Our manager returned from her honeymoon in Shanghai (which should be a Jackie Chan flick, if it isn’t already) with a bag full of local candy for us. She made us all pick something at random first, then dumped the rest of the bag on the table for us to share.
My first pick: a package of cookie sticks with a tiny pocket of strawberry creme to dip them in. The package described them as “biscuit,” and though I typically shy away from European language for its own sake, I feel that’d be most appropriate here. They weren’t as dry or salty as crackers, but they weren’t as sweet as Americans would be used to for cookies. I think that’s the price we pay for being serfs to the corn industry: a surfeit of sweetness. America tried the cookies and dip route and it never quite caught on, though you can still find them on some supermarket shelves. I liked the taste, but found the strawberry creme a bit much after a while and couldn’t finish the package.
My next pick: milk taffy! It came in little wrapped morsels, like the salt water taffy you might buy on the Atlantic City boardwalk. But this had a lighter consistency and was easier to chew. Inside the paper wrapper, the taffy came encased in a little wax shell. It flaked off as you picked it up. I worked on peeling mine but it came off in minuscule shreds. “I don’t think you need to take it off,” one of my coworkers said. “You just eat it.” Figuring the Chinese would never make something I couldn’t safely put in my mouth, I popped the whole thing in.
For my third pick, I selected a small cake wrapped in plastic that looked like a teatime snack. It was white and crumbly, shaped like a symmetrical flower. I took about half of it in one bite. Then I stared at it.
“It …” I said.
“What is it?” my manager asked.
“It tastes like a piece of chalk with a sponge in the middle.”
Imagine a powdered Hostess donut, but caked in flour instead of sugar. The center had a red, porous consistency, like coral, and tasted organic. I know that “organic” isn’t a bad word, but it should have nothing to do with candy. Imagine reaching into a bag of M&Ms and swallowing a handful of stale peas instead. That’s the level of disconnect I suffered.
This thing tasted wretched – it might have been soap – but that wasn’t what made my face go slack. What stunned me was the idea that this would be considered candy. That anyone would enjoy this taste. What was this meant to accompany: sour milk? Pixie sticks? Pulped mushrooms? There was nothing sweet, salty or savory about it. It didn’t have the hardy taste of a fibrous plant or the tartness of nature. I could only attribute it to malice. Forget razor blades in Halloween candy or arsenic in the school milk: this was what children had to fear.
I stumbled to the sink, poured myself a cup of water and rinsed my mouth out. Still the taste lingered. I ate a few more of the biscuits-and-creme to staunch the chalky aftertaste, then dropped some change in the vending machines for a ginger ale and Reese’s. Good, honest HFCS – the stuff I was raised on, like every good American – steadied my troubled stomach.