This is your brain on chocolate

Future Tense for Feb. 12, 2007

By Steve Welker

My dad, an engineer, usually got off the train at the depot in LaGrange, Ill., from which he’d walk a half-block and turn south on Ashland Avenue. There, more often than not, I waited to walk him home.

The walk gave us 10 or 15 minutes to talk about what had gone in our day — precious minutes before my two brothers could compete for his attention.

On holidays like Valentine’s Day and for my mom’s birthday and their wedding anniversary, however, Dad and I took a detour east on Burlington Street to the Fannie May Candies shop at the corner of LaGrange Road. No matter what other gift he gave for an occasion, Dad always bought some chocolate for my mom. She loved Fannie May Pixies: chocolate-covered pecan-and-caramel clusters — what some people call “turtles.”

When Dad wasn't her buying Fannie May delectables, my mother baked brownies and fudge from scratch, using Hershey’s Cocoa. She nibbled Nestle’s Toll House Morsels right out of the bag.

She pinned an old “Peanuts” comic strip on a corkboard in the kitchen. Lucy Van Pelt says, “All I really need is love, but a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt!”

“Nine out of 10 people like chocolate. The tenth person always lies,” said artist John Q. Tullius. It’s more like seven out of five love chocolate in my family. In my house, chocolate vanishes faster than the Cheshire cat. Among my wife and sons there must be at least two double-dippers.

More than nine out of 10 Americans say they like chocolate. As a nation, we consume more than 3.1 billion pounds per year, or 11.7 pounds per person. Two-thirds prefer milk chocolate, 37 percent like dark chocolate, a little over one quarter savor white chocolate. Older people tend to prefer dark chocolate — “Perhaps because it is an acquired taste,” food writer Sandra Yin observes, “or because the stronger flavor appeals to their tired-out taste buds.”

Ninety-three percent of Americans eat chocolate bars — by far the most-popular form of consumption. One out of every nine has eaten chocolate at least once in the past three days. Approximately 3 million chocoholic Americans say they eat chocolate every day.

Unlike some foods whose origins remain shrouded in the mists of pre-recorded history — What brave soul first ate oysters? — chocolate’s history is well known. Between 250 and 460 years after the birth of Christ, the Mayas discovered the secret of cacao, the seeds of the tropical Theobroma cacao tree. They harvested the seeds and pulp from the tree’s pods, allowed the gooey mess to ferment for seven to 10 days, dried it quickly (to prevent mold from growing) and ground it to a paste they could mix with water and spices such as chile peppers. Before Columbus arrived, the Mayas and later Aztecs cultivated cacao trees in huge plantations. The Aztecs used cacao beans as a kind of money and allowed only their priests and rulers to drink chocolate — “the food of the gods.”

On his fourth voyage to the New World, in 1508, Columbus found chocolate in what today is Nicaragua. Spaniards were slow to recognize its appeal, because they didn’t like its bitter taste or the peppery accompaniment. Twenty years later, Cortez sent samples back to Spain, along with the tools to prepare it. But the first commercial shipments didn’t begin until 1585.

In the 1600s, Europeans replaced chile with vanilla and added sugar to cut the cacao’s bitterness. A Frenchman opened the first chocolate shop in London 350 years ago. At about the same time, Sir Hans Sloane in Jamaica popularized drinking chocolate in milk. Chocolate shops became as widespread as Starbucks-style coffee houses today. By the end of the 17th century, bakers were making chocolate cakes. Frederick I of Prussia put the first tax on chocolate in 1701.

Chocolate made its way back to the Americas in the 1700s. Baker’s, still a popular brand among cooks, started in Dorchester, Mass., in 1780.

In the 1800s, the Italians created the first solid chocolate.

The Dutch and Swiss came late to the game, but quickly revolutionized the chocolate industry. Francois Louis Caillier trained with Italian candy makers and then used their secrets when he built the first Swiss chocolate factory in 1819. Philippe Suchard built the first chocolate mixing machine six years later. Dutchman Conrad Van Houten invented the chocolate press around 1828, making it possible for the first time to separate cocoa butter from cocoa solids. He also invented the alkali treatment that removes cocoa’s bitterness. In 1876, Daniel Peter created milk chocolate by mixing cocoa powder with powdered milk (his partner was then-baby food manufacturer Henri Nestle).

Back in America, candy maker Milton Hershey became fascinated with chocolate he saw at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. He began marketing individually wrapped chocolate bars in 1904. For years afterwards they cost only a nickel. I have a vivid olfactory memory of touring the Hershey plant in Pennsylvania as a kid; in fact, a chocolate aroma suffuses the whole city.

The other major American candy maker, Mars, started out in 1911 in Frank and Ethel Mars’ kitchen in Tacoma, Wash. They introduced the Milky Way and Snickers bars (I still love eating frozen Snickers bars in summer) and their son, Forrest, created M&Ms in the 1930s after soldiers requested a chocolate candy that wouldn’t melt in their rucksacks. M&Ms comprise a third of the trail mix my oldest son makes for camping trips.

Hershey, Mars, Cadbury, Nestle and, to a lesser extent, Lindt and Ghirardelli have become household names. You’ve probably never heard of Barry Callebaut, the world’s largest chocolate producer, because it primarily sells high-quality blocks (couvertures) of milk, dark and white chocolate for confectioners and chocolateries.

Just as many Americans have learned there’s more to wine than red, white and sparkling, they’re beginning to appreciate than milk, dark or white chocolate. Companies have started to sell chocolate at premium prices based on distinctions such as its varietal source (from best to ordinaire, they are criollo, forastero and trinitario); country or region and even single-terroir chocolates from specific plantations, much like buying wine from North Carolina, Yadkin Valley or Shelton Vineyards; and its content. As an example of the last, the Chocolate Manufacturers Association recently endorsed a new category, called “dark milk chocolate,” with up to 42 percent cocoa solids.

What’s old is new again, too, in how people eat and drink chocolate. Chile pepper has reemerged as a popular additive. Mint is a classic, but you also can buy chocolate blended with lemon, orange, grapefruit, lavender, saffron and other flavorings.

The chocolate industry also has introduced “pairings.” You know not to serve red wine with fish? Well, you shouldn’t serve champagne or sparkling wine with dark chocolate, only with white.

As for myself, I’ll be happy on Valentine's Day if someone sends me just one package of chocolate. It’s not sold in stores— and it’s currently out of stock — but Wal-Mart’s web site ( lists “1,000 Chocolate Treasures.” It’s a $250, 27-pound package with 1,000 different chocolate bars, kisses, coins, truffles and squares.

That should satisfy my taste for chocolate ... for now.


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