A Brief History of Fried Chicken

Forty years ago every housewife in America knew how to cook fried chicken. Remember Florence Henderson frying up chicken with “Wesson-ality” back in the 70s and 80s? In those days, homemade fried chicken was one of the most mouth-watering and welcome dishes you could serve to your family and friends. And it was very economical. But somehow, we lost the skill or desire to cook fried chicken, turning to buckets of overly- seasoned KFC. Today, every grocery and convenience store sells fried chicken, and all the sides to go with it, but honestly, it’s not nearly as good as homemade.

These days, it seems like everyone is watching their weight, and you’ll never see fried chicken on any diet plan. But did you know that back in the 18th and 19th century, Americans needed extra fat and calories in their diets, just to survive. And fried foods came about over that very critical need. But it didn’t begin with the chicken – it began with pork. Backyard and small-scale hog production provided an inexpensive means of converting waste food into calories, in the form of rendered lard. Lard was used for almost all cooking and was a fundamental component in many common farmhouse foods, like biscuits. The economic and caloric necessity of consuming lard led to the popularity of fried foods, and in the 19th century, cast iron became widely available for use in cooking. It was only natural that the combination of flour, lard, a chicken, and a heavy pot would be the beginning of today’s fried chicken.

Fried chicken made from scratch is delicious hot, cold, or at room temperature right out of a picnic basket. And it’s really quite easy to make, although it is a little messy. Traditionally, you should cook your fried chicken in a cast iron skillet, but I use an old fashioned electric skillet, because I can control the temperature of the oil, and I plug the skillet in on my screened- in porch. That way my house doesn’t smell like fried chicken for a week.

Fried chicken is considered to be a Southern dish, but we ate a lot of fried chicken in New England where I grew up. I think the regional differences in this dish are the sides that are served with it. Here in Florida, I always serve okra and tomatoes, collard greens, biscuits, and sweet tea with fried chicken. In Maryland, fried chicken is always served with gravy. Northerners like it with mashed potatoes, corn, and baked beans. But no matter what side dishes you serve, it’s the fried chicken that is the shining star in this meal.

Be sure to plan ahead when you make your fried chicken. I like to brine the chicken pieces for several hours, and then let them soak in buttermilk overnight. That way your fried chicken will be super tender and juicy, even if you serve it cold. And remember that no matter how much fried chicken you make, it will never be enough – so you might want to make a double batch!

Music credit: Once Tomorrow (Instrumental Version) by Josh Woodward is used under CC BY 3.0.

Photo Credit: Buttermilk Fried Chicken by Arnold Gatilao is used under CC BY 2.0.


A Brief History of Hummingbird Cake

When I moved to the South twenty years ago, the first thing I did was to order a subscription to Southern Living Magazine. I had been told that it was the Bible for all proper Southern ladies, and I desperately wanted to fit in. Southern Living is a lifestyle magazine that features house and garden plans, information on Southern culture, and more importantly, real Southern recipes. Upon receiving my first copy, I knew that I must learn how to bake something called Hummingbird Cake, which I had never heard of before.

Hummingbird Cake is a banana and pineapple spice cake, which is layered with cream cheese icing, and covered with chopped pecans. I’m not sure why it’s called Hummingbird Cake, but I think it’s because it’s so sweet and moist that perhaps if you left a slice out on your veranda, hummingbirds might alight on it, taking in its sweet nectar. Some people say that it got its name because the cake is so delicious, your guests will hum with happiness when they eat it. Another story is that guests will hover over the cake like hummingbirds. No matter how it got its name, this cake has been a tradition in Southern cuisine since it was first published in Southern Living in 1978, by a woman named Mrs. L. H. Wiggin, from Greensboro, North Carolina. By 1990, the cake had become Southern Living’s most requested recipe.

Cake-baking, in general, has been a prized talent among ladies since Victorian times. If a lady knew how to bake a good cake, she could find herself a fine husband. And women in those days would never share their secret recipes, fearing that another woman might bake their special cake and use it to steal away a suitor. Thankfully today, we ladies don’t have to resort to competitive cake baking in order to get a husband, but it doesn’t hurt to learn how to bake one cake well. And if you’re an inexperienced baker, Hummingbird Cake is the cake for you.

