By Chef Vincent Tropepe
There’s nothing chaste about chocolate. Movies, which capture our inner cravings in freeze-framed moments, have always understood this. From the earliest days of “talkies,” chocolate has been cast as the go-to symbol of seduction. Jean Harlow’s performance in the 1933 film Dinner at Eight forever linked chocolate to decadent indulgence. Draped in satin and sequins, she lounges in bed on a heart-shaped pillow, and—finishing touch—suggestively nibbles her way through a giant box of chocolates.
It turns out that chocolate really has a history as a love food. Passion for chocolate is rooted in Mesoamerican history. It was a highly-prized luxury item among Mayan and Aztec upper class elites, who were known to savor a drink that combined roasted cacao beans with cornmeal, vanilla, honey and chilies. Cacao beans were as valuable a commodity as gold, and were even used to pay taxes levied by Aztec rulers.
By the early 1600s, the vogue for chocolate had swept across Europe. In London, chocolate houses began to rival coffee houses as social gathering spots. One shop opened on Gracechurch Street in 1657 advertising chocolate as “a West Indian drink (which) cures and preserves the body of many diseases.” In France, Madame de Sevigne wrote about enormous chocolate consumption throughout the court at Versailles in 1671; Louis IV drank it daily and Madame du Barry was said to use chocolate mixed with amber to stimulate her lovers.
When Marie Antoinette married Louis XVI in 1770, she brought her personal chocolate maker to Versailles. The official “Chocolate Maker to the Queen” created such recipes as “chocolate mixed with orchid bulb for strength, chocolate with orange blossom to calm the nerves, or chocolate with sweet almond milk to aid the digestion.”
Chocolate’s connection to Valentine’s Day is a prime example of virtue finding its just reward, although it took centuries for the two essentials elements—the rise of chocolate as a popular food, and the celebration of Valentine’s Day as a holiday—to merge.
The origin of Valentine’s Day is attributed to various early Christian martyrs named Valentine, but it’s linkage to romantic love seems to appear first in Chaucer’s 1382 poem, Parlement of Foules. Chaucer here describes the nature of love when “every bird cometh to choose his mate” on “seynt Voantynes day.”
In the following centuries, Valentine’s Day blossomed as an increasingly popular late winter-early spring holiday. Songs, poetry and roses celebrated hearts brimming with love, though candy was not yet involved because sugar was still a precious commodity in Europe.
By the time Victoria became Queen in 1837, technology was poised to transform Valentine’s Day into a commercial bonanza. Victorians loved showering their significant others with Cupid-bedecked gifts and cards, but Valentine’s Day was about to get happier.
Richard Cadbury, whose British family manufactured chocolate, was searching for a way to use the pure cocoa butter that was extracted from the process Cadbury had invented to make a more palatable drinking chocolate. His solution was “eating chocolates,” which he packaged in lovely boxes he designed himself. A marketing genius, Cadbury began putting the Cupids and rosebuds on heart-shaped boxes in 1861: even when the chocolates had been eaten, people could use the beautiful boxes to save such mementos as love letters.
He commercialization of Valentine’s Day flourished in America at the turn of the century. Chocolate pioneer Milton Hershey started as a caramel maker, but in 1894 began covering his caramels with sweet chocolate. In 1907, Hershey launched production of tear-dropped shaped “kisses,” so-called because of the smooching noise the chocolate made as it was manufactured. Mass-produced at an affordable cost, the kisses were advertised as “a most nourishing food.”
When it comes to commercial chocolate, no one has outdone Russell Stover. The company began when Clara Stover started wrapping “Bungalow Candies” in her Denver kitchen in 1923. She and her husband moved to Kansas City and opened several factories, selling their Valentine’s chocolates in heart-shaped boxes to department stores across the Midwest. Eventually, Russell Stover bought out Whitman’s, their biggest competitor, and refocused their wholesale business on drugstores and big-box retailers like Walmart and Target.
One of their biggest-sellers is the “Secret Lace Heart,” a chocolate box covered in satin and black lace. The so-called “lingerie box” is affordable and easily-accessible, stocked on store shelves for easy grab-and-go sales. The strategy worked with an average of $600 million in annual sales.
Jean Harlow may have inspired chocolate’s satin-and-lace reputation for decadence, but Lucille Ball found another way to demonstrate how chocolate makes people smile. One of the most celebrated episodes of I Love Lucy featured Lucy and Ethel working on a chocolate factory assembly line. Of course, chaos reigns; the portrait of Lucy’s cheeks bulging as she tries to “hide” chocolates is as screamingly funny today as it was sixty years ago.