Our Skittles, Ourselves: Candy as Consumable Culture

Curator's Note

Nerds, M&M’s, Skittles, Starbursts, Spree, Dots, Bottle Caps, Razzles, Whoopers, Life Savers, Jujubees, Twizzlers, Gobstoppers—a quick sample of candy names shows how far candy can stray from anything natural.

If you weren’t already familiar with a candy such as Nerds, you’d have a hard time figuring out what you were about to eat. The weird pebbly shapes wouldn’t tell you much. Neither would the slick Crayola colors. And even if you learned their official flavors, you wouldn’t be much better off. You might guess the taste of “Double Dipped Lemonade-Wild Cherry” or “Surf 'n Turf-Totally Tropical Punch,” but how about “Electric Blue,” “Pinktricity,” or “Snozzberry”? Nerds, like any of the more synthetic candies out there, aren’t so much a product of nature than an expression of culture. Similar to plastic or concrete, these candies are projections of our desires. We mold little sugary gods in our own image and smack on them.

And these candies reveal that we savor not only sugar, but also silliness, a fact the Dutch artists Lernert & Sander make clear in their performance piece, “Color Correction.” The two artists took a kilogram of Discodip and spent nine hours separating the tiny dip-bits into piles of discrete disco colors.

Their piece raises interesting questions about our need for order, the purpose of work, and the use of pixels to create digital color. Most importantly, it defamiliarizes the way in which we see the Discodips and Nerds of the candy world. That is, by bringing such a systematic approach to such a silly food, Lernert & Sander alert us to the design strategies that define candy and synthetic products more generally.

Watching them painstakingly dismantle the visual "fun" of the Discodip, we’re asked to see what we’ve asked candy to become for us and what we want from it. The core appeal of candy may be hardwired—our brains seek sugar—but the shapes that candy now takes tell us less about our nature than, in the largest sense, our taste.


Eric, thanks for an interesting post that asks us to think about the design strategies for candy and synthetic foods. It immediately made me think of the colorful ketchups Heinz tried to sell a while back. I don't really want green or blue ketchup, but I'm perfectly happy to accept green, blue, purple, and other colors in candies. I wonder why one bothers me and another doesn't? What do the design strategies for candies, especially ones that don't purport to be all natural like candy, reflect about us/our world/our desires? If we can argue that technologies are designed by people and therefore include the embedded values, desires, etc. of their designers within them, what do our technocolor candies say about us? Why does a candy manufacturer like Nestle/Willy Wonka go to great lengths to create fruit shapes that reflect real fruits for their fake-fruit tasting Runts candy--do we demand realism from our candies? Fun things to think about here!

Thank you for the fascinating post, Eric. There is definitely some compulsive pleasure in watching the process of "dismantling the silliness." Speaking of our need for order, I am reminded of "the sugar series" - photos of color-coordinated candy by Emily Blincoe (http://www.foodiggity.com/photos-of-candy-meticulously-arranged-by-color/). Arranging candy according to color here creates visual pleasure - visual consumption that, like gustatory consumption, essentially functions as appropriation of the world, breaking it apart into components. Stephanie, you are raising a great point about use of candy/ sweet substances in creating representations of just about anything - without consumers being repulsed by the often unnatural color or the represented image itself. Thinking about figure cakes, or (very realistically executed) gummy worms, for example. Candy seems to have strong potential for reassigned meaning. As long as something is sweet, it can have entertainment/ comic value. I can not imagine gummy worms made of meat to be a popular playful food! Is there some intrinsic connection between sweetness and play, sweetness and comedy, sweetness and artistic self-expression?

Really interesting thoughts so far. In my post on Friday, I link to the Willy Wonka song, "Pure Imagination." (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r2pt2-F2j2g) Candy really satisfies that need for imagination and magic in all of us. It can take any form we think up, be any color, and taste however we can figure out using chemicals in a lab. Candy can be innovative or comforting, unusual or regular. We can align our identities and personalities with the candy we eat. I've always found it funny when friends have a preference for a color of Starburst or a Skittle when I can't tell much of a difference and like them all. We've taken these stances on something so artificial to connect to very real parts of our being. Growing up, I feel like there was always at least one person who sorted their candy by color at the lunch table. Their imagination took them from chaos to order. I wonder where this dismantling of fun starts. Is it an intrinsic desire to organize or is it a learned habit from friends or family members who also sort their candy? Lots of thought-provoking tidbits in one little post. Thanks for this! - Sammi

Thanks so much for these thoughtful responses to my post. I find myself musing on everything from candy and realistic representation to candy and color theory to my favorite flavor of Starburst. What strikes me foremost from our conversation is how illuminating it is to view candy as a medium, one that allows surprising forms of expression not only from those manufactures who design it, but also those of us who eat it. That's to say that, as consumers, we don't always express ourselves with our candy the way manufactures imagine we might, and yet we still find that our behaviors, practices, and choices around candy reveal something about who we are. My great-grandfather, who died in 1984 at the age of 98, loved Circus Peanuts. This was one of the few character notes about him I knew. At six, I also knew these were anything but real peanuts and, as I said it back then to my mother, "old-people" candy.

Thanks to Eric for posting this insightful piece and to everyone for the rich discussion so far! In addition to considering the varied, and often contradictory, roles that candy plays within our society and culture, it also makes me wonder about the ways in which we conflate work and play within our contemporary lives. Within the video there are both the dichotomies of chaos versus order and work versus play. However, the blurring of these two aspects often begins within childhood and, for some people, extends well into our adulthood. That is to say, there always seem to be those children who invent and/or impose their own rules within a game or play, regardless of whether the other children playing felt they were needed. In this same way, to what extent do we as adults try to imbue our working lives with play? Or, in what ways are play and/or candy utilized within the workplace to make our work seem less like work and more like play?

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