Hummingbird Cake does not need a lot of time or talent to prepare. The moistness from the cake comes from the bananas and pineapple, and the large amount of vegetable oil. The eggs and moist ingredients are mixed in with the dry ingredients, and you can make this dessert by hand, without a mixer. The batter is poured into three cake pans and baked for about a half an hour. After the layers cool, you frost the layers with a simple cream cheese icing, sprinkle with chopped pecans, and it’s ready to serve.

Since the recipe was first introduced by Southern Living, resourceful cooks have used the basic ingredients to create other versions of this dessert, like Hummingbird Bundt Cake, Hummingbird Pancakes, and even a Mile-High White Chocolate Hummingbird Cake, that would suitable for a wedding. I would not recommend serving this cake after a heavy dinner though – it’s just too sweet and rich. I like to serve it with tea or coffee in the afternoon, and sometimes I make one to bring to a church supper or a dessert buffet. Whatever variety of Hummingbird Cake you choose to make, your guests will be hovering over it, humming with happiness.

Music credit: Once Tomorrow (Instrumental Version) by Josh Woodward is used under CC BY 3.0.


A Brief History of Macaroni and Cheese

Macaroni and cheese is considered the ultimate comfort food throughout the United States. Like many classic American dishes, our mac and cheese is of English origin, brought to America by our English colonists. But, it is said that macaroni, a curved, tubular pasta made from flour, had its origins in China and was brought to Italy by Marco Polo. In Italian homes, macaroni has been cooked and served with cheese for over 500 years.

In my family, homemade macaroni and cheese was a dish that my mother created only when we had leftover cheese from other meals. That’s how frugal Yankee families operated – you would never go out and buy a couple pounds of cheese just to make this delectable dish. So my mom, like most moms, relied on Kraft Macaroni and Cheese in a box – my siblings and I loved it, and it certainly was economical for a big family.

Kraft Macaroni and Cheese hit the grocery store shelves in the U.S. and Canada in 1937, and became a huge success. The timing of the product’s launch had much to do with this. During World War II, rationing of milk and dairy products, an increased reliance on meatless entrees, and more women working outside the home, created a captive market for the Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, which was considered a hearty meal for families. Its shelf life of ten months was attractive at a time when many Canadian and American homes still did not have refrigerators.

One of the first actual recipes for macaroni and cheese appeared in the 1824 cookbook The Virginia Housewife written by Mary Randolph. Randolph’s recipe had just three ingredients: macaroni, cheese, and butter, layered together in a casserole dish, and baked in a 400 degree oven. Today’s mac and cheese, however, is created using a cream sauce, and then adding shredded or cubed cheese to the pot, and stirring it over a low flame until the cheese is melted. You would then pour the sauce over the cooked macaroni in a casserole dish, sprinkle on some toasted bread crumbs, and bake until hot and bubbly.

My favorite thing to serve with macaroni and cheese is applesauce.
My favorite thing to serve with macaroni and cheese is applesauce.

Easier said than done, because when I first started making mac and cheese from scratch, it was never creamy or cheesy enough. It took me years of experimenting with different recipes to get the outcome I wanted. So here are a few tips I learned to make my macaroni and cheese the very best it can be. First of all, you want to use good cheese. Extra sharp cheddar is my favorite for this dish, but you can use any of your favorite cheeses, and even mix up the varieties. But do not use American cheese or Velveeta in this dish, under any circumstances. Another tip is to cook the macaroni until it’s al dente – don’t overcook it because it will become mushy after baking. And here is the most important tip of all – after you’ve made your cheese sauce, stir the macaroni in a little bit at a time until it’s reached the right consistency. You want it to be super creamy and cheesy before you pour it into the baking dish. If you add too much macaroni, your casserole can become dried out as it bakes.

If you’ve been eating boxed macaroni and cheese all these years, this is the time to start making it from scratch.

Music credit: Once Tomorrow (Instrumental Version) by Josh Woodward is used under CC BY 3.0.


