Saturday, February 9, 2008

Penny Candy: Sweet Memories

When I was nine, my parents bought the cottage across the street from my aunt and uncle’s year-round home on a spring fed lake in southern Michigan. I loved it, even though it was little more than a shack. It underwent a vast remodel as we, slowly but surely, made it our home away from home. Going to the cottage on weekends fed my sweet tooth and gave me a change of scenery from the Chicago suburbs. It also gave me cavities and sometimes a bellyache.

First, there was the sugar fix on the way. I was enchanted and ensalivated by the revolving “trees” of all-day suckers in the oasis restaurants on the Indiana Toll Road. I’d order chicken potpie, like my parents, but only because they’d make me eat something before my big dessert, one of the gigantic and colorful lollipops. I’d never seen anything like them. They were a kid’s dream come true, as spectacular to me as Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. They were overpriced and a visual fireworks display in swirled sugar—one of my four basic food groups along with hot dogs, peanut butter, and popcorn.

Then there was the store across the lake. My sisters and I would walk nearly two miles one-way to spend a quarter apiece on brown bags full of penny candy. Nothing was more satisfying after that hot, long walk than biting into Laffy Taffy, chocolate cigarettes, Dum Dum Pops or sassafras drops. A kid could get all the juice she’d need for the walk back from two bits worth of penny candy, a veritable fortune and serious allowance save-up in the ‘50s. Now there are some wonderful boomer candy sites where you can get a sugar blast from the past, too:
Treat Station, Candy Store, the Retro Collection at Groovy Candies—and you can even do a Nextag search and comparative price shop for those bottle cap candies I loved to bite into, buttons of pure colored sugar.

Unfortunately, these were not my only cane-driven indulgences. My school was only a block from a corner store with every kind of snack imaginable, as well as the local custard stand on the other corner. Remember frozen custard? I can still get it at
Culver’s when we visit relatives in Wisconsin. Frozen yogurt doesn’t come close, and “regular” ice cream doesn’t have that soft, instant melt-in-your-mouth texture. For nostalgia nuts who don’t live in the Dairy State (of course, they’d still have it there!), check out this Custard Stand List I found. Looks like Wisconsin has more than any state, a good reason to visit the place. (Tell the tourist bureau. I’ve even got a slogan for ‘em—Custard’s last stand).

While sugar is a serious addiction in my life and the lives of many Americans in general, I have been thinking how much harder I had to seek the white powdery substance as a kid in middle school. We ate far fewer prepared foods, so it wasn’t snuck into every morsel with
aliases like glucose, fructose, and maltose, among others. Sugar fixes were purer—witness my penny candy memories—and they were enough to make you sick to your stomach, if you ate too much—a self-correcting mechanism that we lack today. Now we have such a steady stream of the stuff, we just build up a tolerance and need more and more of it to take the edge off our need for a sugar fix. Substitutes are no answer, as evidence mounts proving them riskier than the sugar they replace with the exception of natural sweeteners like stevia.

But let’s put off a serious sugar fast till after Valentine’s Day. If he or she is the right vintage, give your favorite honey some boomer sweets for an old-fashioned, nostalgic V-Day. Visit an “antique” store and see what boomer object you can find to put it in, like a vintage lunch box. Or wouldn’t it be great to find one of those big red heart candy boxes of yesteryear?

I’m on the wagon with sugar. I plan to use these candies as art objects in a boomer collage I’m making …

… but just in case I fall off my high horse, pass the Pepto! Or for an even more retro advertising memory, the Alka Seltzer.
(“Plop, plop, fizz, fizz, oh what a relief it is!”).

PS – Let’s hear from the “Peanut Gallery” with some comments about your sugary childhood faves!

Photo by Art Ebsersole

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