Saturday, December 26, 2009

Choose Your Tigermelt!

What is a Tigermelt? In my novel True Confections, it's a delicious chocolate-coated peanut and nougat candy bar, one of three candy products inspired by Little Black Sambo made by Zip's Candies since 1924. Tigermelts boast the slogan "Plain Hungry? Or Tigermelt Hungry?"

In the real world, it is apparently "an economical blend which contains potassium chloride and sodium chloride that work together to effectively melt snow and ice." This Tigermelt is also said to be odorless, will leave no residue, won't harm vegetation, and won't stain carpets, "when used as directed."

A Tiger Melt is also chicken salad with colby cheese served open faced on a toasted bagel at the Big Blue Bagel in Auburn, Alabama.

Choose your Tigermelt!

Sunday, December 20, 2009


I just learned that in certain candy factories there is an area designated the Starch Room. I want a Starch Room, don't you? Don't you think everyone should have a Starch Room? If only I had known while I was writing True Confections, then Zip's Candies would surely have had a Starch Room. Before the week is out, the Zip's Candies website (, where the fiction continues beyond the pages of the novel, will have a vintage image of their Starch Room, where the Mumbo Jumbo moguls have been racked since 1924.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Breaking the Fourth Wall

More Little Sammy Sneeze. Winsor McKay was intriguingly modern in his visual sensibility, if not in his sense of what is funny. Here, Little Sammy Sneeze breaks the fourth wall with one of those uncontrollable sneezes. It's hard to imagine what this looked like to readers a hundred years ago.

Friday, December 11, 2009


The most famous candy made by Zip's Candies in my nearly-published novel True Confections is called Little Sammies, because it was inspired by Little Black Sambo. I have no awareness of any actual candy or other product with a name anything like this, though a sandwich chain has offered small sandwiches called Little Sammies. But there was a Little Sammy Sneeze, I have just learned, long ago, in a very early Winsor McKay comic strip. Every episode concluded with an ill-timed and destructive sneeze. "He just simply couldn't stop it! He never knew when it was coming!" Apparently, in 1904, this was pricelessly funny. (McKay went on to greatness with Little Nemo.)

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Lucy, Lucy, Lucy

I never described this primal television scene in the pages of True Confections, though the novel begins with a not entirely unrelated (though less frantic) moment at Zip's Candies.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Oh No! I Forgot the Chunky!

Somehow, I completely overlooked any mention of the Chunky in True Confections. And the Chunky was not only a personal childhood favorite, so where's my loyalty? but also is yet another small candy brand (these days it's made by Nestlé) started in the 1930's by an enterprising New York Jew, in this case Philip Silvershein, who named the candy, regrettably, and one wonders about her therapy, for his "chunky" granddaughter.

Some other Chunky knowledge: Chunky used to be made with cashews and Brazil nuts. There are unverified rumors that the original Chunky was intended to be a pyramid, but that proved impossible to wrap, so the top was sliced off, thus the odd shape. It's a real stand-alone candy piece: not a bar, not a bag of small pieces. The original wasn't segmented, but now it is segmented as if to be broken into quarters, though it doesn't break easily and you get messy trying so just eat the whole damned thing, okay? There are no Chunky minis that I know about. They used to make babies, called Chunky Cuties, which cost two cents. That's when comic books cost 12 cents.

Oh, Chunky.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

What is a Photograph?

According to Diane Arbus, "A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you, the less you know." How I wish I had put knowledge of this bit of wisdom into the head of Harriet Rose, the photographer and main character of my first novel, Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A Very Complicated Toast to Vermeer

My second novel, The Music Lesson, concerns an IRA splinter group plot to steal a Vermeer from the Queen. It came out in 1999, and was followed within the year by the more successful (which is not to say that The Music Lesson didn't do very well -- it did, and it continues to sell nicely in multiple languages) Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier. Both novels, and some others, were written in the aftermath of the Vermeer exhibition in Washington and The Hague, and Vermeer's zeitgeist stock has been blue chip ever since, kept in high public consciousness not necessarily for visual reasons but simply because of the staying power of cultural trends.