A Brief History of Zucchini Cake

Florida is a great place to live because I can grow vegetables all year long. I’ve got beautiful tomatoes, lettuce, peppers, and herbs available at my fingertips, yet for some reason, I cannot grow zucchini. But, when I lived up north, zucchini was the plague of every backyard farmer.

Shopping bags full of overgrown zucchini were left on my doorstep by a neighbor after ringing the doorbell and running away. This is considered the cruelest of pranks played on the unwary in the Northern states when our gardens are overflowing with the pithy, green monsters. Alas, now that I live in Florida, I’m lacking the gardening skills needed to grow zucchini. You’d think this would be a blessing, but how I miss the challenge of using up zucchini in creative ways, so not a single squash goes uneaten or unloved.

There are several zucchini festivals held throughout the country where zucchini is considered the king of all vegetables, and festival-goers are known to dress their zucchini in cute outfits for a zuke fashion show, or attach wheels to them and race them down Main Street. I, however, prefer to turn them into relishes, pickles, pancakes, quiches, and even low-carb hash browns. Larger varieties can be stuffed like peppers, and with a special gizmo called a spiral slicer, you can even make spaghetti with your zucchini.

I discovered that the growing season for zucchini in Florida is not the same as the north. It prefers to be planted in September and October, or January and February. But it makes no difference to me what time of year zucchini is at its peak, as my cyclical cravings and planting charts cannot seem to come together. At one point I talked to one of the farmers at the farmers market, wondering why I can’t grow zucchini here, and his answer is “Bees. You need more bees.” Zucchini should one of the easiest vegetables to cultivate in temperate climates, but in parts of Florida where many of us live in mosquito spray districts, the flower cannot be pollinated properly. So when I need zucchini, I buy them at my local farmers market.

It seems absurd to spend money on zucchini, yet I must have them. My favorite thing to make with fresh zucchini is zucchini cake – it’s dense and moist, speckled with green, and dotted with golden raisins. The icing is made of goat cheese and cream cheese, and the sides of the cake are covered with chopped pecans. This cake will feed at least a dozen or more zucchini-loving guests, and at about 1,800 calories per slice, you might opt not to eat any dinner that night, and just eat cake.

The cake recipe I like to use is a handwritten scribble on a scrap of lined paper that I’ve coveted for years, and I have no idea where it came from. But it’s a basic carrot cake recipe where I will substitute zucchini for the grated carrots. It’s a no-fail recipe – seems no matter how you throw the ingredients together, it always comes out perfect. And you only need about three or four small zucchini to make this cake, but I always buy three or four baskets. Why so much, you ask? To leave some on my neighbor’s doorstep, of course!

(A portion of this story originally appeared in Jacksonville Magazine.)

Music credit: Once Tomorrow (Instrumental Version) by Josh Woodward is used under CC BY 3.0.


A Brief History of Red Flannel Hash

St. Patrick’s Day has come and gone — and what are you doing with all that leftover corned beef? Well, at my house, we’re cooking up a big batch of Red Flannel Hash. You can make regular hash with just about anything — it’s basically bits of chopped meat and potatoes fried in butter. But Red Flannel Hash is the most succulent version of this traditional American dish.

Corned beef is the shining star in this meal – it’s super salty, and tender, and the addition of finely chopped beets, with their natural sweetness, makes the corned beef taste even better. The rosy color from the beets is what gives this hash its name – Red Flannel. But there is an odd story that says this dish came into being in Vermont during the Revolutionary War. Apparently the Green Mountain Boys and Ethan Allen grew so desperately hungry one winter, they added their red flannels in with their potatoes to make hash. I highly doubt this story, because no New Englander would ever give up the warmth and comfort of their long, red underwear in the middle of winter.

Almost 70 years ago, red flannel hash saved the North Unitarian Chapel Society in Woodstock, Vermont. A group of young mothers wanted to reopen the doors of their church, which had been closed since 1933. They raised money by hosting church suppers, bazaars, and craft shows. One such supper held in 1946, which featured Red Flannel Hash, was so successful that it paid the salary of their new preacher and kept the church heated in the winter. To this day, the Red Flannel Hash Supper is held every year in Woodstock, the first weekend in November.

