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May 19th, 2014

Death of a U-No Bar

BY Christian Ford

You’d have to be a certain age to remember, but local food once included candy bars.  Instead of the anonymous phalanx of identical bars that you now find at every drug store, gas station and movie theater, there were more motley assortments including, depending on where you were, candy bars that only appeared in certain regions or states.

One of these was called the U-No Bar.  It was a West Coast candy, dating from the 1920s and invented in the kitchen of a leafy island suburb of Oakland called Alameda.  The kitchen was in the home of a man named George Cardinet, whose candy company soon grew enough to merit its own factory on the East Bay mainland.

The U-No — the derivation of its name lost to history —  was unusual.  For one thing, it was small, thinner and taller than what you’d expect, so when you got a U-No bar, you were choosing something more diminutive than all the other bars on the shelf.  That vague sense that this was something special, that there was a quantity/quality tradeoff going on here, was reinforced by a gleaming silver wrapper.  It was, if you squinted, a jewel among the others.

Once you peeled open that wrapper, what you found was a remarkably rectilinear bar, all square angles, similar in shape to those Neapolitan wafer sandwich cookies, but bigger and whose coat of gently rippled chocolate suggested a gentle breeze ruffling a pond.  Perhaps it was because of its shape, the stick-like quality of it, but there was always a temptation to break the thing in two, rather than just bite it.  I always did, because inside that skin of chocolate was the main attraction.

I think the U-No began as an attempt to create a chocolate truffle candy bar.  The whole notion of the chocolate truffle was relatively new in the 1920s, having been conceived in France only two decades before.  A classic French truffle took a ganache — cream and chocolate melted together to creature a luxuriously smooth kind of chocolate — and coated it in a slightly bitter cocoa powder.  It’s the contrast that makes a truffle sing, the dry, faintly astringent exterior meeting the melting sweetness of the center.

But this wasn’t the U-No.  It still had the contrast — a dark chocolate exterior vs a much lighter center — but something happened to that ganache in George Cardinet’s kitchen.  The reason you’d break a U-No Bar in two was to glimpse the inside.  It was a light chocolate color with an airy texture that ever so slightly suggested a kind of superfine cake and the reason you’d want to look at it was because of another contrast.  When you bit into it, you couldn’t quite connect the sight of that dry, vaguely flakey interior with the exquisitely emollient, not-too-sweet chocolate that your teeth and tongue met, resisting for a moment, before collapsing out of physical form and into a wave of flavor, so smooth it felt cold.  There was, in my experience, nothing else quite like it.

So there was a certain irony in the fact that the only place that the child version of myself could reliably find an U-No Bar was the one place where you couldn’t see the inside of it even if you broke it in two — the local movie theater.

Just like the U-No Bar itself, the local movie theater really was local. It looked to be one of those old neighborhood venues that were built in the 30s and 40s, with the big jutting marquee and the soaring neon prow wearing the name of the theater and the town, all one in the same.  When they built it, the theater would have unquestionably been the tallest thing in town, apart from a church-tower or two.

But by the time I encountered it, the glory days were long past.   It had settled into an amiable senescence as a third-run house, the kind of place where you could show up a couple minutes before showtime and still have time to visit the concession stand before settling into one of the mostly unoccupied seats in front of the single screen.  The movies were hit or miss, but the U-No Bar was always on the money.

Still, there’s a certain strangeness to the movie-theater concessions as a food experience.  After all, this is food that you buy so that you can eat it in darkness while (hopefully) distracted by something else.  There’s a quality to it, both expectational and ancillary, that suggests a kind of propitiatory sacrifice to curry the favor of the movie gods in hopes that the next two hours of your life won’t be wasted.

So there I was, that fateful day, following my routine to the letter and not doing so alone, because there was another U-No Bar aficionado with me, my mother.  As the first reel unspooled, I unthinkingly unwrapped the candy bar, broke it in two, and took a bite.  As soon as I did, the whole paradigm flopped and the movie is what receded into the background. Something had gone — horribly — wrong with my U-No bar.

Everything about it was perfect, except the taste.  In the place of that small wonder of textures and flavors and time, what I got was a kind of dank, slippery imitation, weirdly one note, except for the tenacious aftertaste which suggested you’d just eaten a spoonful of chocolate flavored grease.  It was so bad, that I initially blamed it on myself.  Perhaps I’d eaten something that clashed.  But the second bite was as bad as the first and then there was a whisper in my ear:  “Does your U-No Bar taste strange…?”

The inquest began after the credits in the lobby.  The concessionaire, after denying that anything untoward had occurred with the delivery, took one out of the case and had a bite himself.  But it was the first time he’d ever had one and he didn’t understand.

In hopes that it had simply been a manufacturing defect, we tried again at a showing  a couple weeks later, then a month.  But it never changed, it was 100% consistent.  This wasn’t variability, this was the new norm and so the U-No Bar became something to avoid, a zombie candy bar, wearing the shape of something once loved, but very different inside.

I never thought to look at the ingredients of the U-No Bar when it all went wrong, and even if I had, I doubt I would have understood what I was seeing.  But through the wonder of the internet and the inherent human tendency towards obsessiveness, it turns out that I can look at that label now, decades later.  It shows two salient things.  One, that the Cardinet Candy Company was itself a zombie, having been purchased by a large corporation, the Ralston-Purina Company.  And the other was that the very first ingredient was listed as “hydrogenated vegetable oil,” which would explain the aftertaste.

It’s a cliché, the family firm purchased by the soulless corporation which shaves a quarter-cent off the unit-cost of production and in so doing kills the very thing that inspired them to make the purchase in the first place.  But that’s not the point of this vignette.  The world is not really a lesser place for the devolution of the U-No Bar; for all I know I was saved from a cavity or two by the transformation of my treat into a chocolate covered bar of automotive lubricant.

No, the real story here is that the U-No Bar lives on, still purchasable, still sought out, still — it amazes me to see — treasured.  It’s no mark against those that love the zombie U-No.  They are simply doing what we all do, unconsciously confusing our original impressions of the world — whether it be a candy bar or an ocean — with the notion that what we are seeing is in its original state — the baseline, as scientists call it.  It’s the inescapable predicament of being a creature that lives in time, but doesn’t live long enough to reliably see that baseline move — move enough to reveal that it was never a baseline at all.

Like all of us, I’ve lived in a time of epochal baseline shifts, carbon in the sky, acid in the sea, heat in the icy poles.  I breathe different air and cross changed waters, but from my shifting perch atop time’s arrow, I cannot actually feel that the world I inhabit has changed.  Except, bizarrely and almost meaninglessly, for the U-No Bar.

I have a browser tab open, now, and in it there are a group of people discussing the U-No Bar, mostly in glowing terms.  Someone buys them a case at a time, another likes to freeze them, while someone else claims that this ruins the whole effect.  But there’s one person who is doubting, who has rediscovered the U-No Bar after a hiatus of decades and who now seems a little confused.  How, he wonders, could his younger self have held it in such high regard?

In the end, he concludes that it must have been better in his memory than it really was, that the piece of this puzzle that is unreliable and shifting is him, his experience, his knowledge.  I’m half tempted to post a reply that says, “I don’t think you got it wrong.  I think, well, that you know.”