Sweet Truth: Week #50 of 52 Mini-Essays Project
On a difficult mother and a lifelong obsession with candy bars
This essay originally appeared on 3 Quarks Daily.
The first time I came across the “candy bar interiors” quiz, I was not disturbed by how many I got wrong, but rather how many I got right. While a few of the pictured confections were alien to me (Zagnut? who the hell eats a Zagnut? did Charlie Chaplin enjoy one in Modern Times?), I was intimately familiar with enough of the images that I could extrapolate the rest.
I just picked the weirdest and creepiest looking option as the Zagnut. I was correct.
I have been unhealthily obsessed with candy bars for as long as I can remember. My obsession is deep, tender, and gently festering, and I feel ambivalent about stirring up the dead leaves at the bottom of that pool. Even though I have written essays about my consistently abusive mother, my intermittently abusive father, my history of panic disorder, and many other delicate topics, an exploration of my feelings about candy bars feels like the most difficult thing I have ever attempted.
The outside layer of a Zagnut is coconut. Who does that?
My parents were largely uninterested in their children, but every once in a while they made a symbolic stab at parenting by doing something like restricting our food choices or giving us a curfew. They forbade sugary breakfast cereals, soda, candy, and chips of any kind—thus setting us up for an enduring obsession with junk food that I carry with me to this day. Even though I am now in my 50s and wholly in charge of my own snack choices, my stomach still flips over a little at the sight of a potato chip bag or a Chip Ahoy. So salty! So mouthfeely! So naughty.
But my most primal and stomach-flippy reactions are reserved for candy bars, particularly chocolate. (I think the Zagnut has no chocolate at all? What the hell is the point?) The reason is not mysterious. My mother was also obsessed with candy bars, and while they were officially banned by family policy, she would not only sneak them when running errands, but would also recruit my sister and me to participate in her nefarious schemes. Forget the fact that she regularly informed me that I was evil and tirelessly ridiculed my appearance throughout my adolescence; the confusing messages she conveyed about candy were probably more damaging than anything else she did as a parent.
It all started with the Starbar. Sometimes I feel like I hallucinated this candy bar and all my childhood memories associated with it, because while Cadbury still manufactures and sells the Starbar in the U.K. and Commonwealth countries, I cannot for the life of me find any reference to it having been available in the U.S. And yet I remember it. (My sister has just responded to my text to say that she remembers it too. We sometimes check in with each other about stuff like this. Do you remember Mom lying about X? Am I crazy or did Dad beat me that one time even though he later denied it?) The Starbar is/was perfect: peanut-flavored nougat, chopped roasted peanuts, caramel, and (of course) chocolate, all in the exact right chewy, crunchy, melty, salty-sweet proportions. (The Baby Ruth comes close, but it is too tall and angular. If you try to eat a Baby Ruth in a seated position you will end up with shards of chocolate and interior stuff all over your pants. The Starbar had no such aerodynamic flaws.)
On days when my sister and I ran errands with our mother, she would buy us each a Starbar at the supermarket checkout line or from the large candy display rack in Mackey’s Pharmacy. If we were very lucky, we would first get to have lunch (grilled cheeses or tuna melts) at the soda fountain counter in the back. (I realize this description makes it sound like I grew up in Pleasantville in the 1950s, but I swear my childhood took place in a perfectly ordinary Philadelphia suburb in the 70s and 80s.) But those treat-filled afternoons with my mother also came with a price. A classic narcissist, she openly loathed me, her eldest (apparently an “evil baby”), and gooily, stickily, nauseatingly glommed onto my younger sister. (I was many years into full adulthood before I came to understand that this was just as raw a deal for my sister as it was for me. In some ways, I got off easier because I didn’t have to be our mother’s emotional support from the age of two onwards.) If all three of us were shopping together, I had to tolerate my mother’s vicious comments to me and open fawning over my sister in exchange for my toasted sandwich and sweet chocolate chaser. The food was a comfort, and still is, but it’s a comfort that comes with an exquisite sadness. There is nothing that punches me in the gut harder than an image of a lonely, depressed, or rejected person taking solace in food.
A few years after the Mackeys’ heyday, my mother took to buying bulk boxes of Starbars from the supermarket and hiding them in the house. She no longer shared them with me and my sister. She also started locking herself in the bathroom for hours at a time, where she would sit on the closed toilet seat, chain smoke, eat candy, and tear through romance novels.