Most New Englanders are very particular about their Red Flannel Hash. Some say it must be cooked with eggs, and that it’s a breakfast dish. Others believe it’s a supper dish, and should be served with baked beans and cole slaw. At some New England diners, your waitress will bring you a small pitcher of apple cider vinegar to sprinkle over your hash. Frankly, I’m fond of all of these things, and I would eat Red Flannel Hash around the clock if I could.

When you make your Red Flannel Hash, you want all of your ingredients to be cold, and finely chopped by hand. Do not use a food processor, or your hash will come out kind of pasty. The traditional ingredients are corned beef, boiled potatoes, cooked beets, and onions. Some people like to add chopped greens, garlic, and other leftover vegetables but I think the hash is best when you keep it simple. I add a small amount of heavy cream to the hash to bind it, and a cast iron skillet is a must for this dish, if you want to get a good crust on the hash. You must resist the urge to toss it around in the pan too much, because you’ll end up with a steamed version of hash instead of fried, with all those lovely, crispy bits.

At my house, after St. Patrick’s Day, you will find me curled up on the couch, decked out in my red flannels, eating a plate of Red Flannel Hash. And maybe drinking some leftover green beer, too.

Music credit: Once Tomorrow (Instrumental Version) by Josh Woodward is used under CC BY 3.0.


A Brief History of Pierogi

Some of my favorite recipes are ones that have been handed down throughout the years, from various family members. One in particular is for Polish pierogi, given to me by my Auntie Irene. Pierogi (sometimes pronounced “per-o-gi”) are dumplings of unleavened dough, which are stuffed with various fillings, like sauerkraut, potato, ground meat, or cheese. They are then boiled and drained, and in my Auntie’s recipe, the pierogi are then fried in butter until they are a little crispy on the outside.

Although Auntie Irene claimed that she didn’t like to cook, every holiday she would go on a wild pierogi-making frenzy. If you have never made pierogi, I can tell you that it is no small undertaking. They are labor intensive and messy, but worth every single minute that it takes to make them. A regular batch of pierogi would produce about 75 dumplings, but Auntie Irene would make hundreds of them, and give them to everyone in the family as gifts. We would eat them on Easter, Christmas and other special occasions, usually with a fresh Polish kielbasa, and no matter what else was on the menu, her pierogi were everyone’s favorite dish.

My sister Linnea, making pierogi in her kitchen.
My sister Linnea, making pierogi in her kitchen.

Auntie Irene was married to my Uncle Tony. They were a scream together. I could write an entire book just about them, and perhaps someday I will. In their house, Uncle Tony did most of the cooking; Auntie Irene sat back and drank her coffee. But the fondest memories I have about them are eating wonderful, comforting dinners at their house, like pot roast and mashed potatoes, served alongside a bottomless gravy boat. For dessert, we would have cake that Auntie Irene bought from a local bakery, and she always let us have a second helping, with extra frosting.

Getting back to our pierogi, though, this type of boiled dumpling originated in Slavic countries, like Poland, Russia, Germany, and others, and they go by different names, depending upon who makes them and what they’re stuffed with. The Polish name, “pierogi,” is plural. The name for a single dumpling would be “pierog”, which is rarely used in the language because nobody would ever eat a single dumpling. Once you take a bite, you’re certain to gobble up at least 3 or 4. In our family, we stuffed them with a mixture of sauerkraut and onion that has been sautéed in butter. I’ve tried some other fillings that I really like, too – one in particular is farmer’s cheese, which is basically a pressed cottage cheese that’s similar to ricotta. And I’ve made a dessert version stuffed with raspberries, and served with sweetened sour cream, that’s out of this world!

I don’t make pierogi very often, but when I do, I admit that I cheat and use my pasta machine to roll the dough out thinly. Auntie Irene would be shocked if she was alive to witness such sacrilege. And honestly, as good as my pierogi taste, they are still not as good as hers. There is nobody on the planet that rivals my Auntie Irene – her stories, her sense of humor, her lust for life, and her famous pierogi.

