This week, the Virginia Arts Festival will put on the Virginia Chocolate Festival, which brings together local vendors, chefs, and bartenders for a veritable chocolate expo on Saturday, complete with demonstrations, exhibits, samplings, and sales. I have tickets, and I am psyched.
My girlfriend asked me the other night what my favorite chocolate was. I didn’t even have to think: Hershey’s.
We all have little obsessions that sort of claim us in our adolescence; mine was chocolate. Most teenagers become obsessed with things I deem a little more normal: musicians, activities, clothing. I was obsessed with chocolate. Chocolate was my grunge music, my hacky sack, my Daria.
It’s hard to pinpoint the beginning of my obsession. That’s like asking you to remember the first time you ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Chocolate isn’t something most people come to later in life. We’re raised on it, in a sense. Perhaps it stemmed from my mom making peanut butter balls, covered in semisweet chocolate. Perhaps it had to do with stirring Nestle’s Quik into my milk (making it a far superior beverage). Maybe I can credit Halloween or Easter or Christmas, all holidays that are accompanied by candy.
I’m not sure when it started. But in retrospect, I can identify the moment when we might begin to call it an obsession.
I was fourteen years old in Mrs. Kitchens’s English class. I had recently decided that instead of being an elementary school teacher (my career goal up to that point), I was going to become a pastry chef. I was taking home economics, and I liked it, and I liked to eat, so what was left to do but set my compass to Pastry Town and get on with it?
For our final project in English, Mrs. Kitchens assigned for us to do a research paper. We didn’t have to create an argument or anything; we just had to research a subject we were passionate about and write a paper on it and do a presentation.
My research subject: Milton Hershey, founder of Hershey’s Chocolate. I liked Milton. He was too clumsy to work in the letter press printing business he was apprenticed to, so he left, bounced around the country for a few years, before he came home to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to establish a caramel company. Caramels quickly gave way to chocolate, and the rest is history.
I gave out Hershey’s bars as part of my presentation, and I think it was the best work I did all year in that class. Reading Edith Hamilton’s Mythology: snooze. Hershey’s chocolate: suddenly, I’m engaged.
I used to hoard candy in my room, kept chocolate chip cookie dough under my bed (a 5lb tub that I bought at a marching band fundraiser – I’m lucky I didn’t end up with salmonella). In any drawer in my bedroom, you could have found candy bars, sour gummy worms, and the occasional bag of Dorito’s. I hid these items for two reasons: 1) we weren’t supposed to eat in our rooms for fear of drawing insects; 2) my parents seemed concerned about my avid consumption of candy, candy, and more candy. I’m sure they thought of the very practical concerns, like diabetes and cavities.
I remember walking down the aisle at Target one day with a bag of gummy worms in hand, seeing my mother approaching from the other direction, and tossing said bag of gummy worms down the aisle to my right with little care for whether I might hit an innocent bystander with projectile candy. I didn’t want to be caught buying more cavity-making candy.
I bought chocolate decorations – a Hershey’s throw blanket, a Hershey’s pillow, antique Hershey’s signs that still decorate my old bedroom at my mom’s house, and Hershey’s apparel.
I had a favorite way to consume Hershey’s bars. Back when they still had paper wrappers, I would place the candy bar under my leg for about ten minutes, letting it melt to a slightly fudgey consistency so that it was soft and tore rather than broke. Try it. Amazing.
I was raised Southern Baptist, which I mention because I did a 40-day fast that was not Lent. We, as a church, fasted for forty days. I thought about what I could give up. TV? Email? My sister suggested chocolate. The suggestion made me feel uncomfortable and sad and deprived, which meant it was perfect.
Like Noah in the ark, for forty days and forty nights, I abstained from chocolate. I would sometimes dream that I had eaten chocolate, or drank some delicious coffee beverage that had chocolate in it without my knowledge. That I had eaten a Peep without plucking off the two tiny chocolate dots for the eyes. I would wake with a feeling of epic guilt until I realized it was only a dream and I had not, in fact, betrayed my holy vow not to consume my obsession for forty days, a period of time that, might I add, fell during Girl Scout cookie season. I’m just saying.
On the forty-first day, my sister came to visit me at school with a slice of cookie cake from the Great American Cookie Company, covered in chocolate frosting. I ate it so fast that I got sick. It was glorious.
My dad has photos of me making truffles at his apartment. I got candy molds from my Granny’s shed, and he bought me chocolate, which I painted into the molds with a small paint brush, creating the shell for truffles that would be filled with sickly sweet green or pink sugary filling I bought from the Wilton baking section at Garden Ridge. I liked the ritual of painting with chocolate; it made me feel like a real pastry chef.
When I was sixteen, my brother died in a car accident. My mom took me on a trip that fall, just weeks after 9/11, to Hershey, Pennsylvania. We went to the Hershey Factory Museum (they don’t let you inside the actual factory). We stayed at the Hershey Hotel, where I had always wanted to go. It was a trip that was meant to be an escape after the months of Hell following the accident. And for a few days, my mom and I ate out at restaurants, and went to Amish country, and snacked on a seemingly endless supply of Hershey’s chocolate (the housekeeping staff left Hershey’s kisses on our pillows each night). My mom bought me a Hershey’s t-shirt, which was maroon (I expected it to be brown, but the wrappers were actually a dark shade of maroon, which they later dropped when they went to plastic wrappers instead of paper). I wore that shirt all the time, even in my senior pictures.
I have two great loves that will last a life time: Rebe McEntire and chocolate. And in that spirit, I am dedicating my blog, this week, to the latter (though now that I think of it, they’re not mutually exclusive, I could listen to Reba while making chocolatey things).