The tragic Feb. 26 shooting of Trayvon Martin , a teenager carrying little more than Skittles and an iced tea, has generated mountains of copy over America’s not-so-latent racism. Little has been said, though, about our weird history of candy and danger — or at least candy and the imagery of danger and violence.
I’m not trying to be callous or glib here, nor am I attempting to belittle the serious situation in central Florida. What I am saying is that when George Zimmerman says he mistook a bag of fruit-flavored candy for a weapon, the shooter carried on a long tradition of commingling sugar and scare tactics, no matter how unconsciously.
Anyone who has read up on American history knows that our taste for violence and sugar runs deep, sometimes manifesting itself as a love for sweets and a fear of weaponry and sometimes just the opposite. We’ve reached a point where weapons and sweets have become causes (“Don’t take away my guns!”) and fetishes (cupcakes, anyone?)
Still, refined sugar — the primary ingredient that attracts us to candies and sweets — is a relatively new addition to the human diet, at least in the volume we have available today at the press of a vending machine button. This sugar rush has, in turn, led to an increase in fructose consumption, weight gain and diabetes — and all the health fears that go with those skyrocketing numbers.
But recently, our fears over sugar have taken a darker turn. Some researchers and writers have started to suggest — declare even — that sugar is toxic and should be regulated like other potential toxins such as drugs and alcohol. It’s as though carrying a candy bar can be as dangerous as a gun — at least to the person who holds the sugary treat.
But aside from the potential suicide bomb we can carry in our pockets, we’ve developed a complex cultural relationship with candy that refuses to treat sweets as simple kids’ stuff. Every Halloween, millions of children and adults dress as serial killers, bloodsuckers and the walking dead — the kind of freaks who would normally cause some to grab a double barrel, not a candy bowl, if they knocked on our door. Instead, we give them all sorts of sweets, a pre-negotiated deal that appears to date back to a tradition of youths saying prayers for the dead in exchange for sugary treats.
Candy flavors have been used to entice people to slowly suck their lives away, too. The practice of flavoring cigarettes with fruit, clove and candy flavors was only banned in 2009 when the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act went into effect; the Food and Drug Administration understood that tobacco companies were, essentially, soliciting children with candy, hoping to get them strung out on nicotine.
Then, of course, there is the subculture where candy is basically a raw material for “weapons” manufacturing. Remember in 2010 when some students at a Prince William County high school were punished for passing out miniature candy canes? School administrators apparently feared that kids would suck on the striped sugar sticks until they had been sharpened to a fine point, like some locker-room shiv. Perhaps one of those officials had an understanding of how that might work.
If you search the ’Net, you’ll find far more elaborate weapons carved from candy or built from candy containers or designed to shoot candy. Take a look at this candy glock or foldable candy box crossbow or Pez 9mm guns (complete with Pez bullet clips, so you can point the pistol in a mouth then pull the trigger).
There’s an entire Web site dedicated to chocolate weapons: chocolate grenades, chocolate guns, and, of course, chocolate bullets for those guns. It’s taking death by chocolate to a whole other level. Back in the late ’80s, there were even concerns in British airports that terrorists would sneak bombs onto planes via candy tins, because no one, I guess, would ever suspect something so innocent to hide something so lethal.
All of which leads me to one of the biggest candy-related pop culture “deaths” in recent memory: Mikey, star of the old Life cereal commercials, was alleged to have died after mixing Pop Rocks with soda. The story turned out to be a hoax.
Candy, after all, may sometimes be designed to exude an air of danger, but it’s usually as safe as a Milky Way on the Midway. Unless you believe the whole sugar-is-toxic argument, that is.