Music credit: Once Tomorrow (Instrumental Version) by Josh Woodward is used under CC BY 3.0.


A Brief History of Spam

When my husband and I got hitched, we lived on Spam luncheon meat for the first couple of years of our marriage, along with some other questionable foodstuffs like Vienna Sausages, and potted meat. Compared to those items, Spam, made by Hormel Foods, was a gourmet treat for us. Popular for its high protein content, salty essence, and low cost, Spam has been an affordable addition to the family pantry since World War II, where it was introduced into the islands of the South Pacific.

Since fresh meat was difficult to get to the soldiers on the front, World War II saw the largest use of Spam when it was eaten for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and over 150 million pounds of Spam were purchased by the military before the war’s end. The surplus of leftover Spam, with its long shelf life and low cost eventually made its way into native diets, and today Spam is one of the largest selling food items in the state of Hawaii.

In a land bountiful with fresh fish, tropical fruits and vegetables, it seems odd that Spam would play such a large role in the Hawaiian diet, but it does. Several years ago I took a trip to Hawaii where I discovered just how important Spam is to that part of the world. At a local grocery store there was an aisle with shelves jam-packed with Spam, in many varieties and flavors, and a man about my age was stocking the shelves fervently. When I asked him about the popularity of Spam, he explained that Spam to Hawaiians is like peanut butter and jelly is to mainlanders. While I walked to grammar school carrying a PB&J sandwich in a brown paper sack, he was toting a Spam sandwich. He told me that he and his family ate Spam every day and that it was a staple in his household.

During the war, Spam became the butt of jokes amongst the soldiers. Calling it “meatloaf without basic training” and “ham that didn’t pass its physical”, most soldiers wouldn’t go near a can of Spam once they returned to the States. And that included my stepfather, who was a pilot in the Pacific theater during the war. “There is no Spam allowed in this house!” he would affirm to my mother, and indeed, no Spam passed his lips after the war ended in 1945.

We used to call Spam “mystery meat” when I was younger, but Spam is actually made with six simple ingredients: Pork shoulder, ham, salt, water, potato starch, and sugar. That’s it. It contains 174 calories per serving, 15 grams of fat, 7 grams of protein, and a whopping 767 milligrams of sodium – perhaps not the best choice if you’re on a low sodium diet. But for the rest of us, Spam is still a lost cost, high protein convenience food.

In 1970, the 2-billionth can of Spam was produced, and the same year, Spam made its television debut on Monty Python’s Flying Circus. And as Spam gained its “kitschy” popularity, a Spam Museum opened in Austin, Minnesota, where Spam is produced. For over 12 years, the Spam Museum delighted over one million visitors with exhibits and tastings of this beloved American classic. The museum closed in 2014, but, plans for a new, improved Spam museum are in the works. The new museum is relocating and reopening in downtown Austin in 2016.

My daughter gave me a Spam cookbook one year for my birthday, and I experimented with some of the recipes. Spam Stir Fry was pretty good, and Spam Apple Turnovers wrapped in puff pastry were excellent. But I still think the best way to enjoy Spam is to simply fry it in a pan and serve it with eggs and toast for breakfast, or maybe fried potatoes for dinner.

Music credit: Once Tomorrow (Instrumental Version) by Josh Woodward is used under CC BY 3.0.


A Brief History of the Western Sandwich

When I was sixteen years old I got my first “big” job working at a place called the Simsbury Pharmacy in Simsbury, Connecticut. It was one of those old fashioned drug stores with a lunch counter and a soda fountain. I was hired to be their new waitress and short-order cook. Under the tutelage of a scary woman named Betty and her side-kick Dottie, I was trained to fry hamburgers, make sandwiches, pour coffee without spilling a drop, and make a real root beer float. Since I was hired as the “closing girl”, I spent most of my evening shift mopping the floors, cleaning the grease trap and scouring the grill. But we had a few evening customers who required food and coffee, so I was able to hone my cooking skills, practice my pancake-flipping and create monstrous ice cream sundaes in the privacy of my own little soda fountain world.

