Our cultural affinity for eating crumbly effigies of supernatural holiday icons (the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, Jesus Christ) only seems weird and slightly unsavory until you consider that we're trying to absorb their mystical powers into ourselves, and then it makes perfect sense. Who wouldn't want to fly around in a sleigh, eating free cookies, and giving children presents? Who would choose not to gather up painted hardboiled eggs and hide them in candelabras? No one worth knowing, that's who.
Still, this totally sensible urge can present something of a challenge for the grocery shopper, since all the various well-known and reputable candymakers have wisely gotten into the act of crafting their own editions of these characters, along with many dozens of disreputable or outright anonymous candymakers looking to horn in on the (both literally and figuratively) sweet edible-holiday-incarnation action. This is a particularly pressing issue as Christmas approaches, and the "Seasonal" aisle at your supermarket fills up with row upon row of red-and-green holiday sweets, more than a couple of which are intended as representations of Santa Claus himself. How does one choose from among the many options?
The answer: One doesn't. One relies upon one's intrepid food columnist to do all of one's choosing.
I selected three edible Santa Claus varieties, encompassing a fairly broad cross-section of the many available choices. There's a marshmallow Santa, a white-chocolate Santa, and a milk-chocolate Santa. They don't look alike; they're flavored differently; and they're made by three different confectioners. What they have in common is that they're all little effigies of Santa Claus. That, and that they're goddamn terrifying.
Russell Stover Marshmallow Santa
Christ. Would you just look at this fucking thing. In my imagining there was some months-long team effort to develop the perfect chocolate-coated marshmallow Santa Claus at the (probably imaginary) Russell Stover laboratory—men in white lab coats, carefully dropping chemicals out of eyedroppers into beakers and test tubes, hanging their heads, pounding tabletops, and shouting, "Dammit!"; patting each other on the shoulder in solidarity, making sternly supportive faces, and saying, "Hang in there, Ken, we'll get it right, by God we're gonna get it right,"; back home, their wives throwing wine glasses and sobbing, "Your kids don't even recognize you anymore, Bob! This chocolate-coated marshmallow Santa Claus is tearing our family apart!"—culminating in the do-or-die presentation to Mr. Russell Stover IV himself (note: this person probably does not exist), the scientists whipping away the white cloth to reveal their creation in all its glory, and then ... silence. Perfect silence. On and on, for like 43 straight minutes, just this endless deadly crushing silence, longer than anyone could bear, the team members glancing at each other, flop sweat gushing—he has to say something now, right? This can't go on much longer, right? I don't know if I can take any more of this, I am gonna scream or vomit or run outta here, God just fucking say something, Stover, anything please—and then finally Mr. Stover, the great industrialist, turning without a word and walking out of the room, and the team leader who'd been so paternally encouraging throughout the development process hustling after him, looking over his shoulder at the junior chemist who'd carried the team and hissing, "You're fucking fired!" and nobody making eye contact for the next several hours while the poor sap boxed up his things and moved back home to North Dakota.
At least, that's how I picture it.
Look at that goddamn thing. But really look at it. We're all thinking the same awful, disgraceful thing right now, you and I and everybody else, and none of us wants to be the one to say what that thing is, but I'm gonna friggin' say it: That thing looks less like Santa Claus than it looks like Santa Claus's poop. If Santa Claus looked like that fucking thing, homeowners would spend Christmas Eve posted up in lawn chairs on their rooftops with shotguns in their laps. If Santa Claus looked like that thing, he would not deliver presents to children in their beds; he would ooze under their deadbolted doors and enfold them into his roiling mass like the goddamn Blob and their names would never again be spoken by the living.
And the thing is, you wouldn't hesitate to eat that heap if they just called it "Christmas Marshmallow Treat" or "Amoebic Sugar Mass": You wouldn't be invited by its name and packaging to try to identify ruined anthropomorphic features amid its rippling shapelessness and thereby horrify yourself. Why even bother with the whole Santa Claus pretense? My guess is that the Stover people printed the packaging before they'd made the confection itself, looked at what they had and what it would cost to ditch the whole undertaking, and then had this miserably cynical moment in which they considered the popularity of a fast-food taco served in a shell made of goddamn Doritos, pondered what this phenomenon has to say about whether there's still any value left to be wrung out of considerations such as good taste and sensibility and not creating foodstuffs that blindly probe the odd corners of man's most primitive fears at what's clearly the vestigial tail end of the great mistake that humanity has turned out to be, and just thought, "Fuck it."
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And for that, we can all be grateful, because it turns out that once you've finished reckoning with your own surprising, discomfiting willingness to consume something that looks like what the chocolate-coated marshmallow Santa looks like (poop it looks like poop), it's actually quite tasty in a humble, frank, shameless kind of way. It doesn't look like what it claims to depict, but it also doesn't taste like what it looks like (which, needless to say, is a tremendous relief), because it tastes like what it is, which is a cheap marshmallow cutlet sheathed in equally cheap chocolate-flavored wax, and in the end, those aren't such bad things to taste like.
But if you're like me, what you're wondering, here, is: Since it doesn't look like Santa Claus, does it at least taste like Santa Claus? Who can know? There are two possible answers. The first, of course, is, "No, because Santa Claus tastes kind of like venison." The second, much more provocatively, is, "Yes, because Santa Claus tastes like marshmallows and bland milk chocolate." (If you're thinking that there's a third answer, which is, "No, because Santa Claus does not exist," I'm not even going to dignify that stupidity with a response.)
