Morning Coffee: Candy Hearts and Chocolate

Valentine 2Etymologists trace the word “chocolate” back to the Aztec word “xocoatl,” a bitter drink brewed from cacao beans. The Latin name for the cacao tree, Theobroma cacao, means “food of the gods.”

Cacao beans have always been valued, often used as currency in trade.  A 16th century Aztec document reports one bean could be traded for a tamale, 100 beans could purchase a good turkey hen. The Aztecs and Mayans believed cacao beans to have magical, even divine, properties. They used them in their most sacred rituals of birth, marriage, and death. For example, Aztec sacrifice victims who were too depressed or anxious to participate in their pre-sacrifice festivities were given chocolate tinged with the blood of previous sacrifices in order to cheer them up. (I wonder how that worked out!)

It was the Europeans’ appearance in America that precipitated the addition of sugar to the drink. Legend has it that Aztec king Montezuma, mistaking Hernando Cortez for a reincarnated god, welcomed the Spanish explorer with a banquet including the sacred chocolate drink. One of the foreign invaders described it as “a bitter drink for pigs”, but it wasn’t long before they discovered that when mixed with honey or sugar the drink became quite enjoyable. By the 17th century the popularity of chocolate had spread from Spain to the rest of Europe. It was a fashionable drink available only to the rich and was believed to have nutritious, as well as medicinal and even aphrodisiac, properties. It is rumored that Casanova was particularly fond of chocolate. It wouldn’t be until the steam engine made mass production possible in the late 1700s that the drink became available to everyone.

In 1828, a Dutch chemist devised a way to make powdered chocolate. His product became known as “Dutch cocoa” and it led the way to the creation of the solid chocolate candy we are familiar with today.  By 1868, Cadbury was selling little boxes of chocolates in England. Milk chocolate arrived on the market a few years later, thanks to another familiar company…Nestle.

Chocolate was so highly valued in America it was included in soldiers’ rations, and sometimes used in lieu of wages, during the Revolutionary War. It is now a more than $4 billion a year industry in the United States and the average American eats at least a half pound each month. Today’s chocolate comes in a wide variety of treats that often include more sugar and additives than actual cacao, and are made from the hardiest, but least flavorful beans. There is a chocolate revolution going on, though, with an ever-growing interest in high quality, hand-made chocolates and sustainable, effective cacao farming and harvesting methods. Consumers are willing to pay a little more for premium chocolate, but will never lose their taste for the less expensive Nestle or Hershey candy bars so tantalizingly displayed in every store checkout line.

As for the conversation candy hearts, they are only available for that brief window of time between New Year’s and Valentine’s Day. But don’t let that fool you; they are in high demand and they aren’t going away anytime soon. This year we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the popular candy.

They got their start around the time of the Civil War. Daniel Chase, brother of the New England Confectionery Company (NECCO) founder, began printing messages on the wafer candies in the 1860s. They were popular at weddings, with such sayings as “Married in satin, love will not be lasting” and “Married in white, you have chosen right.” The candy hearts we recognize today began in 1902 and the sayings are updated every year.

I’ll leave you with a few interesting facts about candy hearts: NECCO makes more than 8 billion candy hearts every year. Daily production starts the end of February and goes through mid-January, weighing in at around 100,000 pounds of candy. The entire amount will sell out in 6 weeks! They are the best-selling Valentine’s Day candy…that beats even chocolate. In 2010, for the first time in 145 years, NECCO discarded all of the old sayings and replaced them with an entirely new line of expressions chosen by the public. Some of the most popular new sayings include “Tweet Me,” “Text Me,” “You Rock,” “Love Bug,” “Soul Mate,” and “Me + You.” You can still place a custom order for the old sayings, but you will have to buy a full production run…

That’s 1.7 million candy hearts! Sweet tooth, anyone?

Morning Coffee: Harper Lee, 1926-2016



The book to read is not one that thinks for you, but one that makes you think.

“To Kill A Mockingbird”


Harper Lee, author and Pulitzer Prize winner, has died. Like so many others, I was saddened by the announcement, not surprised because she was 89 years old and in failing health, but sad at the idea of a world without this woman’s keen sense of right and wrong, the moral and the ethical.

I won’t go into her biography here. You can get that easily by Googling her name. What I would like to comment on is the profound legacy she left behind summed up in this one simple quote from her debut novel…what would have been her only novel if she hadn’t recently published “Go Set A Watchman” in July 2015. Harper Lee’s books made you think! They opened up hearts and led to more than a few heated debates over the recent months.

I don’t know how many friends have told me they had to read Mockingbird in high school and still own a copy that they pick up periodically to re-read, me included. However, ask them about Watchman and you might get a completely different answer. Some refuse to read it because they’ve been told by others that they will be disappointed, that it wasn’t well-written and their beloved Atticus is portrayed as a racist rather than a saint. But others, like myself, loved the second book as much as the first, although for different reasons, and I encourage them to read it as a story of the changing times and a young woman’s struggle to reconcile her simplistic childhood image of her father with his true complex nature.

