Chocolate, Valentine’s Day a Match Made for Romance
Ask anyone what their plans are for Valentine’s Day, and odds are that some chocolate will be involved. In fact, according to U.S. News and World Report, last year nearly 55 percent of women and 52 percent of men purchased candy for their significant other, spending $1.7 billion in the process.
Both the holiday and the tasty treats have a long, winding road to their modern incarnations, and the story of how they became intertwined is full of twists and turns. The pairing of chocolate with Valentine’s Day even has a unique place in the fabric of Norman today, thanks to the annual Chocolate Festival, a taste-testing fundraiser for the iconic Firehouse Art Station, where local restaurants show off their creations. Now in its 34th year, the festival was specifically scheduled for late January because of its closeness to Valentine’s Day, said Firehouse Executive Director Douglas Shaw Elder.
“Most of our participating vendors have something they want people to try, in order to bring people into their restaurant for Valentine’s Day,” Elder said. “It’s the perfect time for them to debut a new dessert and reach about 4,000 people in a single day.”
Moving back to the past, the journey of the chocolate/Valentine’s Day match-up dates back to Mesoamerican and Roman times; two winding paths that met at a crossroads in Victorian England.
St. Valentine Conquers Roman Decadence
In many ways, St. Valentine’s Day represents a victory of Christianity over pagan Roman traditions. In mid-February, the Romans celebrated Lupercalia, a pagan (and pretty wild) festival devoted to fertility. Valentine, according to legend, was a Catholic priest who married young couples against the wishes of Roman Emperor Claudius II. He was consequently beheaded on Feb. 14 and later declared a saint by the Catholic Church. Just how much of this tale is true isn’t for certain, but the legend has taken hold in popular culture. The association with romance came from both Valentine’s reputation for conducting weddings and lingering fertility festival traditions.
A Prize of South America
The history of chocolate, meanwhile, is extensive, and it has had an amorous reputation since the beginning. Chocolate was a prized luxury item among the Aztec and Mayan upper classes, while its source—cacao beans—were as valuable as gold and frequently used to pay taxes. Consumed in drink form (with added cornmeal, vanilla, honey and chilies), it was believed to act as an aphrodisiac. Today we know there is some basis to all the claims. Chocolate contains the endorphin phenylethylamine, which is known to cause feelings of excitement, attraction and pleasure.
Spanish conquistadors brought the beans back with them to Europe, and by the early 1600s chocolate-based drinks were all the rage among the elite of Europe. London had chocolate houses that rivaled coffee houses, while Marie Antoinette brought her own “chocolatier” with her when she married French King Louis XVI. Madam DuBarry, mistress of French King Louis the XV, was known to give chocolate mixed with amber to her lovers as a stimulant.
The amorous connection obviously wasn’t lost in the continental transfer. Famed English poet James Wadsworth, in fact, produced a poem “A History of the Nature and Quality of Chocolate,” which proclaimed, “I will make old women young and fresh; create new motions of the flesh, and cause them to long for you know what, if they but taste of chocolate.”
Richard Cadbury Ups the Ante
During the early Victorian period, most chocolate in Europe was still consumed in the form of drinks. That all changed in the mid 1860s when Englishman Richard Cadbury, whose family already manufactured chocolate, used the pure cocoa butter extracted during the drink-making process to create the first “eating chocolates.” They were new and inexpensive enough to be available to the masses.
Victorians were already fond of sending each other Cupid- and rose-bedecked cards and boxes for Valentine’s Day. Cadbury demonstrated his considerable marketing skills by selling the chocolates in fancy boxes he designed himself. He is credited with creating the first heart-shaped boxes of candy, which he covered with, of course, Cupids and rosebuds. Victorians loved the designs, and when the chocolate was gone, the boxes remained behind as a way to save important mementos like love letters.
Enter Hershey & Stover
It didn’t take long for enterprising Americans to take their own steps toward using Valentine’s Day as a way to sell chocolate. In 1907, Milton Hershey created the first of his iconic Hershey’s “kisses” in honor of the holiday. He was followed by Clara Stover and her husband, Russell, who started wrapping candies in their home kitchen in 1923 and would end up selling heart-shaped boxes of Valentine’s Day chocolate to department stores around the Midwest.
In the ensuing decades, Valentine’s Day and chocolate have become so firmly intertwined that it’s pretty much impossible to imagine one without the other. That’s a fact that leaves all of us—especially chocolate makers—happy ever after.