Candyfreak

Despite the routine references in this column that the God of the Bible affirms this world as creation -- implying that daily life, therefore, is a blessed gift (even if damaged by sin) -- I sometimes think that some readers still don't "get it." Many of our most passionate book recommendations are reserved for this topic, the basics of "leaning into life" from an overall faith-filled framework. (Please look for a review from us next month of the long, long-awaited Nancy Pearcey book, Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity, which is coming out this month from Crossway, with a special introductory price of $19.99. It gives a good foundation for thinking critically about this very problem and affirms the sort of "creation regained" worldview that we so often talk about within the CCO.)

Such a holistic and faithful worldview leads to an appreciation of the arts, involvement in efforts of cultural renewal, literature, leisure and the like and, as the early raves about the Pearcy book show, there is a new generation of such writers, inviting us to a full-orbed, passionate sense of being corum deo.

But we still worry.


Last week, I heard of a Christian school where parents complain that high school kids read a well-known newspaper in their civics class! A recent discussion within our own campus ministry circles illustrated that not everyone who says "Jesus is Lord" really appreciates the down-to-earth ordinariness of God's redemptive work in the real world. Another student told me she would not have a non-Christian book on her shelves and intended to throw away a "secular" book she bought from us. Such remarks from dear folks cause us to grow weary.


Even through we insist that our bookstore is sane to stock books from mainstream publishers and non-religious authors and that this intentional approach is rooted in a Judeo-Christian worldview and the Reformed doctrine of common grace, we still hear occasional sputters of criticism. Some shoppers at "Christian bookstores" apparently expect certain "safe" listings, stuff too often chosen to not make anyone think too much (or laugh too hard). Sometimes good booksellers and thoughtful publishers push boldly on; others, I am afraid, acquiesce. God's Spirit does lead us to engage the real world, read widely and enjoy stuff -- and we are proud to not fit into the cookie-cutter mold of the CBA (that is, the Christian Book Association).


Well, this month, we again will try to entice our churchy customer base to consider a book that isn't found in most religious bookstores or parish libraries. If well-written general market books of insight, pathos, earthy humor and deep meaning (well, some kind of meaning, at least) are not your cup of tea, maybe these titles are not for you. But, I pray thee, give "Ëœem a try.


My two favorite books this spring have been books that have not emerged from the Christian publishing world. I can't wait to tell you about the fascinating, warm and hold-your-side-hilarious Candyfreak, but allow me to briefly mention the really important and tons-of-middle-class-fun On Paradise Drive by David Brooks, the national treasure, pundit, serious writer and comic sociologist. This intelligent study of suburbs and consumerism and American ideals tries to mine meaning out of the suburban guy at Home Depot and the ubermom at PTA who meet up (and even hook up, he imagines) at Chili's Olive Garden Hard Rock Outback Cantina. We will have to comment on this brilliant sequel to the spectacular Bobos in Paradise another time, but please know that his creative effort to imagine why we buy and what sort of hope resides in the belly of suburbia is very, very much worth your time. Keep James
Howard Kuntsler close at hand, but read David Brooks. He is important. And really funny. (Click here for a few brief excerpts to give you a taste -- at least read the expert view of Patio Man"¦)

Candyfreak (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill; $21.95) has the spectacular subtitle A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America, and it hooked me from the first page. Steve Almond is a wild writer, nearly gonzo, his work chock-full of the clever phrase and the writerly knockout punch. From the prologue on, where he lists some things you should know about the author (the first being that he has "eaten a piece of candy every single day of his entire life"), he is on a roll. He continues:


I want you to look at this sentence and think about it briefly and, if you're so inclined, perhaps say a little prayer on behalf of my molars. This would not be unwarranted, and for supporting evidence I refer you to Elizabeth Gulevich, a highly competent doctor of dental surgery who spent most of the early seventies numbing my jaw. I doubt Dr. Gulevich is the sort to have established a hall of fame in her waiting room (she was more the Ansel Adams type) but I would like to believe that my run of seven cavities during the infamous campaign of 1973 stands as some kind of record.


He continues, indicating how much he thinks about candy each day. (Candyfreak readers, beware, this is a mouth-watering excerpt):


For several years, I've been obsessed with the idea of introducing a new candy bar into the market: a crisp wafer held together with hazelnut paste, topped by crushed hazelnuts, and enrobed in dark chocolate. My friends have listened to me rather patiently and only a few have been impertinent enough to point out that no one in America actually likes hazelnuts, a kibbitz to which I generally respond, Yes, and they didn't like penicillin at first either, did they?