Yes, Atticus Finch is flawed in the sequel; but aren’t we all? I would argue even the most conservative and the most liberal view-holders actually fall somewhere in that wide middle ground. In Mockingbird Atticus defends a young black man, Tom Robinson, charged with rape. He does this not because the man is black, but because he is innocent and Atticus believes in justice. Scout, like the young Harper Lee, goes to court every day of the trial to watch Atticus argue before the jury. She idolizes her father, as so many of us do. She has a larger-than-life image of him that she carries into adulthood. In Watchman, Scout (now Jean Louise), is a young woman home from New York City to visit her father. It is the 1950s and her hometown of Maycomb, Alabama, is in the middle of the debate over the Supreme Court’s Brown vs Board of Education decision. Jean Louise is shocked to find her father is a member of a community group fighting desegregation, and he is not fighting for the rights of the black children.

Atticus Finch explains his views as paternal. He feels black people are not ready for equal rights yet, but that they will be someday with the guidance of well-meaning community members, father-figures, like himself. Of course, we now recognize this as blatant racism, but Atticus Finch was a complicated man living in an era that straddled the old belief system he grew up under and the new beliefs Jean Louise and her generation will fight to attain.

Too many people today sit back and wait to be told what to believe, what to think. I don’t know if they can’t be bothered with deciding for themselves, or if they are afraid of being told they’re wrong. If you read Watchman within its historical context and it leads you to think, even to debate others, if you walk away feeling like maybe you learned something, then the author has done what every good writer aims to do and you will be a better person for it.

Morning Coffee: Valentines and Roses

Valentine 1Approximately 150 million cards are exchanged annually for Valentine’s Day, second only to Christmas (an estimated 2.6 billion). Despite the claims of men, Valentine’s Day was not an invention of Hallmark to sell more greeting cards. Nor was it the brainchild of some florist or chocolatier looking to increase profits; although, all three have certainly seized at the opportunity.

Valentine’s Day has its roots in a pagan festival. Some believe St Valentine’s Feast was held in mid-February to coincide with the anniversary of the saint’s death or burial thought to have occurred in A.D. 270, while others claim it was the decision of the Church in an attempt to Christianize the pagan celebration of Lupercalia, a fertility festival dedicated to Fauna, the Roman god of agriculture, and to the Roman founders Romulus and Remus. At the end of the 5th century, Pope Gelasius officially declared Lupercalia to be unchristian and named February 14th St. Valentine’s Day. It would not be until much later that the holiday would be definitively thought of as a celebration of love and romance.

Valentine greetings date back as far as the Middle Ages, but it wasn’t until after 1400 that the written greeting appeared. The oldest Valentine still in existence is a poem written in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. It is believed that several years later King Henry V hired writer John Lydgate to compose a valentine for Catherine of Valois. By 1900 pre-printed cards began to replace the traditional hand-written note.

Today our Valentine greeting is about much more than a simple greeting card. One of the most popular Valentine’s gifts is flowers. We all recognize roses as the traditional Valentine’s Day flower, but did you know that the color of the rose is as important as the gesture itself? Red roses mean love, longing or desire. The number of red roses given also holds special meaning. Twelve red roses means “Be mine” and “I love you.” White roses mean purity, chastity and innocence. Yellow roses express exuberance, sunny feelings of joy, warmth and welcome. They symbolize friendship and caring. Pink roses express gentle emotions such as admiration, joy and gratitude, also elegance and grace. Light pink mean sweetness and innocence. Orange roses signify passion and energy, intense desire, pride and fervor, even a sense of fascination. Lavender roses are the color of enchantment, love at first sight. Darker shades closer to purple invoke a sense of regal majesty and splendor, express fascination and adoration. Blue roses do not occur naturally, thus representing the unattainable or mysterious. Green roses are the color of harmony, opulence, fertility. They are the color of peace and tranquility. Black roses, the color of death and farewell, the death of a feeling or idea. A mixed bouquet represents a mix of emotions, depending on the colors chosen. It could mean “I love you and my intentions are honorable”, “I love you even though I know you can never be mine”, or even “I don’t know how I feel but care enough to send you these roses”.

Next week we continue our journey into Valentine’s Day traditions with “Candy Hearts and Chocolate”.

Morning Coffee: Valentine’s Day

Valentine 2St. Valentine and Cupid, the two figures, one real and one myth, most closely associated with Valentine ’s Day. Who was St. Valentine? The answer to that question is unclear.

