Last year my friend Alec, who knows me to be obsessive when it comes to candy, asked if I'd tried the new dark chocolate Kit Kat. I hadn't even heard of this bar, but I quickly set out to find one, which meant visiting every single Mobil station in the greater Boston area, because this is where Alec found his.
In the end, Alec brought me a bar, purchased from an obscure pharmacy. It was absolutely mind-blowing, about 23 times as good as the original version. The dark chocolate coating lends the fine angles of the bar a dignified sheen and exudes a puddinglike creaminess, as well as coffee overtones. This more intense flavor provides a counterpoint to the slightly oversweet wafer and filling.
Hershey's introduced the Kit Kat Dark -- along with a rather unfortunate White Chocolate Kit Kat -- in fall 2001, but only as a limited edition. Sure enough, soon after its introduction, the bar disappeared altogether, and I was left in a state of angry bereavement. It was not the first time.
As a kid, back in the '70s, I'd mourned several bars: The Marathon, a simple rope of caramel covered in chocolate, which came in a bright red wrapper that included a ruler on the back, a ruler that was commonly used by those of us with male self-esteem issues. The Choco-Lite, whose tiny air pockets provided a piquant crunch, the oral analogue to stomping on bubble wrap. And, most persistently, the Caravelle, which combined chocolate, caramel, and crisped rice.
I realize these are the same ingredients as in the 100 Grand bar. But I can assure you the two shouldn't be compared. The 100 Grand always leaves me with a mouthful of rubbery caramel. The Cara-velle tasted more like a pastry: The chocolate was thicker, darker, full-bodied, and the crisped rice had a malty flavor and what I want to call structural integrity; the caramel was that rarest variety, dark and lustrous and supple, with hints of fudge. More so, there was a sense of the piece yielding to the mouth. By which I mean, one had to work the teeth through the sturdy chocolate shell, which gave way with a distinct, moist snap, through the crisped rice (thus releasing a second, grainy bouquet), and only then into the soft caramel core. Oh, that inimitable combination of textures! That symphony of flavors!
Around the time I was starting high school, the Caravelle mysteriously disappeared from the racks, which meant that I spent countless hours describing it to one or another bemused shopkeeper, girlfriend, therapist. I was frantic, inconsolable, really annoying.
The disappearance of all these delicacies caused me to start asking a larger question: How is it that candy bars go extinct? The basic answer here is late-model capitalism. Big guys buy out little guys, or drive them out of business, and their candy bars go the way of the dodo. Caravelle's disappearance, for example, dates back to the acquisition of Peter Paul by Cadbury in 1988.
In fact, the candy industry has undergone a mind-boggling consolidation in the past half century. Between the world wars, some 6,000 companies were cranking out candy. Most towns had their own confectioner, and they all produced candy bars. Ray Broekel, the world's leading authority on the subject, estimates that 100,000 candy bar brands have been introduced in America alone. Today, however, only several hundred candy companies remain, and the candy racks are dominated by the Big Three: Hershey's, Mars, and Nestl?.
These companies do make some effort to foster variety by introducing new bars, most of which are variations on their most popular products (hence the endless variety of Snickers spin-offs). The real problem, though, is that the Big Three have such huge profit thresholds that they tend to pull from the market any bar that doesn't outperform their standbys. Thus, a few years ago, Hershey's teased us mint lovers with the scrumptious Cookies N Mint bar, only to pull the plug after several months.
The same thing happened with the Kit Kat Dark. The irony is that the response to the Kit Kat Dark was overwhelming. I can remember finding one in New York City, at a newsstand on Seventh Avenue. As I purchased the bar, a large man with muttonchops -- a perfect stranger -- lunged toward me and said, 'That's just a great candy bar!'
I myself ordered an entire case of Kit Kat Darks (12 boxes of 36) from a local candy distributor after realizing that Hershey's was going to cease production. When I went to pick up my supply, the receptionist said, 'Boy, you got these just in time. My phone has been ringing off the hook. Everybody wants Kit Kat Darks.'
The Darks quickly developed a cult following on the Internet -- the last refuge of the candy fanatic -- where several Web sites are given over to public lamentation of their disappearance. It has long been my dream to launch a company that could reintroduce some of our finest lost candy bars, in their original wrappers. Most people, after all, are utterly captured by the candy of their youth. But in the absence of a large inheritance -- something in the range of, say, a billion dollars -- this plan is unlikely to come to fruition. Thus, I will have to make do with my humble supply of 432 Kit Kat Darks, which is (I'm sorry) not enough to share.
Steve Almond is the author of the new book Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Under-belly of America (Algonquin). Reprinted from The Algonkian (Spring 2004), a little periodical that doubles as the catalog for Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. For a free copy, write to Algonquin Books, Box 2225, Chapel Hill, NC 27515, or call 919/967-0108; www.algonquin.com.