Chocolate is always on his mind, and lips

'No one comes in, and no one goes out," Grandpa Joe said about Willie Wonka's chocolate factory. But in the book and movie, the character Charlie manages to find a way in so he could satisfy his curiosity.

Steve Almond, a grown-up chocolate-loving Charlie, also hungered for a peek at the intricate machinery; for a captivating whiff of cocoa, butter, and sugar; for a tantalizing taste of candy bars hot off the assembly line. Like Charlie, he found the factories - their secrets worth millions of dollars - to be stubbornly inaccessible.

"[Hershey's] may try to project a fuzzy, all-American image, but we're talking about an operation that shreds its marketing plans," Mr. Almond (yes, that's really his name) writes in his latest book, "Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America."

The little guys in the industry, however, had no such bureaucratic barbed wire to keep out the self-styled "candyfreak." So Almond sniffed and snacked and sweet-talked his way across the United States, from California to Tennessee, touring quirky companies and interviewing even quirkier connoisseurs.

His discovery: Beneath its sugar coating, the world of candy confection has a rather bitter core.

While Americans happily munch on their Milky Ways, Kit Kats, and PayDays, the lesser-known brands struggle in their remote corners of the market, or fade into nonexistence. Ever heard of the Twin Bing? A Five-Star bar? Remember the Caravelle? Almond, with unbridled enthusiasm, spotlights the unsung heroes of the industry - the ones that can't afford to be sitting pretty on Wal-Mart's shelves.

"I was hooked when I saw the beauty of candy production," Almond says in a recent interview, pausing to reminisce about chocolate scent lingering in elevators and wafting down hallways. His eyes close in reverence as he painstakingly describes the velvety sheen of liquid chocolate. He speaks more feverishly, a mischievous tilt to his grin, when he discusses America's fascination with candy, which he says is both nostalgic and primal. "The deeper I looked into candy, [the more] I realized how deep it is."

To Almond, a candy bar is far more than just a confectionery delight. He considers it to be a miraculous modern invention, culinary jazz, an artifact of our collective history, on-the-go energy, a mild antidepressant, America's first fast food, a source of economic empowerment for kids, and, for himself at least, an obsession.

Thank goodness Almond was born within the last 110 years. Before then, candy bars didn't exist in the United States. In 1894 Milton S. Hershey was the first to produce candy bars for the masses, and US soldiers helped to popularize them during World War I.

By the time of World War II, 6,000 confectioneries were cranking out a zany variety of candy bars. Now, only a dwindling fraction of that number are still operating in an industry dominated by the Big Three - Hershey, Nestlé, and Mars.

Some of those quirky candies have won a sweet spot in Almond's heart.

There's the Idaho Candy Co. with its flagship bar, the Idaho Spud, a mix of marshmallow and chocolate that was advertised decades ago as a healthy snack because it contained a seaweed derivative. The company turns out 3 million Spuds per year. Mars makes that many Snickers bars in an afternoon.

The Annabelle Candy Co., near San Francisco, started in a Russian immigrant's kitchen and is now widely beloved for its Abba-Zabas, Rocky Roads, and Big Hunks. One of its employees is devoted solely to disposing of peanuts that aren't cooked to perfection.

Sifers Valomilk of Merriam, Kan., settles for no less than pure cane sugar and a type of vanilla grown exclusively on the island of Madagascar. Its signature bar, which tends to dribble down the consumer's chin, is praised by Almond for its "sense of improvisation" in an age of bite-size convenience.

"In a sense, the Valomilk is as antiestablishment as a candy bar can get," he writes.

The Goo Goo Cluster, another nonconformist, is "not some carefully calibrated candy bar with neat angles and computer-regulated ratios," Almond writes. "It was a delightful mess."

It's also the best-known candy bar in the South - and the first candy bar to contain multiple ingredients.

"These regional companies will get rarer and rarer," Almond says, his tone somber.

But he's not crying over the candy bars of yesteryear. When he walks into Dylan's Candy Bar, a retro candy shop in Manhattan, he becomes giddy.

"Look at this, it's a candyfreak mecca! It's brilliant!" he exclaims, as he watches children and adults excitedly try to decide among the Wacky Wafers, Gobstoppers, and Sugar Daddies.

"I think now is the golden age of candy," Almond says. "You can get anything you want."

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