A selfie display from Stuffed Puffs’ exhibition space Credit: Leor Galil

There’s an inflatable red M&M outside McCormick Place Convention Center. It often hangs out by the entrance I need to find whenever I come to the sprawling complex, which is almost never. Unless it’s the Sweets & Snacks Expo. The blown-up, pillow-like version of that smart-mouthed mascot stood about 20 feet above the tallest person gathered by gate 40 outside McCormick Place’s West Building when I first arrived to wade into the sugary and salty smorgasbord at the end of May. I noticed a few smokers scattered around the oversized feet of my trusty candy friend.

You’ll definitely need to take breaks if you attend this candy convention, cigs notwithstanding. Sweets & Snacks showcases more than 700 exhibitors specializing in chocolate bars, bubblegum, licorice, jerky, pretzels, ice cream, peanuts, cashews, pistachios, snack cakes designed for superhero fans, fruit snacks that come in tiny shapes that look like the actual foodstuffs they’re manufactured to resemble, fruit snacks that are a single flat 40-inch strip of candy liberally dusted in sour sugar and rolled up in the shape of a disk, chips that mimic the taste of foods that do not come in chip form (prawn cocktail), and gummies molded to resemble savory dishes you’d never want to be rendered into gummies (sushi, tacos, hamburgers). 

The red M&M appears nonplussed to stand in the designated smoking area. Credit: Leor Galil

This sugary sprawl takes up four and a half acres of McCormick Place. My first day at the convention, I spent about two hours zigzagging around; my phone’s pedometer told me I walked more than four miles in that time.  

The convention, which lasts four business days, is an industry event. So unless you buy chips and gum in bulk for a big chain of stores, or run a small snack company eager to make connections with the people who buy chips and gum in bulk, it can be tough to get in. The expo attracts about 16,000 professionals whose jobs qualify them for inclusion in the industry, which I don’t consider myself a part of in any meaningful way. After all, I spend most of my Reader time writing about local music.

On the other hand, I’m a journalist with a sweet tooth, which qualifies me to get into Sweets & Snacks—I think, anyway. Part of what I love about working in journalism is it gives me the opportunity to be in places I’d ordinarily never have any excuse to be in. I’m hard-pressed to think of another job that would allow me to pop into a studio session in the middle of the day for a sprawling conversation with a musician I’ve never met before. 

A candy convention is no different in that regard. I did draw some confusion from the Australian couple manning the table for the Scorched Peanut Bar (imagine a crunchy Payday enveloped in a sheath of chocolate) when I had more to tell them about Chicago house music than, uh, I don’t know, the inner workings of our local candy economy. 

I didn’t share with them the depths of my thirst for sweet stuff; how I’m part of a noncompetitive running club that plans outings around eating ice cream; how I’m the guy with the reputation for showing up to a party with the dumbest limited-edition novelty snack I could find on my way over, which could mean an Oreo variety that delights my friends or a jelly-bean special grotesque enough to make me a pariah; how my friend Sarah and I put together an art zine made up of photos of slices of pie, ice cream sundaes, and Pop Tarts we texted each other over the course of a handful of months; how I’m pretty sure about a quarter of my 16,000 Twitter followers only know me for the way I profess my affection for out-there foodstuffs and not because of my journalism work, which is the reason I’m on Twitter in the first place.

As a kid I had eyes bigger than my stomach. I still recall the summer day my mom brought a batch of homemade blondies to a poolside picnic to share, though I’m not sure anyone else devoured as many as I did—at least I don’t remember anyone else feeling sick from eating as many as I did. I’ve tempered this desire as I’ve aged. Still, the Sweets & Snacks Expo is my danger zone. I’ve had trouble pinpointing how much candy the average American consumes annually. A 2016 report from the U.S. Census Bureau says the number is close to 22 pounds; meanwhile, this year Tuscon.com, CityBeat, and Yahoo! News all republished the same Conversation story written by Mississippi State University assistant professor of nutrition Rahel Mathews that says Americans eat about eight pounds a year. All I know is that after two visits to this year’s Sweets & Snacks Expo, I brought home 22.4 pounds of candy and snacks.

