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Author conveys history, love of chocolate for Los Altos Morning Forum audience


Photo By: Kathryn Tomaino/ Special to the Town Crier
Photo Kathryn Tomaino/ Special To The Town Crier

Steve Almond talks chocolate.

Throughout human history, people have savored sweet treats, but Steve Almond, who addressed the Morning Forum of Los Altos Nov. 6, confessed that his childhood “was organized around candy.”

A writer and reporter by profession, Almond channeled his early obsession for candy into “Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America” (Workman Publishing, 2004), a best-selling book Amazon named one of its Best Books of the Year.

Almond took the audience on a nostalgic tour, recounting his years growing up in Palo Alto, riding his bike to the Mayfield Mall for mint parfaits, waiting until just after Christmas for ribbon candy to go on sale by the pound at Sears and going to Mac’s Smoke Shop for Caravelle candy bars, his favorite. He rhapsodized about that candy bar – a “caramel center surrounded by rice embedded in chocolate” – for its “symphony of flavors” and its “structural integrity.”

According to Almond, chocolate is the top ingredient in the candy hierarchy – that’s easy to confirm by calculating the trick-or-treat preferences.

“History is drawn by the tongue,” he said.

Columbus sailed west in search of spices. He returned with chocolate – restricted to the elite at the time and long kept a state secret. But in 1896, Hershey Co., a caramel maker, devised a method of making milk chocolate and opened the product to all.

Chunks of chocolate were distributed to soldiers in World War I to provide bursts of pleasure and energy, Almond noted. Soon Hershey’s and Mars packaged and distributed single-serving sizes – the birth of the candy bar.

A demand emerged and the supply followed. The golden age of the candy bar peaked between the two World Wars, during which 30,000 different brands were available. Every small town in America had at least one confectioner, and every confectioner seemed to originate a new nickel bar, Almond said.

When the ingredients became limited, marketing became more creative, especially the names of candy bars. “Club Sandwich” and “Chicken Dinner” implied that the candy was nutritious and good for you, Almond said. Some bars were named for people or places or dances. “Longfellow” was named for the poet. Other names, such as “Love Nest,” “Fat Emma,” “North Pole” and “Snooze,” were harder to attribute. Perhaps the strangest name, Almond added, was “Vegetable Sandwich.”

Today, the big three candy makers – Hershey’s, Mars and Nestlé, which can afford national distribution – make 95 percent of all candy bars. The big corporations began buying out the smaller manufacturers, and candy bars are rapidly becoming homogenized – like so much else in American society, according to Almond. There are a few family-owned businesses that have survived – Palmer Candy Co. in Iowa with its Twin Bings and the California-based Candy Crate Co. with its Idaho Spud bars, for example.

“It’s a sad story,” Almond said. “The small companies are slowly and surely going out of business. Candy is indicative of the national trend away from individuation.”

Morning Forum is a members-only lecture series held at Los Altos United Methodist Church, 655 Magdalena Ave. For membership details and more information, visit www.morningforum.com.

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