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April 18-24, 2007

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Sweet Therapy

Times may change but one thing remains certain: candy!

By David Templeton

There is a kind of national stress, during war years or times of recession, and there are all kinds of personal stresses, large and small, which are powerfully lessened after just a few bites of a favorite candy." So pronounces food historian Francine Segan, attempting to explain the recent rise in websites devoted to nostalgic candies from the '40s, '50s, '60s and '70s, and the sudden proliferation of old-fashioned candy stores like Northern California's Powell's Sweet Shoppe chain.

"When you are in your own kind of personal crisis," Segan says, "and you want something to make you feel better, a single candy bar--if it's the right candy bar--or a couple of bites of some Flicks or Mary Janes, while not solving our problems one bit, can make you a feel a tiny bit better. Sometimes, that's enough to make a big difference in our lives."

It's no accident that Segan names Flicks as one of those blast-from-the-past flashpoints that can sometimes act as a kind of new-fangled candy therapy. Those conspicuously odd-shaped, foil-wrapped tubes crammed with waxy, chocolate-flavored plops of chewy brown gunk--dubbed Flicks because they first appeared at the candy counters of movie theaters in the '60s and '70s--are one of many candies that once cluttered the metaphorical candy counters of baby boomer childhoods, and have recently staged a nonhostile coup against our high-speed, cell-phone-battered, wartime attentions.

Along with Fizzies (those sugary tablets that turn a glass of water into soda pop) and those little multicolored dots glued in neat rows to wide strips of paper, Flicks represent a recent trend in the resurgence of old-fashioned candy, a trend that has as much to do with the current state of international uncertainty--and our need to find some quick, effective, low-cost comfort--as it has to do with our long-established national fondness for sugar.

"Sweets are cheap. They're quick and easy, and they're legal," laughs Segan, a sought-after expert on the history of food and a big deal on TV these days, from The Early Show to the History Channel to the Food Network. A professor at Sarah Lawrence and a bestselling author and lecturer, her recent book, The Opera Lover's Cookbook, has been nominated for a James Beard Award in the category of best book on entertaining.

"Sugar is a quick high," she notes, "and that sugar rush is very appealing. We know that the senses--smell, touch, taste--bring us back very quickly to a happier time. Munching on a Mary Jane, or whatever the candy was from your childhood, is a quick and easy way to provide yourself with a sense of comfort. Not everybody can make that macaroni and cheese the way Mom made it, but a Mary Jane is always going to taste like a Mary Jane."

That's a major part of the whole candy trend: the stuff tastes exactly like you remember it, even if that isn't necessarily a gourmet taste. Flicks, Idaho Spuds, Circus Peanuts--for all the warm-and-cozy wonder they impart--are actually gross. That's a key part of the equation. In a world where people and institutions let you down, you can rely on the candies of your youth, including the disgusting ones.

According to Segan, there is a definite national trend toward more candy consumption in America, with chocolate in particular on the rise, and the resurgence of nostalgic candies is a part of the picture, with high-end, urban-centered chocolate cafes another slice of the MoonPie. From a historical perspective, sugar and candy consumption always goes up during times of war and national stress, Segan asserts; anyone remember Farrell's ice cream parlors? That was the Vietnam-era version of today's online retro candy sites and old-fashioned candy stores.

"More and more people are able to surf and Google," Segan says, "and baby boomers are finding all sorts of fun things online. They're going retro, looking for their roots, reestablishing their youth. From what I've seen," she adds, "the consumption of candy, particularly nostalgic kinds, is a natural side effect of living in a world where everything is in a state of change and uncertainty."

For evidence of this trend, look no further than downtown Petaluma. Within a five-block radius, there are at least four shops (or should we say "shoppes"?) at which nostalgic candy is proudly on display. Lombardi's barbecue on the Putnam Plaza has racks and racks of candy where the chips and pickles used to be, and a few years ago, they established themselves as the go-to spot in Sonoma County for Harry Potter candies, from ice mice to chocolate frogs.

Across the street, at the eccentric Jungle Vibes emporium, owner Wayne Morganthaler keeps a number of high-end chocolates on display in a retro-looking glass candy case next to racks of flashback candies like Pop Rocks and Gummi Worms. Around the corner, on Western Street, inside the Winsome Lass Old Tyme Candy store, a one-time antique store that successfully jumped over to the retro-candy band wagon a couple of years ago, giant slabs of cardboard-thin taffy stand alongside jars of Mary Janes and peppermint sticks.

Two blocks south, in the new Theater Square complex, the newest in the growing Windsor-based Powell's Sweet Shoppe chain opened to throngs of expectant candy-lovers lining up all the way down the courtyard on the store's pre-Easter opening day. With Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory playing endlessly on a large, flat-screen TV and a display of vintage Candy Land board games hanging in evolutionary succession near the courtyard door, Powell's does for candy what cathedrals do for God.

While Segan stands firm in her view that candies and sweets always grow in popularity during times of national stress, there is another explanation for the recent rise in weird candies from the distant past. Could it be that candy is and has always been too important to give up, no matter how hard-hit we become?

"People eat candy all the time," assures Michael Powell, founder of the Windsor-based candy store chain, which currently boasts more than a dozen stores in three states, with many of them (Healdsburg, Petaluma, Novato) located in the North Bay. "In times of uncertainty," he says, "people stop doing a lot of things they consider to be extravagances--but they never stop eating candy. What happens during those times of uncertainty is that people go back to their favorites, and for a lot of us in our forties, those favorites are the candies we remember eating as kids."

The first Powell's Sweet Shoppe opened in Windsor a mere three years ago, after Powell spent years of research into so-called recession-proof industries. As part of his studies, he discovered that while many consumable products and industries come and go, candy has pretty much always held steady. Even when the idea of candy and sugar is under attack from agencies decrying candy's impact on childhood obesity and diabetes, or when nutritionists spread the gospel of low-carb diets, the candy industry just addresses the issue and comes out with sugar-free candies, low-carb candies--whatever it takes to keep on keeping on.

While Powell as yet makes no claim on the national rise in the number of people seeking out Mallo Cups, Chick-O-Sticks, GooGoo Clusters and Space Food Sticks, he is more than willing to take credit for some, if not all, of the recent candy craze in the Bay Area

"If there really has been a rise in candy awareness in the North Bay over the last three years," he says, "if stores are suddenly stocking more candy--especially candies from the '60s and '70s--then I'd say that's directly because of the impact of Powell's Sweet Shoppes."

Being that candy is, essentially, a food, Powell has been amused by a trend within the trend: that of folks buying candies merely to look at the old familiar packages.

"Honestly, I think a lot of people buy this nostalgic kind of candy without ever intending to actually eat it," he says. "They come into the store and they say, 'I'm just looking, I'm not really a candy person,' and then $8 later, they've bought things I'm not convinced they intend to eat, things that brought back such good memories they couldn't not buy it."

Powell's Sweet Shoppes are at 322 Center St., Healdsburg, 707.431.2784; 879 Grant Ave., Novato, 415.898.6160; 151 Petaluma Blvd. S., Petaluma, 707.765.9866; and 720 McClelland Drive, Windsor, 707.836.0808.

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