It all started during our recent Takeout Draft of pumpkin spice-flavored items. The final round of the draft was intended for things that were unusual or imaginary or not food, and Aimee chose pumpkin spice cotton candy, which she had never tried but which she had recently discovered existed in West Des Moines, Iowa. The company, Chocolate Storybook, makes lots of other flavors, too, ranging from Bacon to Pickle to more palatable-sounding flavors like Watermelon and Caramel Apple (read about how the flavors are developed in our interview with Chocolate Storybook president Meg Shearer). Naturally we had to try them. It was hard to narrow our choices down to nine, or three for each of us; we decided to try the most unusual-sounding, plus Pumpkin Spice because it was the reason we discovered the shop in the first place. Tasting notes can be found below. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.
The most exciting thing about the way these cotton candies are packaged is that pulling away the plastic on top lets you take a big vacuum-sealed sniff of all that concentrated flavoring. Cracking into the Beer variety, the first whiff was so sweet as to almost smell like maple syrup. But after a moment, it mellows out and really does smell a bit like a sweet malty Pilsner, which certainly helps distract you from the fact that this stuff is the exact color of insulation. You need to take a big pinch of the cotton candy to get even a hint of beer flavor, but that’s its best attribute: it’s a generically sweet, but not too sweet, tub of fluff with a slight hit of brown sugar on the back end. It’s the least cloying cotton candy I’ve ever had, and thank god for that, because I’m about to crack open the Pickle tub. —Marnie Shure
The sweet-and-savory scent that smacks your nose as you crack this one open smells sort of like an extra-salty batch of fresh kettle corn. If you sniff it with your eyes open, though, you’re afforded full view of its avocado-green color and the power of suggestion converts that image of kettle corn to a batch of puckery pickles. I am hesitant. The only thing that spurs me to dive in is the notion that I’ll be able to file this under the growing list of weird things I’ve eaten that could make for a charming little anecdote at parties (if we ever have parties again).
So, first bite: I actually whimpered as it hit my tongue. I groaned like a little kid being forced to finish the canned green beans on their plate. In a panic, I swallowed it too fast to get a sense of all its tasting notes, because the ones that shone through were so, so odious. So, another bite: far worse. You never get a hit of salt, which is part of what makes real pickles so enticing. Instead, you get the sour vegetal taste of aging cucumbers, combined with, of course, syrupy sweetness. Luckily, the latter is all that remains in the aftertaste, but for the two seconds it takes to pass this stuff pack to your throat, your body sends the same signals it fires in your brain when you’ve ingested literal poison. (I don’t feel bad about hating this product, though; Pickle is the shop’s fifth highest seller!) —Marnie Shure
Movie theater popcorn butter flavoring is already a much more artificial foodstuff than both pickles and beer, so I reasoned that this might be the most uncanny of my three cotton candy flavors. The smell also suggested this; it had that same salty note as the Pickle flavor, but here it was a bit more burnt and bitter, much like the kernels scraped up from the bottom of the popper for an overpriced bag of AMC popcorn. And, yep, a bite (or tuft?) of this cotton candy confirms that it’ll satisfy anyone who actually enjoys the Buttered Popcorn Jelly Belly or Dum-Dum flavors. Even I, a person who despises those things, was left unhorrified by this! The savory edge isn’t salty; it’s more just roasty and plain, like crackers or undressed popcorn. And it hits after the sugar rather than before, so you get to feel like you’re mostly just eating cotton candy’s regular old non-gourmet equivalent. The trick seems to be aerating the cotton candy in your mouth and not letting it dissolve on your tongue all at once, or else the flavors get too densely packed around your taste buds. Swallow it quickly, and you’ll experience every flavor at its intended concentration. —Marnie Shure
My mom professes to be a huge cotton candy fiend. I never knew this about her, but the nice thing about parent-child relationships is how they grow and develop over time. So when she heard we were doing this tasting, she demanded that she get to participate, too. I brought my three tubs over to her house for Yom Kippur, and they sat on her dining room table taunting us during our long, hard day of repenting and watching YouTube services in our pajamas.
