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sweets and candy

30 september 2019

I want candy, as the song goes. I am glad to find out from Laura Mason's global history of the stuff that I am nowhere near alone.

I shouldn't love candy as much at sixty as I did at six. I suppose it delights me less now, but I crave it more. I've been doing well keeping my weight down this past year, but that only makes sugar beckon more insistently. The suburbs may be food deserts, but they are candy jungles, and any stressful experience finds a mountain of candy ready to allay one's anxieties. Still, I often feel that my generation, the late Baby Boom, carried its infantile predilections into adulthood. My grandparents didn't eat a lot of candy, at least not storebought. Candy, to them, was kid stuff. I've stayed on kid stuff my whole life.

"Not storebought," I said – my grandmother did make candy, and my parents inherited her recipes and used to make a fair amount of candy in the 1960s and into the '70s. Taffy was a favorite, more for the pulling than the eating. Various brittles and candied popcorn were produced, rock candy of course, and best of all, divinity. Divinity was somewhere between fudge and meringue, and would have been just about equal to its name except that somebody usually got the disastrous idea of putting walnuts into it. I spent my formative years hating walnuts. People were always slipping the things into divinity and cookies and sweet rolls and maple fudge and really just about anything sweet and pillowy that seemed to adults to need to be ruined with little rocklike bitter bits of nut.

Laura Mason includes a number of recipes in Sweets and Candy. I am not eager to try any of them. Candymaking requires a candy thermometer, and in my experience is desperately sensitive to the gradations between firm ball and soft crack. I prefer cooking that is more forgiving. And unless I could recreate my grandmother's divinity, without the walnuts this time, what would be the point? Magnificent candy is just a trip to the mall away at all times.

And though (like anything else) you can overpay for candy, it is essentially very cheap, and has been since slave labor and industrial processes made candy the go-to drug for the Western world in the 19th century. Reconstituted sugar is among the most concentrated sources of energy humans have harnessed. It keeps me going through long sessions of paper-grading. Candy provides rewards and solaces better than those of alcohol, nicotine, or other recreationals, and though it'll also kill you sooner or later depending on your susceptibility, candy's lethal effects are insidiously long-delayed.

Mason's book is particularly illuminating as a catalog of candy-making techniques. The multifarious textures of commercial candy are familiar, but one rarely stops to wonder how they're fabricated. Mason classifies candies as cast, boiled, pulled, panned, pressed, threaded, gelatinized or starched, and punched. The overall picture cannot be systematized too precisely, though, because of mixed-media techniques and the weird effect of specific ingredients (like the baking soda that turns some dense brittles into foamy honeycombs).

Panned sweets merit quite a large section of Sweets and Candy. Mason notes that they're so ubiquitous that we now don't often think of them as a single type, but "comfits" – centers dragged or shaken through successive layers of sugaring – provide a great many of the world's standard candies. An M&M is a comfit; so is a Jordan almond. Nonpareils and Good & Plentys and jellybeans, sugared peel and flowers; really anything coated or shelled is basically a comfit. Comfits have conquered the world and elaborated into so many forms that they no now longer constitute a category.

The cultural significance of sugar has been the focus of many books, notably Sidney Mintz's Sweetness and Power (1986), a groundbreaking study of food and global politics in the broadest senses. Mason recaps a little of that scholarship here, but wisely steps slightly aside to chronicle the many relationships of candy to worldwide festivals. She is interested in sweets from India and the rest of the the Islamic world, sweets which have a strong relation to ritual festive calendars, though their techniques and effects sprawl well beyond those of Western candy-making. She also looks at Western candy holidays.

"Seasonal" aisles in American supermarkets are basically just candy aisles. More and more, the same exact items appear in different-colored wrappers to mark the stations of the calendar. Amorphous Reesean blobs are packaged as hearts for Valentine's Day, eggs for Easter, pumpkins for Halloween, and trees for Christmas. Only summer has remained resistant to the candy onslaught. In an annual respite, candy gets cycled off the seasonal shelves, to be replaced by grill utensils, plastic beach pails, and citronella candles.

My father, overweight and at risk for diabetes, controlled his sugar intake fairly well from a young age. As we kids plowed through every kind of available sweet, my dad famously allowed himself candy only on Easter Sunday. Having dodged the Christmas and Valentine's rushes, he really didn't stuff himself with much chocolate on Easter, when it came to it. Maybe that's the point of festivals. If you deny yourself excesses all year in anticipation of one day of license, you may not take that much license when the day comes. Conversely, now that candy is a 365-day orgy, we may eat even more of it, during the big candy seasons, than if we treated the special events as truly special.

If I have a complaint about Sweets and Candy, it's that divinity goes unmentioned. For that matter, I haven't had any divinity in decades. I lost my family recipe (which I would never have made anyway, so no tragedy there; plus my great-grandmother probably clipped it off a bag of Domino sugar in the first place). I am not sad to see some of these traditions disappear. Nostalgia, if it's going to be any fun at all, requires that the past be irrecoverable.

Mason, Laura. Sweets and Candy: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2018.