Ah, Valentine’s Day…a day when my thoughts turn to sweets. But it’s interesting to note that there are other food items associated with the holiday, in particular some herbs that we are already familiar with. Basil is a symbol of fertility and a long time ago, women used to wear them as a sign to their unmarried state. Nothing like the scent of an Italian herb to signal availability. Rosemary is a symbol of love and frequently included in medieval wedding bouquets. And who doesn’t love the relaxing scent of lavender, considered to be an aphrodisiac. Oh uh, I’m not going there – I’m writing about love, not lust.
Strawberries have always been considered romantic and it probably stems from looking like red hearts. They are also thought of as the symbol of Venus, the Roman goddess of love. Accompanied by some wine, well…Wine gives that warm feeling similar to the bliss one feels when in love.
More than 62% of Americans celebrate Valentine’s Day but the holiday is not limited to lovers. Some people gives gifts even to their pets and school children are busy decorating cards for their parents, teachers, and friends, exchanging candy, especially Necco Sweethearts, otherwise known as “conversation hearts.” These were invented in 1866. Each box has about 45 sayings and they have changed over the years to reflect the times but you can also personalize your own. The company adds about 10 new sayings each year. They make 8 billion hearts each year and they start making them right after February 14 to have enough for the following Valentine’s Day, churning out 100,000 pounds of little hearts daily. I balked at the thought of eating a year-old box of candy but the company noted that they have a shelf life of five years.
But nothing beats the one food that reigns – Chocolate! According to the National Confectioners Association, Americans spend around $1 billion for Valentine’s candy, 75% of that will be on chocolate. An overwhelming 69% of Americans prefer receiving chocolate to flowers.
Chocolate has a history of being a food of love. It was highly-prized by the Mayan and Aztec as a drink. By the early 1600s, it has become very popular in Europe, consumed in the court of Louis XIV. Only the rich could afford chocolate and it was considered an extravagance. But things changed around the reign of Queen Victoria. In 1847, J.S. Fry & Sons, a British chocolate maker, made the first modern-day chocolate bar. A few years later, they sold the first filled chocolates with flavored centers. Industrialization made chocolate affordable to the middle classes.
Richard Cadbury, a chocolatier, developed a recipe for a creamier chocolate by the mid-1800s. He is also credited to have created the first heart-shaped box. In 1861, he began manufacturing “Fancy Boxes”, assorted bonbons in a box with a heavily decorated lid. The chocolates were filled with marzipan, chocolate-flavored ganache and fruity cremes in lace doilies. In 1868, after giving a special heart-shaped box to this sweetheart, his company began making these boxes, the earliest versions having hand-decorated lids. The Victorians prized the boxes, keeping them after consuming the chocolates, to store various mementos and letters. Cadbury had brilliantly capitalized on the Victorian penchant for ornamentation and sentimentality. The idea became a global phenomenon and spread to the English-speaking world.
Today, more than 40 million heart-shaped boxes are sold on Valentine’s Day or about 58 million pounds of chocolate. Over half of those will be from Russell Stover. The company started in Clara Stover’s Denver kitchen in 1923. They began selling Valentine’s chocolates in heart-shaped boxes to department stores in the Midwest. Now their wholesale business is focused on drugstores and big-box retailers like Walmart and Target. One of their biggest sellers is the “Secret Lace Heart” – a chocolate box covered in satin and black lace. It’s thought to have been inspired by actress Jean Harlow. Vavavavoom!
My husband gave me a box of Russell Stover truffles today. A man after my own heart! It’s not in a heart-shaped box but who cares? I enjoy chocolate, even if it’s just licking it off a spatula (which I did today when I made his favorite no-bake cheesecake). Now if you don’t have a sweetheart to give you a box of chocolate, fret not. Have no qualms about buying chocolate for yourself. Especially tomorrow, when they are all on sale!