The first flavor we tried was Pizza. This was an entirely random selection; she grabbed the container without bothering to look at the label. We poked the seal open with the business end of a knitting needle. It smelled like oregano. We each took a generous pinch, because it was cotton candy. It tasted like oregano, too, with a little bit of pepper and maybe something salty like cheese before it all faded away into sugary sweetness. Out of professional obligation, I finished my pinch and tried very hard to be fair, but I couldn’t help making a face. My mom put the rest of her clump down on the table beside her. “This is disgusting,” she said. —Aimee Levitt
Yes, yes, I know it was Yom Kippur, but services were over and we do not keep kosher. My mom always said it was too much work, and it would all fall on her, which was probably true. Not that this was ever a danger; my dad’s family kept kosher until he was 12, and he never, ever forgot his first taste of bacon. Visits to the Old Country Smokehouse were a cherished family tradition.
So anyway, Bacon cotton candy. It smelled smoky, like a pale imitation of real bacon, and the initial taste was like someone had poured a bottle of liquid smoke into the cotton candy machine. But later it faded to a taste of burned sugar, which I didn’t find altogether unpleasant. After a few more pinches of candy, it actually grew on me, and it would be my favorite of the three. My mom felt otherwise: “I can’t believe people actually buy this.” —Aimee Levitt
At last! The raison d’etre for this entire experiment! My mom was suspicious, which, she argued, she had every right to be after the first two flavors we tried. I suppose that’s fair. But this one offended her the least of the three. It didn’t really taste like pumpkin spice, by which I mean, I didn’t get any cinnamon or ginger or cloves. It just tasted sweet, like cotton candy without the extra tartness you sometimes get from Blue Raspberry or Sour Apple. My mom agreed. “I would never have guessed this was Pumpkin Spice,” she said. She actually finished her pinch (though it was significantly smaller than the one she’d grabbed of Pizza), but she declined the offer of more in favor of the packet of Reese’s Big Cups with Pretzels I’d brought as a filial offering and a palate cleanser. —Aimee Levitt
Years ago, after a trip through a McDonald’s drive-thru, I took a sip of the Coke I’d ordered and immediately spit it out across the dashboard. For a few seconds I believed that my Coke had been poisoned, and McDonald’s had used a coupon for BOGO McNuggets to lure me to my doom. I then realized that because I’d been keeping my eyes on the road like a responsible driver, I had not taken a sip of Coke, but rather my son’s root beer. And I love root beer! But when you’re expecting to taste something else, your body revolts and forces you to drive home with a sticky steering wheel.
Chocolate Storybook’s Root Beer cotton candy is exceptionally delicious. It’s soft and pillowy, with the texture of fiberglass insulation. (This is a compliment.) The only problem with the Root Beer cotton candy is that it’s pink, just like the regular stuff, so if you grab a bit without checking the label, your body might think it’s poison and will send you into a violent choking fit. This, of course, did not happen to me, because I was eating this cotton candy in a professional capacity. It did happen to my husband, though, and it was hilarious to watch. I would definitely buy this cotton candy again, both for the taste and the entertainment value. —Allison Robicelli
I’m surprised by everything this cotton candy has to offer. Upfront it has a flavor that is hard to describe—one that is not unpleasant, but not immediately identifiable as jalapeño. A few seconds later the heat kicks in, and hot damn does it burn in the best way possible. I almost always have low expectations for things that market themselves as “spicy,” because they’re either pathetically ineffective, or they’re so over-the-top spicy as if to prove a point, and they taste not of food, but of burning. This cotton candy has a ton of flavor and somehow manages to not be too sweet, which is remarkable for a product that’s essentially 100% sugar. I would purchase this and leave it out on the table in hopes my husband would end up repeating his root beer performance, because seriously, that shit was hilarious. —Allison Robicelli
I had what I believed to be the lowest possible expectations for this cotton candy, and yet by some miracle, it actually managed to be worse than I ever thought possible. It’s very hard for me to describe any of its notes, because to give you a detailed flavor profile would mean I need to eat more of this cotton candy, and I’m unwilling to do that. Instead, after one taste, I made my 12-year-old son eat it so I could steal his reactions, but he said nothing. He merely puckered his mouth, his eyes grew as wide as saucers, and he slowly began to shake his head back and forth in speechless disgust. He ran to spit it out in the garbage, following with shrieks of “I AM NEVER HELPING YOU WITH ANYTHING AGAIN, YOU MONSTER.” This is another good cotton candy to give to your husband if you’re bored. —Allison Robicelli