State Fair

‘Sweet!’ hits the spot in State Fair’s ode to candy

Sweet daydreams start on Big Rock Candy Mountain with lollypops and marshmallows. Melted chocolate flows down its day-glo river. In this fantasy world, thousands of jelly beans recreate Mona Lisa’s smile in a lip-smacking mosaic. Everywhere, the air smells tantalizingly like caramel corn.

“You’re in the land of ‘Sweet!’ ” joked Troy Carlson as he offered a tour. “We have here all the ingredients for a sweet life.”

And an eye-popping 7,700-square-foot display for the 161st State Fair. Carlson and his Sacramento-based Stage Nine Productions created this homage to California candymakers and candy lovers, appropriately entitled “Sweet! California’s Tasty Journey.”

Open during the fair through July 27, this new exhibition dives into all things candy with a sugar-coated salute – part nostalgia, part education, but (mostly) all California. Who knew we live in Candyland? (There’s an over-sized version of that classic game to play, too.)

A tribute to modern marketing, most candy comes wrapped in its own fantasy. They’re affordable little treats that lift our spirits. (That’s a big reason so many candymakers got their start during the Great Depression.) But “Sweet!” tries to put some perspective into all those goodies.

Where did all this candy come from? How is it made? What is soy lecithin (and why is it in chocolate bars)? Will we ever see another Chicken Dinner bar?

“We really designed this exhibit for the whole family,” Carlson said. “We wanted to present the history of candy in an approachable, fun way. And you walk away with a little knowledge about something you really like.”

Anchored by a 24-foot-tall mountain of huge goodies, this air-conditioned ode to candy found its sweet spot at the State Fair. It will be a favorite spot for patrons to hang out and soak in the sugary spirit.

As a nation, we have a notorious sweet tooth. According to health experts, the average American consumes almost 152 pounds of sugar a year. That breaks down to about 3 pounds every week – almost a cup of sugar a day. At that rate, the typical Californian will eat and drink more than 6 tons of sugar in his or her lifetime.

But don’t feel too guilty while touring “Sweet!” Candy represents only 5 percent of our mass sugar consumption (33 percent comes from soft drinks). Like most things we eat, much of that sugar comes from California, too. It starts as sugar beets, cane or corn; if not grown here, it is processed.

That gives a farm-to-mouth opening for “Sweet!” as it tells the tale of how favorite treats are made. From agar agar (a red algae used as a gelatin replacement) to vanilla, 15 common ingredients are profiled. (An emulsifier, soy lecithin keeps chocolate from separating.)

“We want to demystify the ingredients used in candy,” Carlson said. “Like chocolate; where does it come from? Cacao trees produce cocoa. But most people don’t know it starts as a seed, not a bean.”

Not surprisingly, chocolate is a favorite subject of this exhibit; an estimated 56 percent of all candy sold in the world is chocolate-based.

Cacao – which is not a California crop – grows within 10 degrees of the equator. With blinking lights designating the global cacao belt, an interactive map highlights the world of chocolate (including California companies such as Ghirardelli, founded in 1852). Other displays break down how chocolate is made, starting with the seed-packed fruit that looks similar to an acorn squash.

“There are three stages of cocoa seeds,” Carlson explained. “The harvesting starts out like a pumpkin; you scoop out all the seeds. Those seeds are dried and roasted, then shelled. That gives you the nib (the actual source of cocoa); it tastes like chocolate but very bitter.”

Willy Wonka’s creative chocolate factory (which gets its own nod here) had nothing on the real-life machinery used to make mouth-watering confections. Several antique candy-making devices have been borrowed for this exhibit along with more modern contraptions. Marvel at how a 75-pound block of striped nougat can become 500 candy canes. Hands-on displays allow visitors to try their hand at cranking and pulling candy the old-fashioned way.

“We found there were epicenters of candy,” Carlson said. “Chicago was the biggest; many candy companies started there including Jelly Belly. But next were Los Angeles and San Francisco, followed by New York.”

Much of California’s candy history dates to just before or after World War II. A wall is covered with vintage gum ball machines (the world’s largest collection) along with other colorful reminders of penny candy. Displays rekindle memories of Chicken Dinner bars (actually a nut-packed chocolate treat heralded as the first “power bar”) or other brands no longer available. Recordings of once-ubiquitous jingles get stuck back in visitors’ heads.

During the exhibit, jelly bean mosaic artist Kristen Cumings (it’s her candy Mona Lisa) will complete holiday-themed murals on the sides of a little house featuring the Easter Bunny and Halloween (two beloved candy-filled traditions). In all, she’ll glue more than 200 pounds of Jelly Belly beans to the structure. For this same display, textile artist Shelly Hedges created a custom party dress out of hundreds of foil wrappers. Like so many other parts of this exhibit, the garment holds sweet memories.

“My favorite part is the pop culture – like Bazooka Joe (gum with cartoon wrappers) and Cracker Jack (the ‘first junk food’),” Carlson said. “There are so many stories; I really love it. I found it really interesting, not just to research but to share.”

Visitors likely will leave humming the Almond Joy or DoubleMint tune or some other sweet-related melody. Said Carlson, “When you hear those jingles, you realize how much candy has permeated our pop culture. We just know (this stuff); candy is in our core.”