My favorite menu item at the Simsbury Pharmacy was their Western sandwich. A Western, or called a Denver by some who say it originated in Denver, Colorado, is simply a scrambled egg, with green peppers, onions, and chopped ham. All the ingredients are tossed into a bowl, scrambled with a fork, and then poured onto a lightly greased griddle. While you are cooking the egg mixture, you must scrape it as best you can into a square shape the size of your bread. While the Western is on the griddle, toast 2-pieces of white bread, and butter them well. I like to place a piece of Swiss cheese on the egg mixture right before taking it off the griddle, although this is not traditional and is frowned upon by Western Sandwich purists. When the eggs are done, place them between the two slices of buttered toast, cut in half, and there is your perfect Western sandwich. To complete the meal, serve with hot coffee, and maybe a slice of apple pie for dessert.

According to The American Century Cookbook, pioneers invented the Western sandwich. The book notes that it was common for eggs to begin to spoil after a long haul over hot trails. In order to salvage them and mask their bad flavor, the book says pioneer women mixed eggs with onions and any other seasonings on hand and thus was the beginning of the Western sandwich. You can find versions of the Western sandwich at diners around the country, but because people are into more glamorous and complex dishes, they are usually served as giant omelets with toast on the side. But a real Western sandwich is not a gastronomic explosion; it’s a small portion, a satisfying treat, great for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

I visited the Simsbury Pharmacy last summer and found it hadn’t changed as much as I thought, although naturally the soda fountain and lunch counter were gone, replaced by an enormous reach-in beverage refrigerator. But the business still had that old fashioned, small town charm. I chatted with the present owner, who shared some of his memories of the old time lunch counter. Little did I know when I took that job back in 1973 that I would someday open my own lunch establishment and catering business, based on many of the skills I learned from my first, real job.

These days, when I’m hankering for some comfort food, reminiscent of simpler times, I cook up a Western sandwich just for me, served with a piping hot cup of coffee. And it still tastes just as good as I remembered it, so many years ago.

Music credit: Once Tomorrow (Instrumental Version) by Josh Woodward is used under CC BY 3.0.


A Brief History of Chicken Soup

My former husband Byard and I have disagreed about a multitude of things over the past thirty something years we have known each other, but none so vehemently as the proper way to prepare chicken soup. My mother’s recipe required simmering the chicken and vegetables in seasoned water to make a stock, then removing everything from the pot, skimming off the fat, clarifying the broth, and then cooking thin egg noodles in a separate pot. She would then place some noodles, vegetables and meat in each bowl, and pour the broth over all. In this manner, she would not compromise the integrity of the broth, which should be as clear as you can possibly make it. I use a technique where I put some lightly beaten egg whites and crumbled egg shells into the broth after I’ve strained out the other ingredients. I bring the broth back to a gentle simmer over medium heat, for about 10 minutes, and then strain it again through cheesecloth. The eggs and egg shells will be left behind, along with any impurities, and you will have the most crystal clear broth.

As a child, this was a delightful way to enjoy chicken soup. I could help myself to as many noodles as I wanted, then a couple of carrots, a bit of meat, then pour the simmering broth over all. But while I was growing up on clear chicken stock, my husband was diving into a big bowl of thick and creamy chicken, corn and noodle soup, prepared by his own mother, Rose, and yes, this was how her own mother, Gran Thomas, showed her how to make chicken soup.

Rose altered the original chicken, corn and noodle soup recipe, however, by using store bought egg noodles instead of the homemade “rivells” that her mother added to the soup. Rivells are a Pennsylvania Dutch invention, and they’re kind of like tiny dumplings. Gran Thomas would mix eggs with flour, and then rub the mixture between her hands so little pieces of dough would drop into the soup. Rose exclaimed that she grew to hate those rivells, though, so she added extra wide egg noodles instead, and her chicken, corn and noodle soup became their family tradition.

Chicken soup has acquired the reputation of a being folk remedy for colds and other ailments, and in many countries is considered a comfort food, just like here in the United States. In fact, chicken soup has been around so long that it’s impossible to even document who made the first chicken soup. But you can find versions of this beloved dish in nearly every country, continent, and cookbook.