The National Confectioners Association debuted the All Candy Expo at Navy Pier in June 1997. The Tribune reported that more than 300 exhibitors were on hand the following year. When the Expo moved to McCormick Place’s newly opened West Building in 2007, the number of exhibitors ran close to 500, and it expanded its focus to feature snack companies for the first time. Thus the name change to the Sweets & Snacks Expo in 2010. The convention had been absent in Chicago the past couple years—the NCA opted to try the first pandemic-era Sweets & Snacks Expo in Indianapolis last year. The return to Chicago also coincided with a milestone: the convention’s 25th anniversary.

I began attending this convention 12 years ago, and the general layout hasn’t changed much since. All the exhibitors fit into two halls. The 100,000-square-foot Skyline Ballroom often hosts a lot of the novel and newer entries to the world of snacks, and at least six times as many exhibitors flood the West Hall, a warehouse-sized space with a corporate-antiseptic feel that sits just across the hall from the ballroom. I’ve gone to Sweets & Snacks enough times for me to feel like I know the map. I am almost certain that Alabama Christian sweets company Scripture Candy always occupies the same booth by one of the West Hall entrances, for example—because their hard candies come wrapped in biblical verses derived from the King James Version, I never felt like engaging with their treats would be comfortable or kosher for me. It wouldn’t surprise me if all my candy convention recollections have begun to play tricks on me by congealing into a single memory loop of me walking down aisles of treats in the cavernous convention hall. 

Stuffed Puffs’ mascot took up more room than many of the smaller businesses at the convention, and they gave away single-servings of their dense marshmallows. Credit: Leor Galil

The joy of Sweets & Snacks is getting the chance to try dozens of sweet items I otherwise don’t come across in all my candy hunting. That also presents a challenge; I find I must constantly gauge what free samples are worth picking up and carrying while scurrying around the convention. Attendees can’t bring outside bags. Convention organizers provide everyone with a single bag large enough to contain more than ten pounds of foodstuffs. The bags are a gift and a burden. The bag becomes heavier and more cumbersome the more treats you pick up—I noticed the handles of my bag dig into my fingers towards the end of my first journey through the convention.

I’ve avoided almost any high-risk scenario since the pandemic began, save routine trips to the grocery store. Before this year’s Sweets & Snacks, I hadn’t flown on a plane or attended an indoor concert since late March 2020, though I’ve since reintroduced myself to the joys of domestic flights. The allure of all that candy brought me to a place where I felt comfortable enough to try attending a large-scale indoor event. I elected to keep my mask on the entire time, which is not an easy task at an event centered around food. So I didn’t get to try some out-there items only available on site—I’ll just have to daydream about Carrot Bacon’s vegan jerky till I decide to pony up for a bag. But I did bring home a haul.

What would you do with 22.4 pounds of candy and snacks? I couldn’t very well eat it all myself, nor did I really want to attempt to eat my way through this collection. But I did want to get a better sense of what I brought home. So for several days, I cataloged everything in a Google spreadsheet. In total, I managed to get 266 items. 

The line items don’t quite capture the size, weight, and dimension of what I brought into my apartment; how could they, when a single sample of Wiley Wallaby watermelon-flavored gourmet licorice takes up one line, and a collection of flower-shaped gummies that Raindrops packaged in the form of a bouquet takes up another line? After I documented each item, I’d carefully place it into one of three organizing containers—two 19-quart boxes, one 12-quart bin—or one of two tote bags. In the weeks following the convention, I’d grab whatever struck my fancy, which was hard since almost everything qualified. 

A close-up of the two-day take from Sweets & Snacks Credit: Leor Galil

And I’d make sure to update my spreadsheet with notes of everything I tasted, for the sake of consistency. Big Bite’s s’mores filled marshmallow was a mouthful; the chocolate hunk in the center gave my mouth a bit of a workout. Burts Prawn Cocktail chips had a strong salt and vinegar flavor with a hint of a shrimp aftertaste. Goetze’s Caramel Cream with Oreo barely resembled the taste of my favorite sandwich cookie. Joffer Beverage Company’s Jelly Belly French Vanilla sparkling water tasted just like a vanilla jelly bean, which I found to be a problem. I did this, too, because as I’d consume more treats during the work day—Legendary Foods’ thicc strawberry Tasty Pastry, Go Raw’s messy Spicy Fiesta Snacking Seeds, Cookie United’s perfectly moist Black Panther Cake Bites, Snack House’s unsettlingly sweet Keto Cereal Fruit Puffs—I wanted to try and hold onto the tastes a little longer.

