Why You Should Get on Board with ‘Treat Culture’ Travel

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Editor's Note:

Jami Curl is the founder of QUIN – a small batch, handmade candy company headquartered in Portland, OR. She was recently named one of Fast Company’s 100 most creative people in food, and Bon Appteit dubbed her “the new Willy Wonka.” Jami’s work has also been featured in Food + Wine, Gourmet, Good Housekeeping, Real Simple, Martha Stewart, Martha Stewart Weddings, Sunset, O Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and many more.

Travel and food are two things that are, for me, inseparable. Any trip, short or long, requires snacks (both in transit and once I arrive). I have a friend who insists upon stowing a Whatchamacallit bar in her carry-on for air travel. Another friend would never dream of a car trip without a tub of red licorice. Then there’s my own mother, who would stock the backseat with a treasure trove of sweet treats for the many road trips of my youth. If you tell me we’re going someplace, the first thing I think is What treats can I bring to eat? And once I reach my destination? Well, let’s just say I consider grocery stores, markets, and specialty shops to be tourist attractions.

In my experience, the quickest way to get to the heart of a new locale is to check out the sweets. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner – sure you can learn a lot there. But I’m more interested in what I call the “treat culture” of a new location. Because I firmly believe it’s how people treat themselves that says the most about them. Candy, frozen treats, baked goods, fried sugary stuff, tiny cakes, chocolate bars – in every town I visit I head straight to the bakery or candy aisle to research how the locals are doing themselves right.

My grandparents, George and Dot, visited England in the 1960s and when they returned home to their small Ohio town they were interviewed by the local paper. A copy of that article is one of my favorite possessions. The best bit of it is this: “George said he compliments the English for their superior chocolates and candies. This is the only thing, George and Dot stated, they brought back with them for relatives and close friends.” Treat culture, indeed.

It’s not a huge stretch then to realize that my most vibrant food-related travel memory comes from a time that I was also in England. I was studying theater in London, and from the moment I landed I couldn’t believe my luck: a vending machine filled with only Cadbury chocolates was the first thing I saw when emerging from the jetway. Grandpa George was right – England is a place with a superior treat culture.

It only got better. Stepping into the shop around the corner from my London apartment was like a dream. New and exotic sweets filled the candy aisle, with crazy names and combinations I’d never seen before. Lots of fruity things, chocolate things, wine gums, allsorts, jelly babies, gobstoppers, fizzy powder-filled flying saucers, a crazy amount of sweet to salty licorice, caramel in just about every form, toffees, floral-scented hard candy, twirly sweets on sticks, packets of bubbling sour stuff – the array was mindboggling.

In a pre-sugar frenzy, I grabbed a shopping basket, swiped my arm over entire shelves, and walked out of the shop with multiples of everything. Upon returning home, I dumped the contents of two shopping bags out onto a table, called in my roommates, and we submerged ourselves in treat culture.

What bubbled to the top of this experience for me was a candy bar featuring a thick brick of honeycomb enrobed in chocolate. Sure, I’d had honeycomb before – but this was different. This honeycomb was not a thick brick at all. It was light and crunchy, airy and seemingly filled with bubbles that shattered between my teeth. It tasted halfway between toffee and honey. The chocolate was toothsome enough to be a texture wholly separate from the honeycomb, yet was something I couldn’t imagine the honeycomb living without. The candy bar was called Crunchie, and to this day, whether it was the actual candy or the location in which I was eating it, I have not had a more superior experience in candy bar enjoyment.

In his wonderful book You May Also Like, Tom Vanderbilt says, “Liking is really about anticipation and memory. Even as you are looking forward to something, you are looking backward to the memory of the last time you enjoyed it.” And that’s exactly how I’ve felt about honeycomb since that London moment of biting into my first Crunchie bar.

In my job as a candy maker-upper, I’ve tried to capture that honeycomb moment in candy form. While re-creating the candy itself isn’t my goal, that moment is something in which I’ve invested my entire professional life. I like to think that food experiences are connected to deeply rooted and truly cherished memories. And that food can cause a sort of longing for the happiest moments of days gone by. That I might have the opportunity to create someone else’s version of my Crunchie bar moment is why I love my calling as much as I do. It’s also why I firmly believe that candy is actual magic.