day, the media presents me with things that are going wrong. My country is fighting two wars. Several banks nearly brought down the world’s economy. Institutional religions are either advocating hate or covering up the sins of their priests.
This is adulthood? The joys of our childhood never prepared us for this. I didn’t want any of this. Ever. What I wanted was to enjoy life, not to feel constricted by it.
One night, at a coffee shop, I told my partner Tara about these feelings that my midlife crisis had unleashed.
“So?” she replied. “Nothing is stopping you from acting like a child.”
“Nothing except social etiquette. No one wants to see a forty-three-year-old skip down the street in a jumper emblazoned with a Sesame Street logo.”
“No, no. You misunderstand,” she said. “Take the best aspects of both worlds. Take the best aspect of your childhood and combine it with the best aspect of adulthood.”
I mulled her statement over a bit. I looked around the room and watched other customers of the coffee shop. I watched them drink their lattes. I watched them take advantage of the free wi-fi. And I watched them eat the cupcakes that had become the recent trend here in Seattle—a little piece of childhood that was now being sold to adults for a mere two dollars.
A thought hit me. I needed a cure for this midlife crisis. And I knew exactly what I needed to do.
“Candy!” I said to Tara.
“Bweh?” she countered, confused by my non sequitur.
“What’s the one thing that defines adulthood?” I asked.
“I don’t know.… Responsibility?” she said, reaching for the first idea that entered her mind.
“Exactly! With that comes the need to make money in order to fulfill those responsibilities. It pays for the roof over your head, the food in your stomach, the car that allows you to commute to your job. Now, what defines childhood?”
“Candy?” she said.
“Yes! And adulthood is the stage in your life when you can afford all the candy you want, but you don’t. Instead you use money to buy a car, pay the rent, go to the doctor.”
Tara looked at me, clearly unsure on what I was about to propose.
“So what if I spent my money on all the candy I wanted? On all the candy I could? And not just the stuff I can get at the Rite Aid, or out of vending machines. What if I went out and searched for weird candy?”
Tara put her latte down. “So, your idea for a cure for a midlife crisis is to binge on candy?”
I paused and thought about it more. “What if I used this ‘bingeing’ as a means to another end? If I were in academia, I could say I was studying the history of candy.”
“So you’re going to travel the world, claiming you’re studying the history of candy, but instead you’re using it as an excuse to do a yearlong Halloween? All to solve your midlife crisis?”
I mulled her last statement for a bit before realizing she had crystallized the idea perfectly.
This was how I found myself, a few months later, thousands of miles away, chasing down the meaning of life and the history of candy and indulging in the ultimate childhood fantasy. That I was doing it at the age of forty-three was unfortunate but necessary. After all, adulthood does afford some measure of luxury over childhood, with financial resources being chief among them.
My cure for my midlife crisis? I was going to do what I had to. I was going to Italy.
Copyright © 2012 by Kate Hopkins
Posted March 8, 2013