A little context to start: My parents were pretty health conscious when I was growing up. Most of the time we were vegetarians, and then every so often my parents would worry that we weren’t getting enough iron and protein and we would have chicken liver, breaded and fried, and the smell would seep out of the bus and warn us wherever we were playing outside that dinner would not be good tonight. There was no amount of catsup that could disguise what we were eating, the taste of which registered on my tongue somewhere between dog food and poison, but we would bury it in catsup anyway, hoping that this time, maybe, enough sugar and vinegar would result in a less visceral culinary experience.
I felt roughly the same about TVP, textured vegetable protein, my first link in an ongoing chain of dislike for food pretending to be other food. Carob, you are not Chocolate. Soy “cheese”? Not fooling a soul. But my mother was a good cook and she usually made the best of our budget, which living as we did was minuscule. My parents were masters at finding deals and making a dollar stretch and in retrospect, the fact that they gave us each a weekly dollar for allowance was both generous and surprising. We were not a home with prepackaged cookies and baked goods. We had a plug-in oven the size of a large pot and when the mood struck her, my mom would make Sally-Lunn bread and carrot cake. Occasionally we would get day-old donuts and eat them until we were not quite well. And candy, well, candy was strictly forbidden, except for one sweet day a week, Saturdays, when we were allowed to gorge ourselves as we saw fit. Gorge we did.
Around the time I was six, we lived in a large expanse of desert on the far side of the hills from Tucson, AZ. There weren’t many houses yet that far out, but there were plenty of trailers, and when we were there, a few buses as well. We were parked for the winter near our friends Jack and Mary and a few other like-minded families, as well as one or two decidedly unlike-minded folks. The landscape was dotted with saguaro cactus, tall and spiny with their arms akimbo, barrel cactus, cholla, and creosote. Dry river beds, washes that would become dangerous with fast moving water during the short monsoon season, were our frequent playgrounds. And within a brief yet sometimes scary walk was the Wagon Wheel, the mullet of stores; mom and pop shop in the front, old west gambling, drinking, and sometimes shooting each other bar in the back. The Wagon Wheel was where we would go to spend our dollars early on a Saturday morning, walking along a wash out of view of the main road. It was a pretty short walk but we would never go alone, it was always Jessie and Chris and me, ages seven, eight, and six respectively, our quarters clutched in our sweaty little hands, and Mike, who would have been eleven and walking far enough ahead of us so he could pretend he didn’t know us. The ladies at the Wagon Wheel knew us, as they probably knew everyone in those parts, it being the only store in a 15-mile radius. Middle-aged, perm haired fuddies, as I recall, they tolerated us, but they didn’t seem to like us (or anyone – we didn’t take it personally).
Now, candy day shopping had a particular art to it, and you couldn’t rush it or else you came up short at the end of the day when you really, really wanted one last sweet before a week of deprivation was staring you down. You had to start with an anchor, something “big”, in the 40 to 50 cent range – a Twix or Whatchamcallit, a roll of Spree, a pouch of Big League – and then the rest of the dollar should be spent on filler, 2 to 5 cent pieces of single candy – Bazooka Joe, Lemonheads, Atomic Fireballs, Now N Laters, cinnamon gummies, odd pieces of licorice, and, if you lived in the desert as we did, saladitos, which are salted and dried-beyond-recognition plums, not candy, but were totally worth spending a nickel of your allowance on because yum.
The fuddies behind the counter would dish penny-candy out of jars in the amounts requested, depositing them into brown papers sandwich bags, we would fork over our money, and then we would scurry home, digging into our loot pretty much immediately, because nothing makes a walk through the wildlife infested desert better than a mouth full of sugar, corn syrup, and high doses of citric acid.
Ah, mornings in the desert, Kitt Peak rising high in the distance, the sun not yet high overhead, an almost imperceptible breeze cutting across the land as you lean languidly against a blue paloverde tree, lazily dipping a Fireball jawbreaker in and out of your mouth. We learned to stretch out our candy like an entrenched soldier stretches out their last pack of cigarettes. It was important to time it so that our last pieces could be eaten and enjoyed just prior to brushing our teeth at bedtime. Sunday would come and we’d be broke for sweets again, but having overindulged the day before, perhaps not minding so much. By midweek though, we’d be mixing up peanut butter, honey, and powdered milk in an effort to make something that approximated candy. Unlike carob and TVP, this concoction wasn’t selling itself as something else and I was therefore not offended by it.
Our collective candy fetish was the polar opposite of what my parents had hoped to achieve by moderating our access. My dad, in particular, had philosophies about finding the middle way in things, balance and all that, and that by neither depriving us completely nor indulging us on a daily basis, we would naturally find our own super chill relationship to junk food. Ha ha ha. We showed him. It would take reaching our teens and twenties before candy ceased to hold a heavy sway over us and to tell the truth, one of my sisters still gets a little jittery when offered Chick-O-Sticks or Twizzlers.