Spring 2006

Ingestion / After Taste

Amelie Hastie

“Ingestion” is a column that explores food within a framework informed by aesthetics, history, and philosophy.

I enter Economy Candy open-mouthed but speechless. I’ve been coming here, the mecca of all candy stores, located on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, for fifteen years, yet I always experience the same sensation as I walk in: a visceral feeling that says, “There’s just so much candy here.” My body literally tingles at the sights; I am struck dumb. It is not that I want to eat all that candy, but the sight of it fills me with an overwhelming sense of possibility. Is this desire (in a pure unadulterated form)?

In this store, so cramped and tiny, is an order at once logical and chaotic. The store is a maze, so that one must always carefully navigate in relation to the candy islands, as well as to the other customers. At arm’s length, then, are very fine chocolate bars in one direction, and “Slacker” taffy, Chick-o-Sticks, and Necco wafers in another. The “isles” are jam-packed with the desirable and the unlikely. Self-serve bulk candy is set against the front walls, and above it all are boxes and boxes of mass-produced goods. In times now passed, I would begin by lingering in the penny candy section. I would mix a bag, slightly afraid of being chastised for being too picky when it came to the flavored Tootsie Rolls, as I meant to gather only the orange and vanilla ones alongside the traditional chocolate-flavored. I would stare at the Mary Janes and Bit-O-Honeys, debating their relative merits in my head: I like the name and the wrapper of the former (a little girl in a flouncy skirt), but I prefer the taste and texture of the latter. So I would get about the same amount of each, planning on alternating between them for the different pleasures each promised. Since I never finish the bags I fill, for I hate the idea of not having any more candy left, I would decide on a small amount—fewer sticky things to melt into one another.

In November 2004, I lost my sense of smell following surgery to remove a brain tumor; my surgeon found that my olfactory nerves were literally frayed. On his way to excise the tumor—lodged between my optic nerve, pituitary gland, and frontal lobe—he had to sever the nerve, and he couldn’t properly re-fuse the remaining strands because they were already damaged. He did, however, try to “hotwire my nose”—as a friend described it—through conjoining one olfactory nerve with its opposite olfactory node, but so far this hasn’t taken, and it may be years before the fibers regenerate and recreate olfactory pathways in my brain. If they are even able to do so, one specialist told me, I will probably sense smells differently than I will remember them. And my neurologist remains highly skeptical: because the olfactory “nerve” is actually made up of fibers connected to the brain, he tells me that my loss of smell is a form of brain damage, which is almost certainly irreversible.

So, with my loss of smell, I lost my way a little. I don’t always feel grounded in the same space with the people around me—I constantly experience a sense of loss because I know I am not experiencing what they are in the physical world. Other anosmics (those who have lost or lack a sense of smell) have written about this phenomenon lately, noting how the loss of smell is also a loss of a personal history. If our memories are partially lodged in scent, then we remember differently after we lose some sense of smell. For anosmics, some memories may never be sparked again. And so I experience the reverse more powerfully: rather than a smell triggering a memory, I need a memory to trigger a smell. I can only imagine an olfactory perception.

Not only does smell trigger hunger, which is a kind of desire for taste, but it also shapes the ways we taste. Our sense of taste is only responsible for the basics—sweet, salty, bitter, sour—and our olfactory sense gives us subtlety, nuance, complexity. Thus my palette is no longer sophisticated enough for me to experience fully most of my favorite (non-chocolate) candies—Jujyfruits, Red Vines, Tootsie Rolls—quite possibly because those sweets are constructed so artificially. So, for much of November, I gathered some “scientific” evidence (as much as science can be based on an ethnography of one): lying in bed, convalescing after the surgery, I performed taste tests—in the afternoon, in the middle of the night. I tried to remember what each candy tasted like, but this also felt ultimately unsatisfying—it wasn’t the same, and it seemed increasingly like an experience I couldn’t recover. Thus my brief failed experiments were based on repetition compulsion more than anything else: I wavered between the wish to taste the candy again and the compulsion to repeat the “trauma” of not being able to taste it. I unwrapped and ate Tootsie Roll after Tootsie Roll and the result was always the same: at the moment of unwrapping I thought that this might be the one that worked, and at the moment of tasting … nothing. And so it went with the Jujyfruits as well; I simply could not distinguish between even the most radically different, such as the orange, black, and green (my favorite colors and flavors).

Various black licorices from Economy Candy. Photos Brian McMullen.

Indeed, my very perception of candy has been altered since the surgery, or perhaps my loss of smell has simply made candy’s nature that much more concrete. Describing candy and what it does to, or for, me is like describing something ineffable. Sometimes I wish I was a synaesthete so that I might “taste shapes” or see a color at the moment when I eat particular Jujyfruits and Tootsie Rolls, since sometimes shape and color are all I can perceive. In my attempts to merely taste again, I realized I could only partially do it: as I chewed what were essentially colorful shapes of slightly varied textures, I knew the taste existed only in memory.

Candy does invoke a desire for another time—a nostalgic desire, in a sense, a wish to return. For us adults who still eat it, it’s a mark of a return home, however mythical that might be—including childhood as a mnemonic space but also the domestic, economic, and national spaces of our early lives. But is this desire to return satisfied by candy? My own experience is always either of wanting more or of feeling not-quite-satisfied when I eat sweets. Producing a continual sense of desire, of wanting more, is part of candy’s ephemeral logic. Based on its form (full of sugar, empty calories), as well as its nature as something purely to produce pleasure, candy invokes a desire for its taste, but it’s a taste that’s by nature fleeting. And the after-taste of candy, which isn’t so sweet or so succulent (but more akin to morning breath), might always tempt us to have another piece to cover up what remains.