I cannot fathom the cruelty of my mother’s own childhood. The only time she ever talked about it to me was during my senior year of high school, when I was long past having any feelings of tenderness toward her. After she manipulated me into giving up treatment for my panic attacks, she started seeing the wife of my former shrink for her own therapy. It was there that she uncovered memories of being sexually abused by her father, the only one of his three daughters to endure this particular horror. We were on a rare afternoon errand run, just the two of us, when she dropped this bombshell on me as we were driving to the supermarket. She still had her ancient Volkswagen Beetle, and as the 8-track tape player flipped over to “Both Sides Now”I took a deep drag of my cigarette and blew the smoke out the cracked wing window. I said nothing, but simply sat there thinking silently to myself I don’t believe you.
My mother’s mother, Grammy Johnson, worked at a candy store in downtown Syracuse in order to make ends meet. I wonder if they sold Zagnuts.
The Starbar disappeared from American supermarket shelves—if it ever existed at all—right around the time I left home for college, and I went on to develop tortured relationships with a series of different candy bars in the ensuing decades. I remember them all: Chunky; Goldenberg’s Peanut Chews (shout-out to my Philly peeps); Baby Ruth; a brief, tumultuous flirtation with Butterfinger; Rolos; Twix; a self-loathing period with full-size Tootsie Rolls (why?); Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups; and a few oddballs that don’t exist any more: Marathon, 100 Grand, Choco’lite, Milkshake.The common denominator seems to be texture (with the exception of my dysfunctional fixation on Tootsie Rolls during grad school—they are basically brown-colored wax—and the Choco’lite, which I kept buying and consuming even though it never satisfied me). Most of my preferred candy bars contain nuts, and if not nuts then a particularly toothsome caramel; I like resistant sweets that are a little difficult to penetrate and fully understand. If a candy is too eager to please, too smooth or oleaginous, I get turned off. That said, I am a serial monogamist when it comes to mass-produced confections, and tend to eat the same one exclusively until tiring of it and moving on.
I don’t believe I have ever tried a Zagnut, but I don’t think I need to.
For me, the feelings invoked by candy bars—buying them, eating them, thinking about eating them, planning to eat them, having eaten them—are extraordinarily complex (one might say, not to put too fine a point on it, deeply fucked up). First and most obviously is the guilt: I haven’t fully let go of the idea that candy bars are just wrong, and indulging in one is somewhere on the ethical scale between squishing an ant and child pornography. (I said “somewhere.”) It’s not just that they’re “empty calories” (whatever that even means—energy is energy) but also that their sole purpose is masturbatory enjoyment. Cakes are for sharing at parties, cookies are baked and given away, muffins purportedly have healthy stuff in them. But when you make the decision to eat a candy bar you are saying to yourself (and others—oooh, that fantasized judgmental checkout clerk) that you want to give yourself pleasure, you believe you deserve pleasure, and you are simply going to go ahead and take that pleasure. Never once in my life have I managed to convince myself that I am worthy of such indulgence. After the last morsel of the Milky Way or Whatchamacallit has been swallowed, and the empty wrapper split open and licked, comes the inevitable letdown (it’s gone!) and the slight feeling of shame, the prickly twinge of guilt. Like a pubescent boy with a sodden Kleenex, you’re left to contemplate your feelings of anticlimax alone.
When I see someone lustily and unashamedly eating a candy bar (usually in advertisements) I am flooded with envy. Who are you? I silently demand. What magical combination of early childhood nurture and happy life events have led you to this place, you well-adjusted monster, you? Has your life been so full of love? When you look at that Three Musketeers, do you see only sweetness, with no strings attached?
I was recently at an academic conference where the afternoon coffee and snack service included large baskets of candy bars. Full-size candy bars. Snickers, bags of M&Ms (plain and peanut), another kind I can’t remember because it was of no interest. I felt a little faint contemplating this utterly batshit offering. Could I actually pick up a Snickers bar, unwrap it, and eat the whole thing in front of my colleagues while chatting about Victorian literature and departmental politics? Who the hell does such a thing? The program might as well have read “3:00-3:30, Conference Lobby, Nude Coffee Break.” (In the end, I managed to do it! I mystified the person I was talking to with my slightly hysterical chatter about the candy bar, but I believe I managed to get through the episode without coming across as completely mad.)
The first time I visited New Zealand with my new Kiwi husband in 2001, I discovered a candy bar called the Peanut Moro. It was utterly delicious: again, that perfect combination of peanuttiness, nougattiness,carameliness, and chocolate. Maybe because I was in a then-foreign country; maybe because I was experiencing unfamiliar maternal love from my mother-in-law; maybe because my brain was still flooded with dopamine from my new relationship—whatever the reason, I was able to purchase, eat, and enjoy Peanut Moro bars fairly regularly without any tortured feelings of shame. Scott and I would often get one to split at the supermarket checkout line, and I felt neither greedy and grotesque nor faintly annoyed at having to share it. I was able to achieve a secure attachment with confectionery for the first time in my life. I thought the Peanut Moro would always be there for me.