This is perhaps beside the point. The chocolate-coated marshmallow Santa is tasty, and you can feel OK about eating it as long as you're not too hung up on the idea that maybe Santa Claus really does look like that and is some kind of malevolent shapeshifting space alien. But, I mean, don't totally rule out that possibility, either. Lots of children disappear around Christmastime (maybe). Probably you ought to keep up your guard.
Hershey's Cookies 'n' Creme Santa
We all have a pretty general idea of what Santa Claus is supposed to look like, right? Big, rotund, jovial fellow, crinkly smiling eyes, ruddy cheeks, red nose? Sack of toys slung over his shoulder, maybe an old-timey bottle of Coca-Cola? Yes? Does anybody remember his body being a mass of writhing snakes? What the hell is going on here?
I guess I should say upfront that I don't know much about making candy. I mean, I know that it is made (which is to say, it does not grow on bushes), and I know that this happens at some point prior to my eating it, and I guess I've always assumed that was really all I needed to know. So it's possible that I'm way off-base here, but it seems to me that if one can make a friggin' candy bar shaped like a Keebler elf whose body is a disgusting tangle of wriggling serpents, if constructing this thing is not too challenging for the various artists and confectioners and machines involved in the candymaking process, then it ought to be possible to also make a candy bar that looks like a happy, heavyset old man with a beard. I don't know. Doesn't seem unreasonable to me.
And yet, here we are. It's possible this thing is more upsetting than the marshmallow one. At least when you open your first chocolate-coated marshmallow Santa, there's a reflexive "Ha!" at just how completely preposterous it is. This one, I dunno, this one's more sinister. This one looks like some Lovecraftian horror wearing a bad disguise—doot de doot de doo, pay me no mind, I'm just a happy elf with tentacles dangling out of my neck, can I come inside and slurp desperately at a puddle of honey?—and for as classically Christmasy as that image is, it's not all that appetizing. Even if I didn't quite expect the Cookies 'n' Creme Santa to go skittering across my kitchen table and vanish into an air-conditioning vent, I kept a tennis racket handy anyway.
How you'll feel about the taste of the Cookies 'n' Creme Santa really depends on how you feel about white chocolate, and also whether you can get past your incredulity at the fact that someone stuck a backward fucking apostrophe in front of the "n" and nobody else at Hershey thought to fire a rocket launcher at him or her. Personally, I think white chocolate tastes nauseatingly like sweetened vegetable oil and am correct about that, but if you suck and enjoy the stuff, it's conceivable you might also enjoy the crunchy cookie bits in this upsetting white-chocolate Christmas Gorgon.
Needless to say, it does not taste like Santa.
Manic Mystery Santa
If our selection of candy Santas, viewed in this sequence, were meant to represent stages along an evil amorphous space monster's transformation into an imitation of Santa Claus for the purpose of infiltrating our homes and laying its eggs in our brains, then we have now reached the end of the process, and this mindless alien eating machine is now putting on a frantic senseless pantomime of holiday cheer betrayed chillingly by its wild and terrifying eyes.
The Manic Mystery Santa, unlike its two counterparts above, does not bear the label of any well-known candy manufacturer, nor indeed any candy manufacturer at all. It can be found standing along the shelves in the seasonal aisle of your local supermarket, perhaps, or maybe it could only be found standing along the shelves in my local supermarket, and maybe it could only be found there when I was walking by, because maybe it was targeting my family. The most pleasant and reassuringly Christmasy thing about the Manic Mystery Santa is that, when I peeled open the foil wrapping to reveal the hollow milk-chocolate Santa inside, the hollow milk-chocolate Santa immediately, and without any obvious prompt, crumbled into many pieces, instead of brandishing a knife at my kids. (Then again, this is only reassuring if crumbling was not its manner of releasing an invisible scentless vapor of alien spores into my lungs.)
Of the three candy Santa Clauses, the Manic Mystery Santa is far and away the most convincing effigy of old Saint Nick, although that's not saying much, and anyway I'm puzzled by his legs: Is he wearing shorts? Has Santa Claus always worn shorts? Is he wearing gray knee socks under his shorts, or are his legs that color because he wears shorts all the time at the North Pole, where it is extremely cold?
Alas, the barcode label of this hollow milk-chocolate Santa lacked any charming printed origin story, so I fear we'll never know the answer to these questions. To be honest, I can't get too worked up about it: The overwhelming likelihood is that the prepubescent Kyrgyz factory workers responsible for this thing's creation have never seen Santa Claus, or sunlight, and I think we can all cut them some slack. Do they know it's Christmastime at all?
Nevertheless, the Manic Mystery Santa does indeed look more than passingly like Santa Claus himself, which probably renders the question of whether it tastes like Santa less vitally important. This is good, because of the three candy Santas, the Manic Mystery Santa is far and away the least pleasant to eat, tasting as it does like milk chocolate so lacking in both milk and chocolate that it can only be understood as a spiteful mockery of those things. What it tastes like is: sugar. Sugar and oil. Sugar and oil and despair.
And now, armed with such knowledge as I have imparted to you this day, you must venture out into the winter in search of your own nominally Santa-shaped confections. Which should you choose? The only one of these three that can pass for a small Santa Claus effigy is the Manic Mystery Santa, which may or may not have been a fever dream I had. The only one that can pass for a pleasingly tasty treat is the marshmallow Rorschach blot. My advice is to prioritize flavor (we are talking about food, after all), go for the marshmallow blob, and enjoy yourself.
However, I'd also like to advise that you take all necessary precautions as you do.
Albert Burneko is an eating enthusiast and father of two. His work can be found destroying everything of value in his crumbling home. Peevishly correct his foolishness at firstname.lastname@example.org. Top image by Jim Cooke.