Spheres of Influence

While aimlessly perusing the messy discount-discount get-rid-of-it-or-we-will aisle at a local store, my four year old and I came across six-inch Star Trek figures.  They had the Doctor (always a classic) , Mr. Sulu (smarty pants with surprise martial arts), and Mr. Checkov (the tech geek), good role models.  He asked politely if they could be his treat for being so good- adding, “One can be for my brother, and one for daddy too!”.  I had to laugh.  They had been marked down to two dollars each.  

Time out I thought.  I don’t want my kids to be random consumers, getting treats for no reason.  We have special days every once and a while when we do something fun, or get a treat (eating out, etc).  But what made this day special?  Husband recalls his mother making cakes for strange (Australia’s nationalization day) or made up days (national camping day).  My wonderful Aunt used to make baked Alaska for no particular reason than to make a day special.  Couldn’t we have a special treat day this day?  If it is spaced out by weeks from another?  January and February are good for that, weeks of cold with little celebration in them.  I dithered within myself.

The thing that got me was how well designed the toys were.  They were basically Barbies for boys.  Finely articulated, with accessories and expressive faces.  I have been greatly annoyed at the lack of male play figures in boy toys.  Ken is a joke, and GI Joe has come to resemble Rambo.  Not my idea of fun.  Even my eldest has remarked on the row upon row of neon pink isles in the Wal-Tar-K’s, stuffed with every variety of dolls imaginable; in contrast to the rag tag shelves for boys.  Finding these figures filled a niche.  I caved.

The great thing is they are still playing with these figures, long after we got them.  Like girls with their Barbies (except no hair to cut), the boys carry out scenarios with the figures.  These scenarios don’t always require guns, beating each other up, or other violence like we have come to expect from boys.  Science fiction can be good that way- lots of monsters, menacing entities, good and bad robots, and problem solving that does not necessarily involve killing something (they have become big fans of the most recent Dr. Who episodes as well, the main character of which refuses to carry a weapon- thank you Netflix).

Husband and I have been fans of the Sci-Fi genre as long as we can remember (not without discretion though).  We appreciate the late night humor of mid-century B films, the abysmal script dialogue of George Lucas, as well as the startling special effects of Avatar.  We also read the genre, and there are many well-written and prescient works from the last fifty years.  When it comes down to it, we enjoy the imaginative possibilities of science fiction to illuminate the condition of the human species, while often putting them in settings that are utterly surreal. 

I would much rather my boys explore the endless planets of Sci-Fi in their imaginations, play out their anxieties and issues using the tools of this genre than some pink hued and shopping bag dominated version of Mean Girls.   On the other hand, maybe that is just one of the worlds they choose to fly by, recognizing that they could stop and chat, but just don’t have time to do so.  Thereby making room for the Barbies (or Barberellas) in their reality, when the Barbies can’t seem to make room for them.

Play on little guys, and let me fly the space ship sometimes too, ok?

My gummy valentine

I have been looking for chocolates (this month candy buying is big for obvious reasons).  But instead of dropping cash for a small box of exquisite chocolates, I want to create a surprise bowl for the entire family that is made up of the odd, the sentimental, and the small production candies.  I remember my mother loving the Cherry Mash mound, with the bright pink soft core and the nubby peanut and chocolate cover.  I still like Necco Wafers.  Husband fondly recalls the Marathon bar (not a small company candy, but out of production it seems from M&M/Mars since 1981). 

So where to get them?  I was perusing the Wall Street Journal today and saw a piece on small candy companies that still produce in the United States.  Steve Almond (www.stevenalmond.com) author of Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America, writes about the demise of small candy companies and the plethora of strange and wonderful confections that have fallen by the wayside as a result.  He also writes about those who survive, such as:

  • Chase Candy Company, candy purveyors since 1876. St. Joseph, Missouri, makers of the Cherry Mash among others.  1-800-786-1625, info@cherrymash.com

• Necco Wafers, Clark bars, Sky Bar, Conversation Hearts: They’re all manufactured by New England Confectionery, founded in 1847 and based in Revere, Mass. 781-485-4500 

• Goldenberg Candy, of Peanut Chews fame, founded in 1890 and based in Philadelphia. The Goldenberg family sold out to another family-run company, Just Born, (known for Mike and Ike, Hot Tamales, Marshmallow Peeps) in 2003.  1-888-645-3453

• Nashville’s Standard Candy, founded in 1901, is the maker of Goo Goo Clusters, a round cluster of peanuts, caramel, marshmallow and milk chocolate.  615-889-6360

• Sioux City, Iowa, is home to Palmer Candy, founded in 1878 and maker of, among others, Twin Bing, a pair of candies with pink cherry-flavored filling surrounded by crushed peanuts and chocolate.  712-258-5543

• Sifers Valomilk Candy is a five-generation (founded in 1903), family-owned company in Shawnee Mission, Kansas.  

• Idaho Candy in Boise, was founded in 1901 and makes the Idaho Spud, Old Faithful Bar and Cherry Cocktail.  1-800-898-6986

• Annabelle Candy in Hayward, Calif., makes Big Hunk, Rocky Road, Look, U-NO and Abba-Zaba. Founded in 1917.  510-783-2900

(This list does not include the wonderful “small batch” chocolatiers which have come into popularity in the last several years, such as Scharffen Berger, Rubens Belgian Chocolates, Richart, Recchiuti, Payard, Burdick, etc.)

It’s strange to think that in the 1950’s there were thousands of small candy companies in this country.  There were all sorts of odd, often regionally popular confections.  Mostly sweet, some savory, and many with strange names.

 As the big three candy companies in the U.S. (already having spent the latter half of the twentieth century buying out as many small companies as possible) Hershey, Nestlé and Mars, streamline their product lines it seems to me small candy companies become more necessary.  Vendors for the products matter too, and I have found that the Vermont Country Store carries many of the small production wonders (and if they don’t, they will readily try to find what you want if you ask them).

So get on the net, and order some weird candy.  Forgo the easy appeal of the bags and boxes in every store, and go for the difficult to find (I like a velvet box as much as the next person, but don’t need another one to store paper clips in).  Make candy a treat again, not just an everyday habit made of the lowest common denominator in flavor and style.  Let me know about your own regional small candy companies too!

Even if Valentines Day is as much a commercial concoction as Mother’s Day, it can be a reason in this bleak, long winter to have fun.