Food blogger/stand-up comic Kate Hopkins used a road trip as a framing device for her first book, 99 Drams Of Whiskey: The Accidental Hedonist’s Quest For The Perfect Shot And The History Of The Drink. Sweet Tooth: The Bittersweet History Of Candy follows the same formula: bored with adult responsibility, Hopkins decides to investigate her adolescent-originated obsession with confections from an adult’s historical perspective, hoping to reawaken her oft-invoked “inner child.” Unfortunately, every aspect of her volume is half-baked, no pun intended.
There’s nothing wrong with Hopkins’ research, which investigates how sugary treats went from ancient medicine to modern corporate commodity. She has colorful anecdotes from primary sources to spare, as when analyzing a possibly apocryphal early-14th-century story about how King Louis X and Marguerite of Burgundy discarded substandard wedding-ceremony mints “to the common folk of the northern French town of Cambrai… When the candy was discovered to be of poor quality, the legend goes, they threw the candy right back.” Hopkins reasonably concludes that whether or not the story’s true, it’s a reasonable indicator that by that time, “candies were being developed to the point where quality could be discerned,” which represented a change to sugar’s once-elite status.
It’s easy to tell when Hopkins is bored with or rushing through her research, which is a great deal of the time. The prose is saddled with blogger tics, with frequent variants on “but I’m getting ahead of myself,” as if prose readers had to be enticed to click on links to keep reading. The road-trip aspect is barely significant, since the observations tend to be banal. (Breaking news: Italian drivers are reckless!) And the larger narrative, about Hopkins trying to reconcile adulthood with her unthinking adolescent love of sugary treats, is banal. Faux-casual first-person narration is hard to pull off, and Hopkins often seems to be straining to make potentially arcane history relatable, leading to sentences like “One of the people who found himself hanging out in Lisbon was one Christopher Columbus,” which implies the explorer woke up after a hard night of partying, surprised to find he’d been transported in his sleep to another city.
Nine pages later, Hopkins repeats the phrase: “By the late 1400s, Columbus found himself hanging out in the court of King João II of Portugal.” Sweet Tooth barely appears to have been edited, which doesn’t help the volume’s readability: At one point, “inner child” appears three times in half a page (“my inner child was struggling to be heard over the litany of responsibilities that I, as an adult, felt had to be addressed”). Hopkins’ credentials as a confection-lover aren’t in doubt, but it’s hard to extrapolate why this book exists: At one point, she declares that “candy should lead to… the ability to see the truth behind the most innocent of topics and make moral decisions based on that truth, regardless of the possible outcomes.” A few glancing pages on slavery vs. inner-childhood fulfillment don’t bear out this thesis: instead, this is a tedious recapitulation of candy’s many manifestations, padded with faux-casual asides.