The shop probably sold all kinds of things. But to me it was always the sweet shop, and I would go there on those perfect summer holiday afternoons which always seem oddly endless when I look back on them, perhaps because they belonged to a time before I thought about time, and before I realised that without really wanting to or choosing to I was going to grow up. I’d walk up the main road, and into the shop, and the popular sweets, which sold for just one penny each, sat in tiny mountains on cheap plastic trays right there on the counter. When I think about it I must have spoken to ask for the sweets that I wanted but for some reason, in my memories, the whole ceremony takes place in silence. I would point solemnly at the trays and the shopkeeper, whose face I can’t even remember, would measure out portions of his sugary treasure. And I would walk home in the sunshine with the sound of cars thrumming past, and the straight ribbon of the main road stretching to an indistinct termination in the distortion of a heat haze, and I would peer into my little paper bag that was crisp but already crumpling in my hand. Inside the bag my sweets lay glistening like gemstones: emeralds, rubies, yellow sapphires, and amethysts; miraculous, glowing, parti-coloured crystals.
One of the reasons that I loved sweets as a child was that they just didn’t look like normal food. Food as such was often boring, or unpleasant, or associated with dreary moral commands pronounced by the representatives of adult authority: eat what is good for you, be grateful for the fact that there’s plenty of food for you to eat, and don’t ever dream of wasting anything. But when I ate sweets I ignored those tedious injunctions, suspended the law, ignored considerations of morality or frugality or health, and became pure drive. I was just a chewing, sucking, slurping thing, utter orality, concerned only with the unrestrained enjoyment of improper pleasures. At the same time the very appearance of sweets suggested that they came from somewhere beyond this dreary old world of sublimated desire and the dictatorial commands of grown-ups, from a realm governed by fantasy and magical possibility. Sweets were not grown, or baked, or cooked in any way that I understood but seemed instead to have been produced in some totally inscrutable fashion, perhaps by an act of alchemical transmutation. Hard translucent pastilles and soft, bright gels. How on earth, I wondered, had they been made?
In my infant imagination sweets belonged to another, more miraculous order of nature, to an alternate reality whose laws were far more fluid and fun. This is the basic idea that animates Roald Dahl’s famous novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, in the sense that Willy Wonka’s personal paradise is a little universe to itself with its own laws and logic. The factory is an hermetically sealed environment yet its boundary is porous enough that a child with a golden ticket might still leave the grubby streets of his daily life behind and find himself in a Land of Cockaigne where the rivers flow with chocolate. To me sweets suggested that such a topsy-turvy utopia really could exist. They told me that there was a stranger and more brightly coloured world hidden behind the surface of reality -tantalisingly out of reach yet waiting to be discovered – which could also mingle, somehow, with the dreary normality of the everyday. And in my mind, at any rate, an important part of the magic of sweets lay in their optical appeal: in the sheen and shine that came off them, in the way that their surfaces could gleam as if they had been meticulously polished, and in the play of light glancing from sparkling frostings of sugar. You could stare into sweets as if they were jewels and get lost in transparent depths of orange, red, and green, or perhaps imagine, as I sometimes did, that they were condensations of exquisitely clear juices squeezed from unknown fruits. The sweets made by the English company Fox’s, seemingly ubiquitous when I was a child, were actually called ‘glaciers’ and evoked fantasies of unmelting, brilliantly-hued ice.
Asides from offering the Dionysiac frenzy of a sugar rush, sweets are visually delicious. More specifically, many sweets offer the sort of visual pleasures that are often associated with decidedly non-edible substances such as precious stones, minerals, and crystals, and thus belong to a long tradition of foodstuffs which have given to food a lustrous inorganic beauty, blurring the boundaries between incommensurate orders of matter. On his website the food historian Ivan Day showcases extraordinary examples of food like this such as spherical ‘balette’ jellies, perfect crystal balls reflecting pinpricks of light and made according to a recipe from Theodore Garrett’s 1892 Encyclopaedia of Practical Cookery.
Day’s website also includes pictures of an elaborate champagne jelly from the Encyclopaedia which is supposed to mimic the architectural form of Gothic towers. But this delectable spectacle also strongly resembles the distinctive prismatic spires of quartz or rock crystal, particularly in Garrett’s original illustration. These jellies offer us the fantastical opportunity to somehow taste crystal, to savour luscious polychromy, to eat transparency.
‘Here’s goblet-glass, to take in with your wine | The very sun its grapes were ripened under: | Drink light and juice together’. In Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s 1851 poem Casa Guidi Windows, the sunshine which has ripened the grapes of a delicious wine can be consumed not in the wine itself but in the scintillations created by deeply-cut glass crystal, so that it is the refractory dazzle of the goblet which makes it possible to ‘drink light’ and to understand what is it is like to taste the sun. The jellies and aspics pictured on Day’s website are just part of a very wide range of different materials, ice and glass, crystals and gemsstones, which have provoked a profound fascination with transparency and luminous radiance, gleaming smoothness and sumptuous colour. But they also help to realise the fey conceit of Browning’s verse and promise that we can ‘take in’ these visual effects, delight in the feel of them on our tongues, ingest and digest them. Sweets, I think, do a similar sort of thing, and have an especially close relationship to crystals and to crystalline effects thanks to the long-standing use of crystallised sugar in their preparation.
Developed at first on the Indian subcontinent, the refining of sugarcane juice into crystals led to the invention of the first kinds of sugar candy, created by cooling supersaturated sugar solutions into large, irregular crystals. Used in the production of traditional sweets like Iranian nabaat – golden and perfumed with saffron and with a history stretching back over a thousand years – this technique is also the secret behind more modern inventions like American ‘rock candy’ with its lurid mineral-like formations.