On a recent visit to a Dutch Master painting show at The Metropolitan Museum, I was aware more than once of people exclaiming with excitement when they spotted wall text identifying a Vermeer. I wished for the opportunity to experiment with a change of identification on the museum walls, to watch people swoon passionately over a previously bypassed De Hooch or Metsu once it was labelled Vermeer.

But anyway. A recent news article in the San Francisco Chronicle attracted my attention, because it featured a Vermeer-inspired cocktail. It's called The Milkmaid, though it has no milk in it, and no sun-dappled milkmaid will come to your house and make it for you. Invented by Ektoras Binikos, a Greek-born artist and bartender at Oceana in New York, The Milkmaid has an ounce of Bols geneva in it, which apparently makes it sufficiently Dutch and therefore Vermeerish. It's also really, really complicated:

2 thin slices fresh ginger
1/2 ounce Citrus Mint Syrup (see recipe)
3 to 4 dashes Angostura bitters
1 ounce Bols genever
1/2 ounce Domain de Canton ginger liqueur
1 ounce fresh lemon juice
1/2 ounce yuzu juice
1/2 ounce (1 tablespoon) egg white
1 piece crystallized ginger candy, for garnish
Instructions: In a mixing glass, muddle together the fresh ginger, Citrus Mint Syrup and bitters. Add ice and the rest of the ingredients except the garnish, and shake well. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Add the garnish.

Citrus Mint Syrup:
Makes about 2 cups
1 small bunch fresh mint, trimmed and washed
-- Zest of 1/2 orange
-- Zest of 1/2 lemon
2 cups granulated sugar
1 cup water
Instructions: Combine all ingredients in a nonreactive saucepan and place over medium heat. Bring to a gentle simmer, stirring frequently, and cook about 5 minutes, until syrup thickens slightly. Remove from the heat and let cool to room temperature. Strain through a double layer of dampened cheesecloth.

Would Vermeer have been interested in this Dutch Mojito? He probably drank Dutch beer and cocoa.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Does Size Matter?

Now that Halloween has come and gone, having fallen on the second most profitable day of the week for the candy industry (Friday Halloweens are best for candy sales because it is not a school night but it is a work day, so there are more office parties and workplace candy occasions), what's your feeling about size? Does size matter? Do you prefer full-size bars for their classic taste proportion of coating to filling? Or do you like the one-bite experience of minis and fun-size, despite the shift in ratio of inside to outside? (Perhaps you are one of those muffin top people.) Do please consider this handy chart against which to measure your own possibly misguided preferences.

Friday, October 30, 2009


Happy Halloween! A non-Staircasey post for the candy-laden occasion:

According to one of the dodgier surveys I have seen (not that I would ever be the one to say there's anything wrong with making up facts to enhance a story, but something tells me this one was planted by Hershey), you can strategize and optimize your trick-or-treating if you bear in mind that:

Houses with black shutters are 77 percent more likely to hand out Kit Kats.

Trick-or-treaters have a 37 percent greater chance of receiving a Kit Kat from a ranch house.

Those who prefer Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups should focus on ringing the doorbells of two-story houses.

Knock on brown doors if seeking chocolate. Trick-or-treaters have a 32 percent greater chance of receiving a Hershey’s Bar from homes with brown doors.

Meanwhile, in Maryland, Indiana, Illinois, and Louisiana, along with countless cities, towns, and counties across the country, registered sex offenders are required to display a "NO CANDY HERE" sign on their doors on Halloween. In True Confections (pub date is now eight weeks away), when the main character, Alice Ziplinsky, is assigned to the distribution of those signs, she doesn't follow instructions at all.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Why Are Milk Duds called Milk Duds?

Why are Milk Duds called Milk Duds? Yet another candy factoid I didn't know when I was writing True Confections. This new candy piece developed in 1926 by F. Hoffman in Chicago was supposed to be perfectly spherical, much like a malted milk ball, but each batch of the dense, milk chocolate covered caramels kept collapsing into misshapen lumps. They were duds. Say, they're made with a lot of milk, they're duds, let's call them Milk Duds!
Shortly after they were developed, Philo J. Holloway took over the company and called them Holloway's Milk Duds. In 1960 he sold out to Beatrice Foods. Leaf purchased the brand in 1986 and took over production, until a decade later, when Hershey, that great swallower of large and small candy brands, took over the Milk Dud franchise from Leaf, which had by then been sold to Huhtamaki Oy of Helsinki. I wonder, what is the Finnish word for "dud"?

