Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Sweets--A History of Candy

A few months ago, I picked up a copy of the following book on sale:

Richardson, Tim. Sweets: A History of Candy. (Bloomsbury Pub. Ltd. (UK)) (January 1, 2002) ISBN-10: 1422359832. [N.B.: THe ISBN information is for the hardcover edition that I purchased; a paperback version, which may be cheaper depending upon which vendor one seeks to obtain it from, is also available.]

I just finished reading it, and it occurred to me that others might find it interesting, so I'll give it a short review here.

Sweets boldly attempts to give the reader, not just a historical survey of the development of candy (which the author defines, justifiably if arbitrarily, as sweet foods made primarily from honey or sugar, as opposed to baked goods), but also a survey of the current state of the candy industry and of different regional and national preferences. There is a vast amount of information between its covers, and the bibliography is impressive in size.

The bad news is that Mr. Richardson, despite his extensive research and genuine enthusiasm for his subject, is primarily a journalist, not a researcher. Consequently, his book is written to be interesting to read, and is not organized in a manner that would allow one to easily locate facts about particular regions, time periods, candies, or nations. Reading it is a lot like sticking your fist into a jar of mixed candies and pulling out a random handful. Like other journalists who develop a passion for a particular subject (Victoria Finlay's Jewels: A Secret History and Barbara Sjoholm's The Pirate Queen: In Search of Grace O'Malley and Other Legendary Women of the Sea come to mind), Mr. Richardson makes his search for information part of his history, by describing his efforts to ferret out secrets from the very closely guarded modern confectionery industry. However, unlike the personal revelations that form a part of Ms. Finlay's and Ms. Sjoholm's books, Mr. Richardson's digressions into the particulars of his searches actually add to the book's value, by adding fascinating information about how today's candy industry operates and what its true priorities are. For that reason, I am disinclined to fault Mr. Richardson for folding his own sleuthing activities into the text.

I am much less inclined to be charitable about Mr. Richardson's repeated expressions of opinion about his own favorite sweets and his weakness for cute wordplay. Those traits, instead of enhancing the subject, occasionally get in the way of his attempts to purvey interesting historical information. Take, for example, this passage, where the author begins his discussion of chewing gum with a digression about how much he detests the stuff:
It was decided long ago that language is what separates man from the beasts; chewing gum, on the other hand, reunites us with the animals because it not only prevents us from talking properly but renders us meditatively dull and insensible, like beasts in their worst moments. All other sweets elevate mankind; chewing gum alone diminishes him. Bubble gum is another matter. Bubble gum is exceptionally fine, because it is bright pink and you can blow bubbles with it--which colour and which action immediately sets the blower apart from the animal kingdom. But spent chewing gum lurks in the mouth like some detached oral appendix, useless. And it is grey--whoever heard of a grey sweet? It is a disgrace.
This rain of personal preferences wrapped up in cutesy wordplay recurs throughout the book. Consider our author's comments about Peeps ("A Marshmallow Peep is a wonder of finely judged texture, with a slightly crispy skin and a light centre; it is the texture which makes it very difficult not to eat a whole box at one sitting."), chocolate ("Adults play too; a box of chocolates is also a toy, the plan inside treated with mock seriousness."), and a peculiar variant of hard candy called "rock" ("More than with any other confection, one has the sense that this sweet is physically attacking the teeth, clinging indefatigably to the molars so that when you finally prise it away, fraught and distracted, you can never be quite sure that you have not detached a tooth with it.").

For me, the biggest revelation of the book was the intertwining of the origin of the Western European candy tradition with the origin of the pharmaceutical industry. The earliest candies were treated as a kind of expensive health food, and typically were made by the same people who made medicines. We may frown with disapproval when we hear of a modern drug manufacturer making a medicine that looks and tastes like candy, but before we frown we should remember that such an act is part of an old tradition of mingling sweets and medicine. ("Like other spices, sugar was imported into Europe as a sophisticated medicine, to be combined by apothecaries with other ingredients in the confection of expensive medicinal preparations.")

Though as I read I occasionally wanted to bash Mr. Richardson over the head with a Nerf bat, I enjoyed Sweets immensely. The history of food would be much poorer without his sprightly, idiosyncratic book. I recommend reading it, if not buying it, to every serious food historian.

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