And, he gets his ideological cards, and more, on the table, too, early on:


I am not blind to the hypocrisy of my conduct, nor to the slightly pathetic aspects of my freakdom. I am, after all, in my mid-thirties, suffering from severe balding anxiety and lower-back pain. I am not exactly the target demographic. What's more, my political orientation is somewhere to the left of Christ, such that I find most of American culture greedy and heedless, most especially our blithe and relentless pigging of the world's resources. I have a hard time defending the production of candy, given that it is basically crack for children and makes them dependent in unwholesome ways, and given that much of our citizenry is bordering on obesity (just about what we deserve), and given that most of the folks who grow our sugar and cocoa are part of an indentured Third World workforce who earn enough, per annum, to buy maybe a Snickers bar, and given that the giants of the candy industry are, even as I write this, doing
everything in their considerable power to establish freak hegemony over what they call "developing markets," meaning hooking the children of Moscow and Beijing and Nairobi on their dastardly confections.


So the question: Given all this moral knowledge, how can I lead the life of an unbridled candyfreak?


The next sub-section of chapter one is thusly titled: THE AUTHOR WILL NOW RATIONALIZE. As one who has delivered -- sincerely, with biblical foundation and the prophetic imagination of a prophet, I'd like to think -- this exact sort of rant, it is nice to hear a guy so blatant and yet so aware of his moral compromises. When he notes, however, that we don't actually choose our freaks, I am not sure if his sugarcoated tongue is anywhere near his sweet tooth, over by his cheek or jowl. Still, it is worth considering that he may mean it when he writes, "we may not understand why we freak on a particular food or band or sports team. We may have no conscious control over our allegiances. But they arise from our most sacred fears and desires and, as such, they represent the truest expression of ourselves." Hmmm.


And so, he says, "In my case, I should start with my father, as all sons must, particularly those, like me, who grew up in a state of semi-thwarted worship." And, again, I am hooked.


So begins Almond's -- yes, his name is really Steve Almond, a fact I will discipline myself not to discuss -- journey. Or, it begins a couple of simultaneous journeys. There is the culinary journey -- delving into recipes and opining upon the relative merits of, say, the Kit Kat Limited Edition Dark or the famous southern Goo Goo Cluster, in defense of which, apparently, ordinarily demure belles can become quite belligerent. Anyone with a taste for food writing will not be disappointed (although, you should realize, this ain't your M.F.K. Fisher; one reviewer was dead on calling him "the Dave Eggers of food writing").

Almond can fluently describe the exquisite taste of good ingredients on the tongue, savoring, say, a candy made with the world's finest vanilla (which, we learn, comes only from Madagascar), or he can wondrously describe the sensation of Zotz exploding in the mouth. I was astonished by his attention to tastes, aroma, texture. (You have got to hear the image he conjures up asserting his passionate distrust of coconut!) This is truly worthwhile writing, attending to our lived experiences in God's created world, despite the seemingly light-hearted menu. He does it very well.


(Aside: it has been a while since we've commended the high-brow high-jinxing Episcopalian preacher and Bible scholar, Robert Farrar Capon, who wrote truly one of the great food books of all time, Supper of the Lamb, now out again in paperback. I dare you to read his redemptive section on the glory of the onion without shedding tears of pious devotion for the goodness of God. Granted, precious words about meats and sauces and wines necessarily cannot be as funny as introspection about Wacky Wafers, but I would bet that Almond -- a Jew on the quest for heavy metal meaning -- would love Father Capon. It is a wondrous, very special book.)


There are, in the candy world -- not unlike in other gourmet food, wine, or cigar subcultures -- aficionados, serious snobbery and highbrow competition, coveted awards, secret recipes and Web sites debating the most arcane matters of culinary detail. Almond tells of the coatings and glazings and enrobings, just the right balance of this taste and that, matters of zest, color, and aftertaste. Oh how he disdains the wrong balance of things, say, the wholly unsatisfactory weight of mint and chocolate in the lame York Peppermint Patty. (I should note that it grieves me to report this, but the Patty is not made here anymore, and, anyway, you know that he is right.) Or consider the amount of molasses or the roasted-ness of the nuts in Philadelphia's famous Peanut Chews. Even if you don't care about this stuff, it is spectacularly interesting reading, good social history, and a whole lot of fun..


Besides the journey into the subculture of culinary delight (much, much more than, but certainly including the famed sugar buzz), Mr. Almond goes -- although not too far down the road -- towards some resolution of hinted-at family dysfunction. In a strangely humorous, sad section, he wonders why he hordes foodstuffs. Sure, he is a bona fide candyfreak, but what could possible explain his hiding pizza slices under his bed sheets for days at a time? (I suppose I should note that he did this as a child; with Almond, I'll warn you, one never knows.) This hinting at the deep, dark chocolate of a bittersweet past (okay, I'm sorry, but his over-the-edge style has inspired me to go for it, regardless) is both an important part of the narrative, but unlike many hot memoirs and creative non-fiction these days, he does not tell all. Perhaps he doesn't know (having covered up his deepest needs and longings with pot and candy). Or perhaps he just doesn't say. Life is sticky East of Eden, an
d Almond neither avoids nor over-tells. Candyfreak is a very funny and somehow serious and evocative book. Readers will ponder their own lives, I'm sure, and will want to wish him well.