Until last year, all was status quo in the land of Milk Duds. But then Hershey decided to swap out costly cocoa butter for more economical vegetable fat in a range of their products, Milk Duds among them. This means they cannot legally call Milk Duds "chocolate" any longer. Thus the change on the label in recent months from "milk chocolate" to "chocolatey." Now that's a dud.

Sunday, September 27, 2009


My forthcoming novel True Confections is not only about chocolate and a crazy family. There is also a part of the story that takes place in Madagascar over several generations. Although I mentioned orb weaver spiders, and Merina people, I did not know about the history of Madagascar spider silk-weaving, nor about the woven object now on display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Producing the spider silk to make this piece—apparently a unique enterprise in the world—required 70 people who were employed collecting spiders daily (using long poles) from their legendary webs strung across telephone wires, during the rainy season, which is when they produce silk. A dozen people would then draw out the silk from the immobilized female spiders, who were then turned loose. (Somebody has to determine the gender of these spiders! What do you call these jobs on your resume? Spider sexing? Spider milking? Spider silking?) An Orb Weaver spider's silk gland can produces some 80 feet of this amazing golden silk filament at a time.

The woven piece on display in New York is based on a weaving tradition known as lamba Akotifahana from the highlands of Madagascar, an ornamental art created for the royal and upper classes of the Merina people. I dearly wish I had woven some spider silk into my novel.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Other Three Sisters

**************************************** My third novel, The Little Women, has a Balthus painting, The Three Sisters, on the cover. This is an essential image for the novel, because the final scene invokes the painting (also true in my first novel, Objects, in which the final scene invokes The Arnolfini Wedding). I was able to persuade the art director for the FSG hardcover, the brilliant Susan Mitchell, that the cover really needed this particular image, and she agreed. But then the first jacket design proof came through, and to my surprise, while there was a Balthus painting of The Three Sisters, alright -- it was the wrong painting. Balthus revisited a number of subjects and scenarios in his lifetime, and these three sisters were represented several times over the decades. The painting I needed for the jacket was a different, earlier one. This painting on the proof did not match the final scene in the novel at all. Finally, an image of the Balthus painting I had in mind was located. It was a relief, too, when Picador agreed to use the painting on the paperback edition a year later.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Vermeer Moves the Earth

Every time I pass a construction site and see one of Vermeer's diggers or chippers at work, I regret that I didn't make a reference in The Music Lesson (which features a stolen Vermeer portrait) to the curious coincidence that the uncommon name of one of the greatest painters who ever lived on earth is shared by a company manufacturing construction equipment.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Corner of Winter and Summer

The middle section of my first novel, Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear, takes place in a New York suburban neighborhood very much inspired by my childhood surroundings, Forest Hills Gardens. The narrative in this section takes the form of a series of linked third person stories about Harriet in her childhood (in narrative strategy contrast to the epistolary first person of grown-up Harriet in Part One or the straightforward third person of Part Three that returns to the present of the Part One notebook of Harriet's letters).
As Harriet bicycles through those "Oxbridge Gardens" streets, it would have been just right for her to observe the uncanniness of a certain Forest Hills Gardens street corner a block from my childhood home: the intersection of Winter and Summer.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

True Mirror

Harriet, the photographer obsessed with reflections (and the main character in Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear), would have been deeply fascinated by the True Mirror, which lets us "see ourselves as others see us."

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Asch Building

I learned shortly after Triangle was in page proofs that the site of the Asch Building had a significant history. I don't know why I didn't discover this earlier, but I know I would have woven it into the story in useful ways connected to the question of how a story is told and where the truth may lie in the different perspectives of an event. Among the row of houses that were torn down for the 1900-1901 construction of the lofted ten-story skyscraper, the top three floors of which were destined to occupied by the Triangle Waist Company, was 27 Washington Place, the house in which Henry James was born in 1843.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Offensive Candy Bar Advertising

Perhaps in True Confections there should have been an offensive advertising campaign for Little Sammies akin to the Twix mess that has stirred up so many people, and for good reason! (Not that True Confections suffers from a dearth of controversial candy concepts.)