The Catholic Church recognizes three different saints named Valentine or Valentinus, all martyred. One was a priest who served in the third century Roman army. Emperor Claudius II believed single men made better soldiers, men not distracted by a wife and family, so he made it illegal for young men to marry. Legend has it this soldier priest defied the decree by secretly marrying young soldiers who had fallen in love. When the emperor learned of this, he ordered Valentine put to death. Other legends suggest Valentine, while imprisoned and awaiting his execution, may have been killed helping Christians escape from the tortures of Roman prisons. According to one legend he actually composed and sent the first “Valentine” after falling in love with a young girl, perhaps his jailor’s daughter, who visited him regularly. He is supposed to have signed his greeting “From your Valentine”. The one thing the legends all have in common is the portrayal of Valentine as a sympathetic, romantic hero. By the Middle Ages, Valentine would become one of the most popular saints in England and France.

Perhaps the most familiar symbol of Valentine’s Day is Cupid, that fat winged little angel with the arrows that are supposed to make their target fall in love. This vision of Cupid, son of Venus, Goddess of Love, comes from Roman mythology. However, Greek mythology envisioned Cupid much differently.

Eros, the son of Aphrodite, Greek Goddess of Love, was a handsome young man who made the mistake of falling in love with a mortal woman, Psyche, said to be even more beautiful than his jealous mother. Aphrodite sent a plague to Earth and made it known the only way to end the suffering was to sacrifice Psyche. The King, Psyche’s father, bound her and left her to be devoured by a fearsome monster. Eros rescued Psyche and married her. His one requirement, though, was that his bride never see his face. This did not bother Psyche as she was happy with her husband who was a wonderful lover by night and left her to live in unimaginable luxury by day. Unfortunately, Psyche had two sisters who were just as jealous of their sister’s beauty as was Aphrodite. They convinced Psyche her husband must in truth be a horrible monster. So one night Psyche lit a candle to see for herself. Instead of something ugly and fearsome, she saw the face of a god. As Psyche gazed at the sleeping Eros, her candle dripped hot wax and he awoke. Angry at her betrayal, Eros flew away. Devastated, Psyche begged her mother-in-law for another chance. Aphrodite set Psyche on a quest to complete four tasks in order to win back Eros’ love. Psyche managed to accomplish the first three tasks with the help of ants, a reed, and an eagle, but the fourth task became her downfall. Aphrodite sent Psyche to the underworld to steal a box of Persephone’s beauty cream. Again with help, Psyche learned how to find the entryway to the underworld, how to get around the guards Charon and Cerberus, and how to behave in the presence of the Queen of the Underworld. But, as Aphrodite predicted would happen, Psyche could not resist the temptation to open the box. Psyche reasoned that if the most perfect goddess Aphrodite could be made even more beautiful by this cream, imagine what it would do for her, an imperfect mortal. Upon opening the box, Psyche fell into a deathlike sleep. With the help of Zeus, Eros brought his sleeping wife to Olympus, where she was given nectar and ambrosia and thus made immortal. On Olympus, in the presence of the other gods, Aphrodite was forced to accept Psyche as her daughter-in-law. Psyche would soon give birth to a daughter named Pleasure.

In Latin the word Cupid means “desire”, that emotion we celebrate this Sunday by giving our loved ones cards, flowers, candy…perhaps that much-anticipated ring. Come back next week and read about the origins of those traditional Valentine’s Day gifts.

Morning Coffee:For the Love of Romance

Valentine 1Even though Valentine’s Day is not until the 14th, and the 14th only according to my calendar, February has long been celebrated as the unofficial month of romance. I petition that we make it official, get it acknowledged on calendars everywhere. February: The Month of Love and Romance. I love romance! That’s why I’ve chosen to write romances, like to read romances, and am a sucker for a good Hallmark or Lifetime movie romance. There is so much fear and hate in this world, so much unhappy dragging of our feet from one day into the next, that I think it’s good to be reminded that love still exists and love will win out if we let it, even if only in our heart.

I’ll be attending an event on Saturday the 13th called “For the Love of Romance” and you’re all invited. It will be from 10am to 1pm at Deb’s Café (formerly Camille’s) at 1120 122nd St in Chippewa Falls (off Melby Rd). This is where romance readers can meet romance writers. Authors scheduled to be there include Ashylnn Monroe, Tina Susedik, Michel Prince, Ginger Ring, Beth James, Cheryl Yeko, Randi Alexander, Steve Mitchell, Patti Fiala, C.J. Bower, Wendy Stenzel Oleson, Marc Stevens, Anita Kidesu, and Alaska Angelini. There will be a meet & greet at 10:00, a Q&A panel at 11:00, and a book signing at 12:00 (books will be available for purchase or you can bring your copy from home). Come early as the first 20 attendees will receive a special gift bag!

For the Love of Romance Poster

Come join us for the fun! I hear it was a big success last year and regret I didn’t know about it until after the fact. As for next year, my goal is to be sitting with the authors and signing copies of “Mary Bishop” for all of you.

Until then, join me each week as I bring you my own month of romance, covering such topics as St Valentine, Cupid, medieval courtly love, and the history of chocolate.