Like nineteenth-century balette jellies, such candy offers us something not quite found in nature and the ability to taste crystals or unadulterated colour. When talking of such sweets, for example, it often makes more sense for us to say that we prefer ‘the red one’ or ‘the green one’ rather than strawberry or apple flavour, since the candies only bear only an unreal and fluorescent resemblance to fruits and other foods.
The relationship between sugary sweets and the crystalline is visible too in quite a different historical context, in the paintings of the seventeenth-century artist Georg Flegel, many of which which depict a variety of foods completely encrusted with glittering crystals of sugar.
Flegel’s sweetmeats trouble categories, in part at least because it is often difficult to tell exactly what lies beneath their sugary coatings. They are obviously much at home in the world that they are a part of, a world of shining delicacy and delicacies, the pleasures of both looking and consuming, glossy poached fruit, syrups, wine, and glass. But at the same time they stand out and don’t quite fit, look absolutely unlike the other kinds of food on display, take the cool inorganic gleam of the wine goblets and intensify it into the vivid frostiness of diamonds, fusing the appearance of the edible and the inedible. While we might know that we are looking at a table laden with sugary dainties the sweets look very much like bejewelled trinkets or ornaments, and in places Flegel emphasises the faceted and angular qualities of the sugar crystals, which wink light yet create jagged surfaces which seem almost too sharp to eat.
Stressing the similarities between sugar and other kinds of crystal – not just gemstones but finely made, elaborate glassware – the paintings remind us that like these other goods sugar was also a rare and expensive commodity in seventeenth-century Europe. Indeed the paintings make sugar’s visual, crystalline dazzle into an incarnation of the same enchanting value shared in common by all the commodities on display, suggesting that if the sweets offer the opportunity to eat scintillating brightness then that means that they embody not only a luxury you can consume but, in a way, the consumption of luxury itself, the ability to revel in the taste and experience of pure richness. So here sugar makes literal the almost magical pleasures of consumption at the dawn of the age of capitalism.
Sweets also partake of the strange, supernatural powers that have been ascribed to crystals since ancient times, powers of healing, destruction, and transformation. In Flegel’s art those powers were turned into the sensuous charm of the commodity, which over the past few hundred years has taken over the world. But they have also taken rather more innocent forms as well. In another of Roald Dahl’s well-known novels, James and the Giant Peach, the child hero meets an odd man who asks him to look inside a ‘small white paper bag’. Within the bag, like sweets from the cornershop,
James could see a mass of tiny green things that looked like little stones or crystals… They were extraordinarily beautiful, and there was a strange brightness about them, a sort of luminous quality that made them glow and sparkle in the most wonderful way.
Admittedly this little old man, who appears out of nowhere, is more than a little creepy (‘“Come close to me little boy”’, he whispers to James, ‘“Come right up close to me and I will show you something wonderful”’). But the ‘tiny green things’ he gives to James, at once sweets and crystals, will nevertheless lead to all of the boy’s adventures and allow him to escape from the tyranny of his sadistic aunts Sponge and Spiker. The old man’s instructions even involve dissolving the crystal-sweets and drinking the resulting solution like a potion. James fails to follow these instructions but, of course, things turn out alright in the end. And the crystalline beauty of the magical objects, the ‘strange brightness’ and ‘luminous quality’ that makes them ‘glow and sparkle in the most wonderful way’, heralds their fantastical ability to flout the laws of mundane reality and to remake the world in fabulist, utopian terms.
I wrote before that sweets are ‘visually delicious’. But it might be better to take something of a step back and to say that there is a visuality of sweetness, one which reveals the complicated relationships that have often existed between sweets, crystals, and a variety of optical effects, and which suggests that in letting us fantasise about eating the inedible sweets also promise the fulfilment of our fantasies as such: encouraging us to luxuriate in the blandishments of the commodity, whose satisfactions are endless yet leave one unsatisfied, or to dream of a world cleansed of labour, politics, and complexity, a different order of things which conforms to the desires of our better natures and which accedes to the power of magical thinking. For centuries taste has been given a pretty humble part to play in ideas about the body and sensation; even the famous eighteenth-century gastronome Brillat-Savarin described it as the most ‘primitive’ of the senses. But sweets show that there is a high seriousness to eating and tasting even in what might be considered to be their most naive and infantile forms, and suggest how taste might help us to think about some of our visual pleasures and preoccupations, and about our recurring fascinations with glister, glitter, gleam, and glow.
The visual allure of sweets continues to take different forms, for example in the computer game Candy Crush, which combines the glossy beguilements of sweeties with the marvellous clarity of the liquid crystal display and the pleasurable smoothness of the touch screen. The levels of the game, which is known for its absurd addictiveness, are notionally set in a variety of saccharine wonderlands and have spawned a host of imitations which for the most part replace sweets with gemstones or with lucent jellies, reiterating the historical simpatico between such things.
So if they are part of a long history which has to do with the evolving meaning of all sorts of materials and sense impressions, from rose quartz to fruit drops and from pure transparency to shining brilliance, then sweets also contribute to the on-going development of this history in an age of new technologies and materials: they are helping to shape, and to raise questions about, new kinds of experience and enjoyment in the age of the digital, new versions of old obsessions and new kinds of commodification in the era of iPads and Android operating systems. They are a reminder of all the ways that our pleasures and our selves can be remade yet in many ways remain the same. They suggest that if we live in an extraordinarily complex and grown-up world then perhaps, at the same time and in some sense, we never really grow up at all.