The Evolving Chocolate Palate

I was confused a bit by what I believed to be chocolate,” said Mr. Alvarado, who had eaten only cheap commercial milk chocolate before he tried the Kallari bars. “Now I realize after all these years that I was eating something that wasn’t really chocolate.”
— When Chocolate is a Way of Life, The NY Times

I was raised by two adults who knew what it meant to live simply, frugally. My father was born into a family that at one time had wealth. But by the time he was born, the family fortune was lost and his childhood was one of gentile poverty. My mother was born just prior to the crash of 1929 and she watched her parents struggle, her middle-class family’s fortunes fluctuating wildly as she came of age.

I am the youngest of five, and in our family, chocolate was a treat, a luxury given when we were well-behaved or as an occasional bribe. When my father faithfully presented a Whitman Sampler to my mother on Christmas or Valentine’s Day, that box of magical chocolate goodies would be hidden by my mother and meted out by her over the next ten days. That yellow box with the stitched lettering was precious.

Me in the second row, upper left corner. Baltimore, Maryland. 1970. 

When I arrived at summer camp each year in Maine, the Hershey bar was the standard prize for campers who stood out in some way: the boy with the neatest bunk that week or the winner of a foot race. On camping trips, the reliably sweet, slightly acidic flavor was more about the sugar (and in later years, corn syrup) than the small amount of chocolate that was combined with emulsifiers, lecithin, and other wondrous (and mysterious) compounds born out of modern food chemistry. The Hershey bar (and for that matter Kit Kats, Nestle, Krackle, Mr. Goodbar and their ilk) are largely industrial food products whose manufacturers care little for the origin, history, nuance of regional flavor, or the social impact of their cacao. Unfortunately for most Americans, these substandard products created a national chocolate profile based on a very low bar. My mental model of good chocolate was just like every other American’s at the time: misguided and abysmal.

In the early 1980’s, I discovered Godiva Chocolates and believed that this truly was “fine chocolate.”  This richer form of milk chocolate somehow elevated my standards. And the gold packaging was a clear indicator of the craft that went into the making of this product. Or so I thought.

In 2001 I met Callie, the woman who would become my wife. She had a passion for this thing simply known as “dark chocolate.” My general response to the flavor was, “Yuck. Too strong, not sweet enough, not my mental model of chocolate.” And rather pricey too; I’m a frugal bastard. But, with a bit of a push from her, I slowly began to seek out various lesser–know brands of chocolate bars that were comprised of just a few simple ingredients, the best with just two: cacao and sugar. Tentatively I shifted my tastes, exploring the expensive chocolate sections of upscale groceries and specialty shops, noting the percentages of chocolate to sugar: experimenting with cacao percentages from 44 to 52, 52 to 60. Then, “Dare I try 70%?” Yes, I dared, and enjoy it frequently now.

Thirteen years later, Callie has challenged me to dive down the rabbit hole with her; to produce our own chocolate; to chase that ephemeral moment when someone tastes one of our products and realizes that the world of high-quality, artisanal chocolate is as nuanced and exciting as that of wine. And that the more one knows about the story behind their food, the more pleasurable the experience will be.