DATE: Sunday, September 28, 1997            TAG: 9709280102



DATELINE: COLUMBIA                          LENGTH:   76 lines


It's as big around as your average-sized chocolate chip cookie or a small cat's head.

Crafted for 85 years by the Standard Candy Co. of Nashville, Tenn., from milk chocolate, peanuts, marshmallow and caramel, this confectionery delight is called a Goo Goo Cluster.

And it is, without doubt, the finest candy this side of heaven.

The Goo Goo Cluster has been much on my mind of late. A few weeks ago, I saw a huge display of Goo Goos at the Ben Franklin store, a place in Columbia run by Bill White's family for more than six decades.

Goo Goo Clusters were on one side of the aisle, Moon Pies on the other. Mr. White has his priorities in order.

For Southerners with a sweet tooth, this would be tantamount to seeing Billy Graham, Elvis and a Winston Cup race, all in the same weekend.

And last week, a friend, aware of my fondness for Goo Goos, brought a box of a half-dozen. I shared them with my colleagues, who were unwashed in the marvels of the cluster candy.

``This is sinful,'' one said.

``Oh my gosh,'' said another, with unbridled joy.

Oddly, another left his Goo Goo Cluster untouched. My guess was he was fearful that the candy would send him into such a rapture, that he would be unable to operate heavy machinery after taking one bite. Then he told me he was letting it age like a vintage wine. ``After I open it,'' he said, ``I'll let it breathe for a while.''

The good folks at Standard Candy were kind enough to send some information about the Goo Goo, so named because ``It's so good, people will ask for it from birth.''

A few tidbits:

Since the 1960s, Goo Goo Clusters have sponsored the Grand Ole Opry. In 1990, on my only pilgrimage to country music's most hallowed shrine, the highlights of the trip were getting backstage to meet Roy Acuff, hearing John Conlee sing ``Rose Colored Glasses'' and being photographed next to a giant wooden replica of the Goo Goo Cluster.

41.8 percent of all American households have purchased chocolate cluster candy over the past six months. Of those, 21.6 percent of all cluster consumers have bought Goo Goos. Each year, 32 million Goo Goo Clusters are sold, mostly in the U.S. and Canada. But even folks in France have tasted Goo Goos, probably in the south of France. Way south, where they say, ``Bonjour, y'all.''

By the way, it is truly a great country that has chocolate cluster candy counters in its work force. If there is such a thing as a next life, I've got dibs on that job.

Thirty-eight percent of Goo Goo consumers live in the Southeast. Fifty-two percent of them are women. And all Americans, regardless of race, like the round mounds of astounding goodness.

A single Goo Goo Cluster packs 450 calories. I like anything that would make exercise guru Richard Simmons burst into tears.

I was shocked to learn that 38 percent of all Goo Goo customers have household incomes of $40,000 or more. But no matter the income, there is a standard rule of etiquette regarding desserts in some parts of the South. Moon Pies are for every day. Goo Goos are for when company comes on Sunday, and they're served with a knife, fork and the family linen.

The company has no data on famous fans of its candy. But my guess is, the marvel of Goo Goo Clusters may be the only thing on which Bill Clinton and Jesse Helms could agree.

It may seem a bit over the top to get all worked up over a simple candy. But Goo Goos are important in the pantheon of foods born below the Mason-Dixon line.

Pepsi and Coca-Cola (pronounced Co-Cola) were invented in New Bern and Atlanta, respectively. I have friends who teach at Chowan College who yearn for the taste of Alabama-made Golden Flake Potato Chips. And one pal raves about South Carolina-produced Blenheim Ginger Ale. And, lest we forget, Cheerwine, manufactured in Salisbury, N.C.

Yes, it's all junk food. And yes, all of it could ``ruin your supper,'' as Grandma used to say.

But on hard days, when the weather's lousy and there's no Braves baseball or college football, the taste of Goo Goo Clusters can bring a sweet smile to the world.

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