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?

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