So candy is also a return to sweetness itself—the “flavor,” if not the actual experience, of something in the past. But the temporality of this desire and this return is lodged as much in the future as it is in an elusive or imaginary past. Short-lived and essentially fruitless, candy might also seem to represent the emptiness of possibility, the inevitable un-fulfillment of desire. But even if I can’t taste it, even if I know the desire it promises will never be truly fulfilled, I continue to be drawn to it.

And so I return to Economy Candy, mouth watering, almost crazed with possibility. And I realize that what I feel for candy is also lodged in vision as much as taste or texture (and possibly even more so), or at least it’s through vision that I perceive its possibility. Thus I am realizing that I am experiencing something we ingest through other senses; I have come to know—or simply have realized I’ve always known—candy through sight as well as touch and taste. In fact, my earliest memories of candy are not of eating it, but of seeing it. I think first not of putting a green apple Now and Later in my mouth or crunching a watermelon Wacky Wafer, but rather of staring at rows of candy in the Grant High Pharmacy after swimming lessons when I was twelve, enjoying the moment of decision making, imagining the possibilities the packages offered. Sometimes possibility is all one needs. Andy Warhol, sweets aficionado, describes this notion: “When I was a child I never had a fantasy about having a maid, what I had a fantasy about having was candy. As I matured, that fantasy translated itself into ‘make money to have candy,’ because as you get older, of course, you get more realistic … and now I have a roomful of candy all in shopping bags.” So as I gather up selections into plastic bags at Economy Candy, I only partly think about which ones I can taste, and which ones I can’t.

Eschewing the penny candy—glancing at it only for a moment, anyway—I now find myself dwelling in three main sections that essentially represent what I can taste, what I can’t, and what I partly must imagine I can. First, I am in front of the shelves of chocolate bars. If I taste Jujyfruits less, I taste chocolate more. It is the perfect balance between bitter and sweet. And the really proper stuff satisfies me in ways penny candy never could. In fact, like many others I’m sure, I think of chocolate not as candy but as food. It might be the density, it might be the fact that I think an argument, via Atkins, could be made for its dietary importance. In either case, after finding something I could actually taste, I also found myself gaining several pounds and at least one dress size in the span of a month or two. It all started with a double bar of chocolate, Côte d’Or, that one friend commissioned another friend to pick up for me in Belgium. I feared I would never find this bar again, so I only ate half. But once I got back to Economy Candy I found my US connection. I don’t need to touch the bars or sniff them—I stand and stare and pick up one and then another and then another, lining them up in the basket.

I move on to the next section: Jelly Bellys. In my past life I would marvel at the variety of strange flavors—buttered toast?—but whenever I ate them I became consumed with regret. Two years ago, however, I discovered Jelly Belly JBz. They look a lot like M&Ms, but the candy coating is flavored as the jelly beans. So you’ll end up with a banana- or tutti-frutti-covered chocolate. These are at once disgusting and completely fantastic. They are the closest I’ve come to experiencing Willy Wonka’s fabled seven-course-meal chewing gum: suck on one and you taste pear, break through the shell and you have chocolate. I had a partial bag of these in my house after I returned from the hospital, and I quickly realized I could taste neither the shell nor this particular chocolate. So as I stand in front of the clear plastic bins of colorful rounded saucers, I enter into a brief hypnotic (and synaesthetic) state, tasting each one as I stare at it. As much as I am tempted, I do not fill a bag; I know in my heart I can’t taste them, and I don’t have any friends who can stand them.

My favorite of the JBz was the black licorice. Because I could basically taste black licorice in other forms after surgery, it was a while before I could admit that I couldn’t taste these. So I move over to the black licorice section, now self-serve. I fill a bag with all sorts of strains and shapes: the salty “money” and diamonds, the hard cats, the moderately bitter yet incredibly whimsical farm machinery and Model T cars, the disquieting “babies” (three times the size of the cats). And as I load my bag I imagine each kind, but I know, too, that my very idea of them will remain imaginary, as I don’t plan on eating them. I want to like this candy because I can taste it better than any other. But admittedly I’ve always been something of a black licorice wuss, as I could never really handle the very salty. So the bag is for a friend, and I go to the counter to ask for a variety that is not self-serve (and, shockingly, much cheaper): the Scottie dogs. I realize my ability to taste these licorices is partly bound in denial, partly in memory. They’re softer than the hardcore Danish stuff and sweeter as well.

And so it is with the black licorice Scottie dogs that I realize what I really love is the idea of them and the look of them, more than the actual experience of tasting them. I love staring at them—perfect little dogs with indentations to define their hair, eyes, ears. Like with a chocolate bunny or an animal cracker, we get to make certain perversely pleasurable choices when we eat them. Legs first? Tail? Head?

I don’t know why—denial, perhaps?—but I didn’t expect to be changed by my brain surgery (beyond those ways I would “better” myself). A part of me was exhilarated to have the tumor, the part of me that had suffered through grief and through lost love. These were amorphous, infinite forms of suffering whereas a brain tumor just seemed so concrete. Now the loss of candy—that was just a surprise. But as I can’t quite define the desire that candy represents, I’m not sure I can define this new impression of loss.

Without smell, the sense of alienation, of being unmoored in time and space, can exacerbate my loneliness. But on good days it can also drive me to seek alternative modes of perception to experience the most mundane—and sometimes the most pleasurable—pieces of my life.

Candy is a promise. Andy Warhol knew this. It’s a promise that needs to be spoken, or open, if not fulfilled.

Amelie Hastie teaches in the Film and Digital Media Department at the University of California Santa Cruz. Her book, Cupboards of Curiosity: Women, Recollection, and Film History, is forthcoming from Duke University Press.