It all started with the Jelly Bean Incident.
My daughter was 3 years old, and she loved jelly beans. A baby fistful of the brightly colored morsels was just about the biggest prize she could imagine, and at 1 tiny gram of sugar per bean, it seemed to me—her caring, reasonably attentive mother—to be a pretty harmless treat. So it was with the best of intentions that we decided one day to bring some jelly beans to share for her playdate at Noah’s house.
Noah’s mom, Laura, stocked their pantry with normal kid stuff—Popsicles and juice boxes and Teddy Grahams—so I didn’t think much about offering the jelly beans. But Laura seemed taken aback: “Well, he’s never really had that before ... I suppose it couldn’t hurt.”
Couldn’t hurt? Could she really believe I was harming my child, and threatening to harm hers, by holding out a few tiny pieces of candy? But greater condemnation was to follow. Her husband, Gary, had been listening to the exchange, and with a dark glare in my direction, he hissed at Laura, “Oh, so I guess you’ll start giving him crack now, too?”
He might as well have shouted in my face, “Bad mother!” I was stunned—it was just a few jelly beans, after all.
I had already promised my daughter she could have some candy—and to be honest, I like jelly beans, too—so we snuck out to the patio to enjoy our illicit treat. As we ate, though, I couldn’t help but think, What if I’m wrong? Candy is certainly not a “healthy” snack. But there I was, letting my 3-year-old eat the jelly beans, encouraging her, even. My own mother wouldn’t have let me have them, that’s for sure—my childhood home was a no-candy zone. Maybe I was a bad mother.
This moment was when I first started paying attention to candy and especially to the ways people talk about eating or not eating it. Just about everyone agrees that candy is a “junk food” devoid of real nutrition, a source of “empty calories” that ruin your appetite for better things like apples and chicken. But empty calories alone couldn’t account for a reaction like Gary’s, which made it seem like it was just a skip and a hop from the innocence of Pixy Stix to the dangerous and criminal world of street junkies.
And it isn’t just Gary who sees candy as some kind of juvenile vice. Once I started paying attention, I noticed that a lot of stories out there suggested disturbing connections between candy and controlled substances. In 2009, the Wall Street Journal broke the news that middle-school kids were freaking out their parents by inhaling and snorting the dust from Smarties candies; YouTube “how to” videos were all the rage for a few months. Even more worrisome were exposés in 2010 on Detroit television stations about proto-alcoholic teens sneaking “drunken gummy bears” into homerooms and movie theaters. And it can’t be an accident that “rock” can be either candy or crack; “candy” was used as a euphemism for cocaine as early as 1931. In the spring of 2012, actor Bryan Cranston offered talk-show host David Letterman a taste of “blue meth,” the superpotent methamphetamine that drove the action in the AMC hit drama Breaking Bad. It wasn’t real methamphetamine, of course, just a sugar prop, but candy maker Debbie Hall, who created the TV version, quickly started selling the ice-blue rocks in little drug baggies to fans at her Albuquerque, N.M., shop the Candy Lady.
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