What I ate last night
Here’s a story for you. Sometime during the mid-1950s, Hollywood idol and all-round hunk Cary Grant left a trail of sweets through his fancy suite at the Mayfair Hotel in St Louis, leading a delicate trail to the master bedroom. Here he placed a single chocolate on the pillow atop a saucy note addressed to his mistress in the hope that the sweet treat would entice her to, ahem, bed him.
Whether he was successful that particular night is sadly unconfirmed, but as the dastardly rogue was engaged to his future third wife at the time, actress Betsy Drake, this caused a minor scandal. The Mayfair manager, however, was inspired by Grant’s inventive romanticism (no doubt helped along by the free publicity) and swiftly instigated a policy of sweets on pillows for all his guests. Hotels in the area soon followed suit, the trend spread internationally and the hotel pillow mint was born.
Now, I’ve never stayed anywhere fancy enough to wake in the middle of the night with a Mint Pattie smooshed to my cheek (although it did happen once with a chicken nugget and the other kind of cheek, earning me the regrettable yet enduring nickname ‘Bumnugget’), but the anecdote neatly demonstrates that the chocolate backstory is seldom boring.
If you’ve ever spent Easter morning betting your sister she can’t eat seven Cadbury Crème Eggs before her fillings fall out, like me you’re probably not the churchgoing type. But for many Easter is a deeply religious festival whose ceremony considers much more than the date and duration of the long weekend. How it became synonymous with excessive consumption of chocolate confectionery is an odd one. As a small and rather gullible child attending a Catholic primary school, even I didn’t buy that bunny rabbits were present at the crucifixion, much less newly-hatched chicks at the apparent resurrection three days later, yet in Australia alone schoolchildren and adults alike stuff themselves with over $200m of chocolate bunnies (or bilbies) and eggs every year, all in the name of Jesus.
The thinking behind it (or so I was instructed back in 1989 by a rather severe and humourless RE teacher in moleskin slacks) was that the rabbits represent rebirth through prolific and unchecked breeding, eggs are symbolic of new life (actual human birth being taboo) and chocolate frogs were half price down at the Judea markets that day. I may not have got her words 100 per cent correct, but that was the general gist.
The egg thing has its roots in Medieval tradition, when Western Christians were barred from eating eggs (or meat, or dairy, or indeed anything fun) during Lent. Any eggs laid in that time were pickled or preserved until they could be gifted to children and servants at Easter, which after a month on bread and water must have been a right treat. Chocolate versions didn’t appear until the late 1800s and they were, by all accounts, nasty, gritty things. But advances in technology and production, and extremely effective marketing by the likes of Cadbury and Nestlé, allowed a new commercial industry to be born.
Speaking of Jesus (sort of), there’s no record of him sharing a steaming cup of hot cocoa with Judas over the Last Supper before being sold out for 30 pieces of silver and a new iPad, as chocolate didn’t arrive in Europe or the Middle East until well after the Roman Empire crumbled.
As long ago as 1900 bce the humble cocoa bean, or Xocolatl, was considered a gift from the Gods by the Mesoamericans. It was believed to hold special powers and was revered in a range of spiritual ceremonies. The Latin name for the cacao tree, Theobroma cacao, literally translates to “food of the gods”.
Xocolatl was consumed as a bitter liquid from fancy cups whose design varied depending on whether you were Olmec (squat and round), Mayan (tall and tapered) or Aztec (tall and slender). These were the shapes of the vessels, by the way, not the people. The Aztecs, who were busy building the future ruins of Teotihuacan, possibly in the hope that 4000 or so years hence they’d provide Millennials in expensive hiking boots the perfect selfie backdrop, valued the precious beans so highly they used them as currency.
Christopher Columbus is said to have first brought cocoa beans back to Europe in 1502, but given his holds were also full of shiny galleons and, for all his years of exploring this was one of his rare success stories, the beans didn’t quite gain the attention they deserved. Conquistador Henry Cortez, following in Columbus’ footsteps and a lot sharper than his predecessor, saw their commercial value and in 1528 brought three chests full of them back to Spain. At first no one knew quite what to make of the new product, much in the same way early explorers from the British Empire were mocked for holds full of seemingly worthless foreign leaves and seeds (i.e. tea, saffron, tobacco and peppercorns).
Cane sugar was soon added to combat the natural bitterness and slowly but surely, drinking cocoa developed a tentative foothold among the upper classes. Much like the aforementioned spices, it became a mark of status, wealth and indulgence.
