One of the cool things about writing a book about a particular food item is that, whether you consider yourself to be or not, other people will look to you as an expert on that topic, and will heap free samples upon you in the hope that you will write about them. I met author Steve Almond as he was being gifted with container after container of free organic cotton candy. Despite his polite insistence that he couldn’t possibly carry six tubs of cotton candy home on a plane, the manufacturer wanted him to try every flavor.
Almond was in Toronto this past spring to give what he thought was a reading at the unfortunately named Canadian Sweets Expo (www.sweetsexpo.ca). Badly promoted and equally poorly organized, what was meant to be on par with the big candy shows in the US turned out to be a sad collection of local vendors of mostly waxy chocolate, oddly flavored jellybeans and some crazy chocolate-flavoured energy balls that made me extremely ill. Also present were a few Canadian Food Network celebrities, a face-painter (for the kids) and a circus troupe. Not exactly the type of forum where a well-known author and creative writing professor is going to be known for his non-fiction work on rare US candy bars.
Which is too bad, because CandyFreak is a sugar-laced tour of the rare, the wonderful and the delicious. It’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, minus Johnny Depp. A self-defined candy freak, Almond traveled far and wide to learn the story of some rare and wondrous local favorites. From the southern icon the GooGoo Cluster, to the darling of Boise, the Idaho Spud (which yours truly has never tried but desperately wants to – readers in Idaho, help a poor Canadian gal out, won’t you?), Almond tours factories, talks to chocolatiers, and waxes poetic about enrobers.
Along the way, he shares his personal candy quirks: he dislikes maple, compares coconut to bits of torn-off hangnails (which made me look at both coconut and hangnails in a very different light), and interviews chocolate engineer Dave Bolton, who compares the taste of mainstream milk chocolate to baby vomit. As a chocolate snob myself, I’d have to agree with Bolton – I never really had the right words to describe that slightly sour tang most milk chocolate bars have, and now I do.
In fact, the chapter where Almond visits Dave Bolton at the Lake Champlain chocolate factory is the most food-porn worthy in the book. And given that much of Almond’s short fiction leans to the more, uh… graphic, his skill at describing some of the bars Bolton creates definitely left me desperate for a chocolate fix.
I suppose I was aware, in an abstract way, that there were men and women upon this earth who served in this capacity, as chocolate engineers. In the same way that I was aware there are job titles out there such as bacon taster and sex surrogate, which is to say, job titles that made me want to weep at my own appointed lot in life. But I had never considered the prospect of visiting a chocolate engineer. I could think of nothing else for days.
Dave himself was hunched over a counter, scrutinizing what looked like an overgrown Junior Mint. He looked up when we came in and, almost reflexively, held the piece out to me. The dark chocolate shell gave way to an intense burst of sweet chewy fruit. The texture was soft enough to yield to the teeth, yet firm enough to absorb the musky undertones of the chocolate.
“What you’re eating,” Dave said, “is a dried cherry, infused with raspberry and covered in a Select Origin 75 percent dark chocolate.” He held out the bag. “Have another.”
Here is what I wanted to say to Dave Bolton at that precise moment: Take me home and love me long time, GI.
Almond’s appearance at the Sweets Expo didn’t come close to showing off his candy knowledge or writing skills. In a sad audience of about forty people, only four of us had actually read his book, and his planned reading instead became a surreal quiz show in which precocious three-year-olds were pushed onstage by their parents to meet Steve and collect a free GooGoo cluster after giving incorrect answers to questions based on the book.
If you dig candy, you owe it to yourself to read CandyFreak. Almond is sharp, witty and insightful, and his descriptions will send you headed for the nearest candy counter to get your freak on.
Note – Idaho Spuds have been acquired and consumed since this piece was written. They were an unfortunate disppointment.