Day 643: Forget The Romance, Just Give Me The Sugar

originally published October 4, 2013

So as the alleged flu in my gullet has evolved to a full-blown infection in the neighborhood of my poor tired uvula, I find myself still bed-bound and bored. Luckily I have reserved the opportunity to spend a few hours every day this week in the company of candy. Not actual candy – regrettably my bad fortune has not swiveled quite so drastically – but with candy as a research topic. Where my physical tongue knows only the grotesquely sweet bite of ineffective lozenges, my mind’s tongue is free to journey to my youth, and to the days when a dollar could net you a Snickers and a Fanta to wash it down.

Only today I’m steering this candy-powered word-beast away from the chocolate highway, taking the off-ramp to something a little more rooted in the days of yore, back when we were just in it for the sugar, and ten cents (even a nickel) could get us our fix.

I had the misfortune of liking almost everything on the shelf below the candy bars, from Tootsie Pops to Fizzies to SweeTarts. Were my palette of a more discriminating nature, I might have abandoned my sweet tooth after my stoner days and graduated to more sophisticated treats. But no, I loved them all. Even when the treat was disguised as nothing more than sugar in a tube.

Pixy Stix have no pretense. They don’t boast about a recipe or try to be anything more than pure flavored sugar in a tube. In the 1930s it was being sold by Sunline Inc. in St. Louis as a drink powder. But much like the way every kid has stuck a slimy finger into a tin of Kool-Aid, Sunline executive John Fish Smith watched kids foregoing the addition of water and shooting back the powder au naturel.

Sunline was sold to Rowntree, which was then bought by Nestle, and now Pixy Stix are part of the Wonka line of sugary treats, meaning you can shoot one back secure in the knowledge that one of Gene Wilder’s diminutive friends probably brewed it just for you. (Sorry, I only acknowledge old-school Wonka). The five Pixy flavors are grape, strawberry, orange, Maui punch, and… red. Seems to me they could have encouraged the Research & Development team to stretch a little further with that last one.

Sunline Inc. created some shockingly long-lasting brands based on the same simple concept. Lik-M-Aid – now called Fun Dip – is essentially Pixy Stix powder with a hard sugary stick to be used as a slimy eating utensil, to soak up the sugar for the brief trip from pouch to mouth. I liked to think the more evolved kids ate Lik-M-Aid; after all, we were using tools, not just dumping food into our gaping maw.

Wonka has its stamp all over this candy now, which really makes sense. Of all the uber-sweet indulgences of my youth, this was one of the more fun to consume. Though in retrospect, WE WERE EATING STRAIGHT SUGAR! I feel as though there should be just a smidgen of shame here somewhere.

And once again from the page of John Fish Smith at Sunline, we have SweeTarts. By 1962, parents were complaining to Smith that all his candies were messy, with powdery residue flying from the frantic, sugar-fuelled boot-heels of their over-stimulated offspring. Smith, not wanting to miss an opportunity to appease parents (and of course diversify), packed the Pixy Stix magic into solid discs.

I recall there was a larger version of the SweeTart, sold as a single thick disc slightly larger than a checkers piece, for a dime. I can’t find any photos of these though, so it’s possible this candy was simply a Pixy-wrought hallucination. I think I’ve had a few of those.

Back in the 80’s, being called a nerd was a scathing insult, not a badge of honor. That didn’t stop us from snarfing back voluminous mouthfuls of these crunchy candies from cardboard boxes equipped with dual sliding doors up top. From what I’ve heard, the candy has scantly changed, though of course the flavor offerings have shifted with the times. Where once the blue-red combo pack featured blueberry and raspberry, now it’s Totally Tropical Punch and Road-Rash Raspberry.

Nerds have come to us a breakfast cereal, a gumball center, and as a variety of jelly beans. I was always a fan of the didactic mix that taught us the limits of our palate’s patience – the Hot & Cold mix of spicy cinnamon and cool wintergreen. Come to think of it, that may have been the first candy to turn me off of sugary flavor adventures like this.

I’m sorry to say, the golden era of Runts candies may have passed us. Where once there were six flavors there are now only five: blue raspberry, watermelon and cherry have been phased out, and grape and green apple are in. Even pineapple and mango made a brief foray into the Runts world, but now we’re stuck with apple and grape. This puts a lot of pressure on the banana flavor to deliver a quality Runts experience.

One thing to note from the side of a Runts box is that the ‘serving size’ upon which the nutritional information is based consists of only twelve pieces. I don’t know how many ‘servings’ are in a box now, but I’d guess at least three or four. So you might be looking at 240 calories in a single box.

That’s a lot of juice for a little snack.

Did I start smoking at age 15 because I’d puffed on an untold number of Popeye Candy Cigarettes when I was younger? No, I started smoking because I thought it would make me look cool. And it did. But as a younger kid there was a larval-stage badassery at play, the earliest explorations of perceived rebelliousness with these candy treats.

In Canada these ‘candy sticks’ (as they now must be called) can’t be sold in packaging that looks like a pack of smokes. The things are banned outright in Norway, Finland, Ireland, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. All over the world these remain some of the most controversial candies on the market.

My question is this – why Popeye? Has Popeye ever been spotted tossing down his trademark corn-cob pipe in favor of a Lucky Strike? Someone in marketing wasn’t thinking this through.

Didn’t matter, of course. I still loved the damn things.

Oh and one last thought about the aforementioned Tootsie Pop. How many licks does it take to get the middle? In the age of the internet you know someone has figured it out. Several someones, actually, and it’s now a matter of academic concern. Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania calculated an average of 144 licks. University of Michigan says 411. Purdue lands in the middle with 364 when they use their ‘licking machine’ or 252 by human tongue. Harvard’s licking machine took 2255 licks, which suggests that the folks at Harvard are not quite as adept at using their tongues as students in other schools.

There’s your controversy bomb for the day.

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