The best time to go to the Sweets & Snacks Expo is the afternoon of the fourth and final day. All the exhibitors off-load the bulk of what’s left of their sample stock, so anything that isn’t taped down to a display or behind glass is up for grabs. After daydreaming about Warheads soda after my first trip to McCormick Place, I finally retrieved a can of blue raspberry during the convention’s twilight hours. The early afternoon felt a little late. 

Plenty of displays no longer bore any sign that a snack had ever been present, or were picked over enough to make me second-guess taking what was left. It reminded me of an eleventh-hour supply trip to a grocery store just before a hurricane passes through town. I became more aware of the building’s skeleton and how its physical design functions as a large-scale Etch A Sketch for a rotating cast of associations when I wasn’t distracted by handfuls of candy mascots and the scent of sugar that seeped into my mask. On desolate stretches of the convention floor, I half expected an empty bag of Lay’s Layers Sour Cream & Onion chips to pass me like a tumbleweed.

Still, I emerged from that second trip with 12.6 pounds of treats. I knew I’d give away most of the stash to friends. I had to—I told my doctor I’d share the sweets with friends during my annual physical right beforehand.

In the proceeding weeks, I got rid of the treats pound by pound. When a couple friends had dinner in my backyard, I made sure to run into my apartment and throw a hodgepodge of sweets in a tote bag as a parting gift; they brought over two bottles of unearthly looking Mountain Dew Flamin’ Hot, so this was the least I could do. I often share sweets with my Gossip Wolf cowriter, J.R. Nelson, so I packaged up a hefty chunk of candy and brought it to him at Myopic Books to share with the whole crew. I didn’t always succeed at sharing, though. Memorial Day weekend I went camping on Rock Island, Wisconsin, and I forgot to bring any souvenir from the candy convention. Fortunately, my buddy Matt came through with some choice wacky snacks, and despite having just overindulged at a convention dedicated to things I should eat in moderation, I managed to devour an embarrassing number of Old Bay flavored Goldfish. 

When I tell people about the candy convention, I’m bound to hear one question: What was your favorite candy? I’ve yet to come up with any answer. But it’s made me think a lot about what candy I do love, the kind I don’t feel the impulse to log in a spreadsheet because it’s already lodged in my head. Like Good & Plenty, even though those chewy licorice morsels wrapped in white and Pepto-pink shells were never my go-to choice.

My parents wisely didn’t keep candy or many other sweets around the house when I grew up, but I’d get my fill on frequent trips to see my maternal grandparents; we all lived in suburban D.C., so my grandparents were a crucial part of my upbringing. My grandma’s got an intense sweet tooth of her own, and always likes to indulge her loved ones with their favorite treats. She’d often keep a carton of French Silk ice cream for my dad, though my mom tended to conspicuously scoop some for herself too.

After my grandpa died in 2005, my grandma downsized and moved into an apartment. She set up her two-bedroom in a way that reminded me of the place I had so many great childhood memories, and sweets: her matching chair and ottoman patterned with zigzagging brown, orange, red, and white lines; a painting of a guitarist holding an acoustic six-stringer aloft, their head turned away from the viewer in such a way I had trouble deciphering the image for much of my childhood; a wallet-sized photo of my grandpa, squinting with a thin smile, that my grandma kept near the kitchen sink. She kept a glass bowl filled with Good & Plenty on a wooden side table, nestled between an off-white sofa and a wooden chair partially upholstered in mahogany red. Whenever I’d visit, we’d sit with the candy bowl between us, and I’d peck at the Good & Plenty at her encouragement. I thought of that candy as I made my way to the convention, and called my grandma just to say hello. 

The Food Issue