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The French really understand about chocolate

In a May celebration of the 400th anniversary of the arrival of cacao beans at the port city of Bayonne, La Poste (the French postal service) issued chocolate-scented stamps depicting scenes from the history and manufacture of chocolate. The scented micro capsules in the ink are supposed to last for two years.
Why don't we have stamps like these? Why don't we have a postal service like this? Why didn't I know about this in time to include it in True Confections?

Monday, August 10, 2009

Intentional Chocolate!

Did I make this up? Alas, no. Seriously missing from the pages of True Confections, Intentional Chocolate is described thusly:

"In Madison, Wisconsin, experienced meditators – some who have trained with the Dalai Lama – project the positive intention into a device...licensed to Intentional Chocolate™ designed to capture, hold, and then transfer the intention into food products.The intention projected by the monks into our chocolate through this revolutionary transfer technology is this: Whoever consumes this chocolate will manifest optimal health and functioning at physical, emotional and mental levels, and in particular will enjoy an increased sense of energy, vigor and well-being for the benefit of all beings.”
And some people thought the music in Triangle was far-fetched.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Naming a Character

Sidney Zion has died. I knew him because he was very close to a relative of mine.
For a variety of reasons, I borrowed his last name for the Ruth Zion character in Triangle.
Like Sidney Zion, Ruth Zion is relentless, dogged in her pursuit of material in support of her agenda. Like Sidney, she is obsessed with her issues. Unlike Sidney, she is overly literal and essentially humorless. I used his name for her because she is something of a ruthless zionist for her cause. Also because I liked the oddness and specificity of the name. I considered making the connection in the novel, which referenced various other real people, perhaps by naming him as a cousin of Ruth's. But the relative who was close to him was very agitated about the name being used at all, and she urged me to change it, which I didn't, so I opted to remain silent about the Sidney Zion connection.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Chocolate Sprinkles Have a Name

Chocolate sprinkles have a name, at least, they do if you are over 40. (I mentioned this last week and will now explain more fully.) If you are over 40, you have probably already said "Jimmies!" and you're right, that's what they're called. Why?

The founder of Just Born Candy, famous today for their Marshmallow Peeps, along with Mike and Ike and Teenee Beanees, was Sam Born, who arrived in New York from Russia in 1910. He was a real Rube Goldberg inventor when it came to sweet treats. Not only did he invent the process for making the hard chocolate coating on Eskimo Pies, he also created a machine that mechanically inserted sticks into lollipops. Sam Born opened his own shop in 1923 (where he hung out a sign saying his sweets were so fresh they were "Just Born," and soon after he also came up with a chocolate-sprinkle producing machine, whose yield—Jimmies—were named for the employee who operated the apparatus, a kid named Jimmy.

Another item for True Confections, if I had only learned this sooner.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Still Reflecting

Why didn't I mention the German photo-grapher Ilse Bing, the "Queen of the Leica"? Surely she would be Harriet Rose's role model in Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear.

I love this Bing self-portrait, and have long thought it would be a great cover for a new edition of Objects. (Which is in the works, by the way.) Probably no marketing department would agree, however.

Friday, July 17, 2009

One More Reflection in the Mirror

My first novel, Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear, is about a photographer obsessed with reflections.

Harriet Rose is young, and tends to be more observant than perceptive. The novel has as a kind of centerpiece the Jan Van Eyck wedding portrait of the Arnolfinis, which was on the very beautiful cover of the hardcover edition (Crown, 1995) and not on the un-good cover of the Picador paperback (Henry Sene Yee is brilliant and this is one of his only flops, ever, in my eyes.) Since publication, I have read a little more about self portraiture (and everything else), and it seems likely that artists chosing to depict themselves really began to flourish in the early Renaissance because of the advent of better and cheaper mirrors, many of them convex, like the mirror in the center of the Arnolfini portrait (which is slyly repeated on the beautiful spine of the Objects jacket, with the two little Arnolfini clasped hands). This is the kind of fact Harriet Rose would possess, or perhaps it is something her friend Anne Gordon would tell her. And there would be mention in this conversation of the Jan Van Eyck self portrait of 1433, which is considered by art historians to be one of the first mirror-influenced self-portraits.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Jews and Candy

My article about the Jewish heritage of many classic American candies ran in Tablet today.

