Food Facts & Lore

Like a Box of Chocolates

“Life is like a box of chocolates,” may be America’s most famous film industry quote. And we bet we don’t even need to specify the source, do we? It is also a fitting phrase to introduce this week’s article, which happens to be like a box of chocolates too as it evolved into a tapestry of facts, like flavored confections each nestled into its own receptacle among a display of similarly sweet, yet distinctly different bite-sized pieces. Where to begin?

February is the month of chocolates and lovers. February 14 is National Cream-Filled Chocolates Day, appropriately so. With this theme in mind, we’ve put together a virtual box of chocolate highlights that shaped the beginnings and history of chocolate in America.

Chocolate has been around since the Aztecs, who turned the cacao bean into a potent beverage. It took several hundred years for it to be transformed into the solid form we know today. And it took a long time for it to become popular as the first chocolate confections were said to be gritty and even sour.

The first mention of chocolate in newsprint, beginning around 1705, propelled its popularity almost as fast as our modern-day social media channels. It happened in Boston, one of chocolate’s most notable HQ in the early days of America’s love affair with the cacao bean’s promise.

Along with Boston, Philadelphia, New York City and Newport, RI, were home to America’s first and largest manufacturing facilities. But they were not alone. It is estimated that there were well over 60 chocolatiers in America by the end of the 1700’s. And this figure may be far from actual count, as it is based solely on sources identified via newsprint ads archives.

That chocolate was advertised this prominently, this early, is truly noteworthy. Also worthy of notice is the fact that chocolatiers frequently highlighted the source of their raw product in these ads, a practice now used by coffee roasters throughout the world. We love exotic. We also love authentic. Most of all, we appreciate quality. Chocolate makers understood that from the start.

Mass production was no small feat. The following excerpt from Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage provides a poignant account of the challenge of mass-producing chocolate in the early days of the industry.

“Chocolate making was hard work. The labor at times intense and at other times tedious…Whether roasting and shelling hundreds of pounds of cocoa at a time, or walking on a treadmill for hours, or hand-grinding ten pounds of chocolate a day for the Master, the work was mind numbing. And those working in large watermills also had their trials. If the order was for a ton of chocolate for a ship sailing on the next high tide, then well over a ton of cocoa would have had to have ben manhandled onto cards, roasted, shelled, winnowed, taken to the hopper, ground up, mixed and molded, wrapped in paper, packaged into perhaps 50 pound boxes, and loaded onto cars. This in an age where most of that labor would have been done by hand, sunup to sundown.” -Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage (The Food Timeline)

Chocolate’s American journey can be traced not only via newsprint, but also through the personal accounts of such notable figures as Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Sewall, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

Thomas Jefferson (1743 – 1826) – Following the famous Boston Tea Party incident, Jefferson predicted that chocolate would become America’s most consumed beverage. His prediction was accurate, until coffee took over.

George Washington (1732 – 1799) and wife Martha – They made their own cocoa tea.

Benjamin Franklin (1706 – 1790) – His Philadelphia print shop’s inventory of goods for sell included Bibles, writing paper and chocolate.

Samuel Sewall (1652 – 1730) – The famous Salem witch trials judge liked to breakfast on venison and chocolate.

Valentine’s Day gained popularity across Britain and the United States around the mid-1800’s. Romance was the trend du jour at a time when courting etiquette was considered a mark of sophistication and good breeding in the Victorian mind. Valentine cards became popular then too. At this time, Richard Cadbury, of the most prolific and best-known chocolate manufacturing family in Britain, developed a new process to improve the palatability of “drinking chocolate.” Cocoa butter was a significant biproduct of this process. It inspired a new line of confections then called “eating chocolate.” Seizing a sweet opportunity, Cadbury designed decorated boxes for his new chocolate product. The love story between chocolates and Valentine’s Day was inevitable.

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