Candyfreak is also a road book. This on-the-road journey is the narrative heart of most of the story. Almond determines to visit old and regional candy bar manufacturers, talk to their staff, study their equipment, snitch seconds from their assembly line. These are the kinds of manufacturers that cannot afford to pay the "slotting fees" to the big grocery chains and big box stores to have their product displayed near the check-out line and are, consequently, endangered species. Commercially marginalized, financially precipitous, yet passionate about entrepreneurship, obsessive about quality, these hold-outs of regional manufacturing are bravely keeping the family biz going in the face of NAFTA, the global economy, branding and mass marketeering and unscrupulous takeovers by the big three. (The big three, as if I have to tell you, would be Mars, Nestles, and Hershey's. He doesn't have much luck getting through to them. Did you know that there is such a thing as candy
espionage — industrial spying for recipes, marketing plans and factory formats? Unlike most of the local guys, the corporate Wonkas didn't trust him. This is very serious business, indeed!)


As Almond literally travels around the country to small candy manufacturers in places like Sioux City or Boise, he learns of the technical processing business (industrial engineers will love this part) and more of the quandaries of pricing and distribution, the play-offs between excellence and cost, economies of scale and the desire to make a decent living with vocational integrity. Not a small part of this includes reflections upon the anxieties produced when regional economies and tastes are macadamed over by WalMart et al. Anyone who has read Wendell Berry will resonate with Almond here.


And, if I may, those who haven't read Wendell Berry not only should, but should right away, read his fiction and nonfiction, poetry and prose. (We are proud that we have stocked his books since the day we opened, decades ago.) Those interested in this area of concern should consider the brand new and very helpful Food for Life: The Spirituality and Ethics of Eating by L. Shannon Jung (Fortress; $15.00) or one of the Hearts & Minds faves of last year, Food & Faith: Justice, Joy and Daily Bread which was compiled by Michael Schut (Living the Good News; $14.95). Each would make a wonderful study or a good gift. Or, for a great bit of food writing and a memoir of the effort of a fine chef to nurture appropriate agricultural practices, we would be happy to fill an order for the lovely paperback, Coming Home to Eat: The Pleasures and Politics of Local Foods by Gary Paul Nabhan (Norton; $14.95),
about which Chez Panisse- founder and whole-food gourmet guru Alice Waters has written, "Amazing and eloquent"¦makes us understand how finding and eating local foods connects us deeply and sensually." Local or no, though, I want to taste some of these exotic classic candy bars Almond tells of, even if I do live in the backyard of Hershey Foods International.

There were, Almond tells us, between the World Wars of the mid 20th century, over 4,000 independent candy companies. Now there are less than 150. This is a truly rotten trend, common in other industries as well, each damaging our social fabric -- again, read Berry's Jayber Crow for a lovely and rich novel that gets at this. It is no surprise that Mr. Almond thanks, significantly, independent booksellers who handle his book and I have emailed him to thank him. Let those with ears, hear"¦


There are plenty of fun reviews about Candyfreak at his very cool Web site, www.stevenalmond.com, which is also given over to his other big freak -- indie rock and eccentric album lists. There you will find not only reviews of his various writings, but other candy testimonials posted by readers and fans. I don't vouch for his taste in music presented there, by the way, despite a lovely Van Morrison allusion in the book and the ironic frontispiece of a Tom Waite line. Still, you gotta love a Web site that has candy testimonials. Go on. It will be fun. Maybe you'll think about your childhood, perhaps, which isn't a bad thing, is it? Maybe you'll even wonder about why you enjoy things, bringing you up on an idea Os Guinness taught me, noting that it would be awful to have gratitude without Someone to be grateful to.

One blurb on the back jacket of the book seemed right: "This will make you hungry, but it will also make you grateful -- for wit, for self-effacing humor, for joyful obsessiveness, for the precise and loving use of language to crack open and celebrate our oddness -- in short, for a writer as funny and big-hearted as Steve Almond."


We sell this weird and wonderful book in our bookstore -- our Christian bookstore. And what I now mostly want to say is, "Amen to that!" And as we offer our "book testimony," we say, enjoy! Enjoy and be grateful.


Click here for a few brief samples of Candyfreak by Steve Almond.