This story has a number of little nuggets I would have stuffed into True Confections (which is, by the way, plenty stuffed as it is), from chocolate sprinkles being called "jimmies" because the guy who operated the machine that made them was named Jimmy, to the reason that Goldenberg's Peanut Chews were made with peanuts instead of walnuts, because peanuts were cheaper than walnuts. Also the way Topps Gum bought up small candy companies to close them in order to get their rationed sugar quotas. Why do I love the candy business so much?

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Wrong Title

As I write, I have always been fairly certain about the title of my novel in progress (though my forthcoming novel True Confections, had another title, and I will write about that soon). I am even pretty sure about the titles of some novels that lie far ahead of me in the years to come.

But I think I got it wrong with my third novel, The Little Women, which was published in 2003. It's a somewhat post-modern (not that I am sure I or anyone else really understands what is meant by that term) appropriation of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. I wanted to convey that, and given the nature of my novel, it seemed quite apt. I still think it was a good title, but I will always believe the title of this novel is one of the main reasons it has been least recognized and has probably sold the fewest copies among my novels, because it probably defined the book in a narrow and misleading way for too many readers. It probably suggested to certain readers that the book was going to appeal only to women. It probably suggested that the relationship to Louisa May Alcott was essential, when in fact, it was not, and my editor, John Glusman, had not even read the Alcott when he bought the novel.

About a year after publication, it occurred to me that I had missed the boat on the title. When Louisa May Alcott was writing Little Women (what is now Part I of the edition most familiar to readers over the generations), her working title was the ironic and perhaps even somewhat bitter The Pathetic Family. Her publisher balked at this, though of course she meant pathetic in the 19th century pathos sense, and he insisted that she come up with something far blander and sweeter.

Michael Cunningham made a brilliant choice to call his contemporary appropriation The Hours, which was Virginia Woolf's working title for Mrs. Dalloway. I now wish I had called my third novel The Pathetic Family.

Sunday, July 12, 2009


Something I would have loved to include in True Confections had I known it before now:

You know Black Crows, those licorice gum drops you see for sale at movie theater candy counters if nowhere else?
Apparently the original intention was to call them Black Rose, but the person charged with designing and ordering the cardboard box misunderstood the request.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

L'Esprit D'Escalier

The French call it "l'esprit d'escalier," stairway wit. The witty thing you should have said that occurs to you only as you descend the stairs at the end of the evening. As a novelist, I find that I have staircase thoughts about each of my novels, even though it has been almost fifteen years since my first novel was published. I am always making discoveries of little details, finding a new insight about elements that would have been perfectly suited for some aspect of the story, always chancing upon something in a newspaper, in a conversation, on a train, in a novel. There is always one more small gesture that I would have appropriated for a character, if only I had found it when I was still writing that novel. (I don't mean that I have second thoughts now about what I did write.)

Do other writers have this experience, this sense that their novels could have been just a little more enriched by something that has only come to mind now, too late?

Two pieces of what I am going to call Staircase Writing to inaugurate this journal :

Today, driving to community recycling, I heard on the radio that the heart beats in 3/4 time. I wish I had known that when I was writing Triangle, because it is exactly the sort of knowledge possessed by George Botkin, the composer in the story whose music is inspired by forms found in nature.

Yesterday, flying back to the U.S. from Ireland, I read about a man who fell into a vat of boiling chocolate and died, in a processing plant in New Jersey, where the chocolate is processed for Hershey bars. If I had read this story a few months ago, when I was finishing my forthcoming novel True Confections, a novel about a chocolate factory in crisis, I am sure I would have found a way to work it into the story.