Alas, I didn’t realize then that this magical candy bar was a limited-release item; had I known it would vanish shortly after we left I would have bought out the entire country and purchased four or five extra suitcases to get them all home. When we returned to a tragically Peanut-Moro-less New Zealand several years later, I went on a research spree trying to discover where they’d gone. I learned a lot about the way the Cadbury empire operates across the former British Commonwealth: they seem to have the same family of candy bars available in the U.K., Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, but they shuffle the names around in a confusing manner. The regular Moro bar (adequate, fine, a bit dull and predictable) is consistently available in all those countries, but the Peanut Moro is now sold only in Ireland. Where it is known as … a Starbar.
Could it be? Was the Peanut Moro actually the same candy bar from my youth? By the time I was doing my deep dive into Cadbury History we were living in Canada. My internet research informed me that in my new country, the Starbar/Peanut Moro was sold under the name Wunderbar. I had already found the Wunderbar a couple of years earlier, immediately upon our arrival in Vancouver—adrift in a sea of unfamiliar candies, I had somehow reached out at random (or was it?) for a Wunderbar and was immediately smitten. How did I not realize that the Starbar, the Peanut Moro, and the Wunderbar were all the same? I can only reply that love is often confusing. Apparently had I been given that tea-soaked bit of madeleine instead of Marcel Proust, The Remembrance of Things Past would never have been written.
A couple of months ago I checked my mailbox in the English department where I teach—I always forget to to do this, and it had been a couple of weeks—and found a tiny Milky Way wedged in the back corner. I had no idea how long it had been there and was a little nervous about eating it, so I sent an email around to the department listserv. The subject line was “To Whoever Put the Mini Milky Way in My Mailbox”:
Maybe you did it today—but maybe it was weeks, months, or years ago.
It was in the right rear corner of the box, where it’s dark and I never reach.
Perhaps it fell through a crack from the box above (Grisham Writer In Residence).
If so, I am sorry, Deesha (or Maurice or Jan).
I don’t care how old it is, or if it was meant for someone else.
I’m not above eating it.
A bunch of colleagues and grad students wrote back, delighted by the whole thing, but none of them claimed responsibility. After a few days, one of my colleagues finally fessed up that she had done it because she thought I needed a little pick-me-up. Since then there has been a mini Milky Way in my mailbox every time I have checked. I don’t know if it’s still my colleague A.N. leaving them, or if someone else has picked up the mantle. Or maybe there’s now a roster of grad students taking turns. But whoever it is must monitor my mailbox fairly closely, because I’ve never looked without finding one there, and there is never more than one.
I now check my mailbox much more frequently. I have come to rely on these wee gifts, although I dread the day that they stop. I don’t even want to know who is leaving them. But thank you.
I wish I could say that after years and years of therapy, my relationship with candy bars has completely stabilized. It’s definitely better—I am less anxious around them, I can consume them even in public (at academic conferences!) without shame, I no longer make rules against eating them and then a few weeks later have three in one day. That said, a simple pleasure that many people take for granted will always feel like a second language to me, and I will probably always get a little unhinged around Halloween. My favoritest candy bar of all time, my ne plus ultra of confectionery, is only sporadically available, difficult to get where I now live, and keeps changing its name to avoid me. I guess that seems about right.
And to my Mailbox Mini Milky Way philanthropist(s): thank you for not leaving me Zagnuts.
Thanks for reading Doctor Waffle! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Just kidding! The “you’re evil” stuff was clearly far worse.
Scott and I just tried to watch “The Beef” (I am an Ali Wong stan), but I couldn’t make it past the scene in the first episode where the sad sack landscaping dude stuffs his face with fast-food burgers while desperately calling a real estate agent over and over again.
Dear Reader, you have every right to cry foul over this heavy-handed symbolism. But as God is my witness, that was the song that was playing. We listened to the same two 8-track tapes in my mother’s car over and over again for my entire childhood; the only other song I recall was the misogynist domestic-abuse ditty “Little Green Apples,” and I think you’ll agree that the symbolism there is even more ridiculous.
As with so many things in childhood, my memory here seems to be unreliable. I looked up all of these discontinued candy bars for more info, and some of them stopped production long before I left for college.
There are some important exceptions. I also love, paradoxically, really smooth and oleaginous treats like Twizzlers—and sweet licorice of all kinds—Cow Tales, Goetze’s Caramel Creams, and Pascall’s Milk Bottles from New Zealand. I guess I like my candy to be fully one thing or the other, not wishy-washy and unable to make up its mind where it stands.
What is nougat?
There are a couple of other reasons that I could not have written The Remembrance of Things Past.