Both my mother’s chicken soup and Rose’s chicken soup are actually quite good, but I refused to make my husband’s family soup for years, based on some stupid principle that I would be disloyal to my own family traditions. Plus, I really liked my mother’s chicken soup – that clear, salty broth and yummy, skinny noodles. Hogwash, I realize now, as I love Rose’s soup just as well. So, on a recent rainy day, I decided to make a pot of chicken, corn and noodle soup, just as Rose prepares it, for a special luncheon I was hosting. In just a few minutes my guests ate every bite, even going into my kitchen to scrape up the dregs from the pot. Obviously everyone loved it, and I can now put the chicken soup wars to rest, at last.

I do love my mother’s chicken soup, though, as it has cured numerous aches, pains, colds, flus, and even a couple a broken hearts throughout the years. But as I sat down to a bowl of Rose’s chicken, corn and noodle soup, I found it warmed my heart, and brought me comfort on a chilly winter afternoon.


Music credit: “Once Tomorrow (Instrumental Version)” by Josh Woodward is used under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Photo credit: “chicken soup” by stu_spivack is used under CC BY-SA 2.0.




A Brief History of Chocolate

The first time I received chocolates for Valentine’s Day was when I was 7 years old. A boy in my class presented me with a tiny, heart-shaped box of Russell Stover chocolates, bought from the local drug store. I was instantly smitten, and would go on to judge all my future boyfriends by the chocolates they gave me. Some women require jewelry and romantic candlelight dinners, but give me a box of chocolate truffles and I will be yours for life.

Chocolate has been used for medicine, ritual, and for pleasure for over 4000 years – it’s no wonder we all have a special place in our hearts for this heavenly foodstuff. But where does chocolate actually come from? Well, the cocoa beans that form the basis of chocolate are actually seeds from the fruit of the cacao tree, which grows near the Equator. The seeds grow inside a pod-like fruit and are covered with white pulp. To make chocolate, cocoa farmers crack open the pods, scoop out the seeds, ferment and dry them, then ship the beans elsewhere, where they are roasted, ground, and mixed with sugar and various ingredients to make chocolate.

I’ve never figured precisely why chocolates and Valentine’s Day go hand-in-hand, until a pastry chef explained that it has to do with decadence, and some sort of chemical that makes our brain happy when we eat chocolate. Combine a box of chocolates with a bottle of champagne and a plate of raw oysters (not necessarily in that order) and sparks are sure to fly.

When I was attending college in Connecticut, I once took a train all the way into New York City, just to buy a box of Godiva chocolates. Godivas were considered the ultimate extravagance back in those days, and since I didn’t have a boyfriend then, at least I had good chocolates to eat on Valentine’s Day. But nowadays you can find a gourmet chocolatier in nearly every town, offering unique fillings and flavors.

So what’s my favorite chocolate recipe? Hands down it’s gotta be Maida Haetter’s Chocolate Cheesecake Brownies. Maida Haetter was the quintessential pastry chef of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, and her chocolate dessert recipes are still the very best today. Her brownies are absolutely decadent, and take a ridiculous two and a half hours to prepare and bake, but worth every minute. The recipe calls for making a rich brownie batter, AND a chocolate cheesecake batter, and then layering them both in a pan before baking. The recipe makes 16 pretty good size brownies, and I assure you, that you will not want to share them.

The making of chocolate has evolved into an industry so large that 40 to 50 million people depend on cocoa for their livelihoods – and chocolate farmers produce 3.8 million tons of cocoa beans per year. That means every time you eat chocolate, you are helping small family farmers in West Africa, Southeast Asia, and Central and South America make a good living for themselves and provide a better future for their children. That means I can eat all the chocolate I want, guiltless and carefree, this Valentine’s Day. What’s not to love about that?


(A portion of this essay appeared in Jacksonville Magazine in 2015)

Music credit: “Once Tomorrow (Instrumental Version)” by Josh Woodward is used under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Photo credit: “Box of Chocolate” by Susanne Nilsson is used under CC BY-SA 2.0