Chocolate as we know it today was a bit longer in coming about; until the 1800s it was only ever consumed as a beverage. In 1828, a Dutch father and son team named Casparus and Coenraad Van Houten devised a way of pressing the fat (cocoa butter) of the cocoa bean from the paste to create a more refined cocoa concentrate. The process is known as Dutching, which isn’t nearly as rude as it sounds, and in 1849 a Brit named Joseph Fry refined the process by figuring out how to add the cocoa butter back in, along with milk and other tasty ingredients, to create a solid compound. He’d created the first modern chocolate.
Cadbury teamed up with Fry, adopted the process and produced their first chocolate bar in 1849, a rather dull affair by their standards as no one had thought to add filling yet. The Swiss won that race with the Toblerone in 1908, and soon iconic bars we still consume today were popping into existence, including Snickers in 1930, Mars Bar in 1932 and Kit Kat in 1937. (Incidentally, the slogan “Have a Break, Have a Kit Kat” was coined in 1958.) The first Australian chocolate bar was the humble Cherry Ripe, introduced before all of the above in 1924 by confectioner MacRobertsons.
Somewhat inevitably, however, chocolate was bound to spend some down time as a bland necessity rather than delicious treat. Enter the Great Wars of the 20th century, sugar rationing and the need to supply and sustain huge numbers of ground troops. World War II was not only a horrific theatre of death and desruction, it was also a major logistical challenge. For most personnel it meant being stuck in muddy trenches far from home, ordered to stay put and defend them for as long as it took to get shot. Naturally, food supply was a major issue. One partial solution came from US chocolate manufacturer Hersheys, who had produced the first wrapped chocolate bar in 1900 and hence had experience in spending more time on the packaging than the contents. In 1937 they created a bar even duller, more boring and tasteless than even their usual standards, simply named the D-Ration.
For anyone who grew up outside the USA and find Hershey’s products oddly waxy and flavourless, it was said that to reduce their appeal (so they wouldn’t be consumed until absolutely necessary) the D-ration bars were designed specifically to taste ”like a boiled potato”.
During the post-war era of the 1950s, 60s and early 70s the world rebuilt and soon rediscovered the simple gratification of sugar. The possibilities opened up by television advertising and product tie-ins gave chocolate a whole new reach among its target audience: children. This was not lost on the Quaker Oats Company, who released the novelty Wonka Bar as a promotional stunt for the film version of Roald Dahl’s 1964 classic ode to cocoa, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. That the company financed the film in the first place seems to be a total, err, coincidence.
Another significant chocolate-related event that occured in 1964, for Australians anyway, was the launch of the iconic Tim Tam biscuit. The director of food technology at Arnott’s, Ian Norris, pinched the idea during a 1958 trip to the UK from a similar product named the Penguin, and vowed “to make a better one”.
He did, and then Ross Arnott, who at the time had been living it up at the Kentucky Derby and was possibly still a bit drunk, made the executive decision that the name of the winning horse he had seen run that day would make an excellent name for a biscuit.
(For the record, Tim Tam overtook Lincoln Road on the home stretch to win the Derby by half a length.)
But back to the bikkie. Ever since Marcel Proust dipped his evening madeleine cake in his milky tea, prompting the rush of memories that gave us Remembrance of Things Past, the dunking of bikkies in beverages is a universal and socially acceptable past-time. But leave it to the bogans Down Under to take it one step further and develop what is, in fact, the chocolate biscuit equivalent of a beer bong.
No one knows who performed the first Tim Tam Slam (or what they called it at the time; Arnott’s, for reasons known only to their own marketing department, used the much less appetising ‘Tim Tam Suck’ in a 2002 campaign), but they were onto something. While hot beverages are the norm, try hoofing one of those bad boys through a snifter of port. Just make sure you go for the original filling. From Adriano Zumbo’s Choc Raspberry to Gelato Messina’s lychee and coconut abomination, I really think it’s time we left the humble Tim Tam alone. (Just don’t knock the coconut cream ones; they were brilliant.)
But back to Cary Grant. Is modern chocolate really an aphrodisiac? It does contain both tryptophan (a serotonin building block) and phenylethylamine (similar to amphetamine), which when combined are integral to sexual arousal and the sensation of falling in love. However, the jury is still out on whether a Caramello Koala contains enough of either to set the bedroom alight. But whether or not it worked for Cary Grant, Sexyland on the Stuart Highway do a nice line in chocolate body sauce (a friend told me), so why not give it a good, sweet crack?