Thursday, January 05, 2012

David Foster Wallace Discusses Skittles Blenders

David Foster Wallace was an avid candy lover.  These essays were found in a drawer underneath the final manuscript of The Pale King along with a personal note to his longtime editor.  It concisely states, "When will candy be discussed on the same level as religion or ethics?  Isn't it worthy?"    

I am in the passenger's seat of my companion's 2001 Honda Accord driving down Interstate 57 towards Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.  This interstate is one of the many concrete afterthoughts of the US Highway System, beginning (or ending) near Chicago and dying just inside the border of Missouri where it literally shrivels into state route 60 and spends its retirement snaking through the Mark Twain National Forest(1), the namesake of which probably saw the forests at one time but never the sign bearing his name.  I've been scheduled to appear at a Literary Arts Festival and my companion is visiting a friend at one of southern Illinois's many wineries.

For this ride I've packed Skittles Blenders, a new candy in a neon-yellow package which glows in the opaque black canvas of my messenger bag.  I like to have something to munch on during the three and a half hour trek from Bloomington and the sugar rush sustains my conversational duties as passenger.  This is a new release from Skittles and for this edition(2) they've engineered different fruits (and an alcoholic drink) together in hopes of breaking new flavor ground in the ongoing confectionary war being waged adjacent to America's checkouts, about eye-level with America's toddlers.  Comic books call these crossovers and the history in that medium is legendary.  Examples include Archie meets the Punisher(3), Robocop vs. Terminator and Superman vs. Muhammad Ali.  This is a baby step for the Skittles brand in what hopefully will jumpstart a dynamic and revolutionary movement in candies.  Imagine the media explosion to follow the unveiling of Skittles Twix, Almond Joy Double Bubble or Twizzlers versus Kit Kats(4).

This first Skittle I taste is Mango Lemonade.  It tastes more like peach lemonade than mango lemonade and is about the color of the peach crayon.  The makers were clearly intending for the sour taste of lemonade to carry the flavor burden but it overpowers any attempt at complexity.  This is not a good start.  Next is Watermelon Green Apple Freeze, which is probably the most complex and successful of the Blenders.  When your teeth break through the candy coating, it clearly tastes of watermelon(5); and yet, the tartness of the green apple doesn't surface until the after-taste. In some cases, it happens slightly before that.  Tart green apples and refreshing watermelons epitomize what the Blenders seem to be aiming for - a proper marriage of two flavors with irreconcilable differences.  It's a smooth combination.  Why they've tacked the word 'freeze' onto the name is both baffling and disconcerting.  Nothing is cold or frozen about the flavor and neither apples nor watermelons are regularly frozen, at least not in any kitchen I've ever visited.  Skittles is clearly hoping to capitalize on the trendiness of the word 'freeze', which evokes the frozen gas station drinks commonly known as slushies(6).

This brings us to Skittle Blender number three of five: Cherry Tropicolada.  It's worth acknowledging because they've successfully combined these two flavors into one, but it has one fatal flaw: excess cleverness.  It's too clever by half(7).  This portmanteau of tropical and colada would probably find favor with Louis Carroll.  I imagine they brainstormed the name before they had a Skittle for it.  Cherry Tropicolada fails mainly because four flavors, not two, are being combined into one.  A pina colada is pineapple juice, cream of coconut and rum.  Rum is absent from the ingredients list though it could be found under the blanket of 'Artificial Flavors'.  Nevertheless, you have cherry, pineapple juice and coconut all blended together in a hard candy.  These all sound like tasty morsels, but united they fail. Pina colada does not have as storied a candy flavor history as cherry or strawberry or even coconut, so it might be ahead of its time.  Or maybe it is just more successful in a tropical climate.  But then why not have a real, slushy pina colada?

Melon Berry Burst - Like most berry-flavored consumables, manufacturers just seem to toss in arbitrary quantities of different berries and then hope for the best.  This laziness is often represented by clusters of berries and a few melons happily coexisting on the labels of said consumables.  Advertising can be a misleading fairy tale.  It's like a high school photograph where the cool kids (read: berries) stand in front while the oversized and overweight melon kids are pushed to the edges or the back, nearly falling off the picture - always second fiddle to the vibrant sweetness and tartness of berries.  To pour salt on the wound, melons are really not even properly represented in the color of the Skittle.  Outside on the packaging, melon berry burst is purple; inside, the actual Skittle is blue.  Both colors are primarily found in berries.  It's hard not to imagine some parallel with the civil rights struggle here, but I won't bore you or my companion with that.

Strawberry Lime Blast - This is definitely heavy on the lime and light on the strawberry.  Again, I'm puzzled as to what this alleged blast is.  Is it supposed to happen TO me?  Am I supposed to physically feel blown off my feet or ejected from the seat of the car?  Is it referring to the process by which the Skittle was made?  Maybe it's a reference to the personification of the Skittle as a brash and loud candy.  Or perhaps it refers to the collective act of the Skittles Blender brand coming onto the confection stage?  And how is it different than the burst of Melon Berry?  How can one Skittle be a burst and the other be a blast and one be a freeze and one a lemonade and one a tropicolada?  Is each Skittle a different species?  As I become frustrated, I pour the rest of the bag into my cupped hand and throw them back into my mouth.  My cheeks bulge.  I chew and chew and chew and chew.  I guess now it's a blastburstfreezelemonadecolada.  

1.  Mark Twain National Park seems to have been christened in 1938 to preserve the remaining forests in Missouri from logging, timbering and excessive wood consumption.
2.  Past editions of Skittles include Wild Berry, Tropical Skittles, Crazy Cores, Skittles Sours and the poorly reviewed and rarely consumed Chocolate Skittles.
3. In this crossover, The Punisher is asked to go undercover in Riverdale to apprehend a drug dealer WITHOUT using lethal means.  Please refer to Wikipedia entry for complete plot synopsis.
4.  This final battle would be presented by Dark Horse comics, whereby Twizzlers resemble Wellsian Tripods and land on Earth hoping to exterminate candykind.  The Kit Kats, taking the form of flying battering rams, counter attack and a gooey, chocolatey-licorice battle is waged.  Soon enough, the Twizzlers locate the manufacturing center of the Kit Kats and melt the chocolate with their heat rays.  An underground Kit Kat resistance forms, but they have a difficult time keeping the chocolate from melting and eventually become extinct.
5. I do not mean actual watermelon, but the flavor of watermelon as conceived by the flavor scientsits in the candy industry.
6. Over the past decade, there has been a quiet and steady march by gas station drink producers toward renaming their frozen drinks freezes in lieu of slushies, e.g. Coke Freeze.  The word 'slushy' (or slushie) evokes a cheapness associated with beverages sold at gas stations, historically a proving ground for drinks that in any other setting would be considered radioactive.  Slush, to anyone living in a region that sees significant snow, makes you think of the thick, brownish-black liquid in the area where the crosswalk meets the gutter.  Ironically, this is the same color as a Coke Freeze.  Now, the word 'freeze' conjures a much more natural image: water freezing, the Arctic, the transparence of ice, etc.  Additionally, 'freeze' is monosyllabic where 'slushie' is on the hefty side of two syllables.  This rebranding movement is also sad because 'slushie' is one of the more nifty autonyms.
7. 'Too clever by half' is a chiefly British expression which refers to something whose excessive cleverness has undermined the result that the cleverness was intended to achieve.