Last Thursday, March 3, was the seventy-fifth anniversary of the market launch of M&M’s. While this milestone may not be a significant watershed in human history, it does tell us something about our passion for chocolate. M&M’s are now the second most popular candy brand in the country (right behind Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups), with estimated annual sales exceeding $500 million.
Chocolate has been with us for thousands of years, but in very different forms: it was originally consumed as an unsweetened, bitter liquid. In fact, a Jesuit missionary who lived in Central and South America during the 16th century described the taste as “loathsome,” and was particularly repulsed by the foam on top of the drink. When the Spaniards brought chocolate back to Europe, the royal court added honey or sugar to sweeten it, and the craze was born. By the mid-19th century, manufacturers discovered that adding melted cacao butter made solid chocolate more moldable.
From the beginning, it was reputed to have aphrodisiac qualities. When Cortés arrived to conquer Mexico in 1519 he observed that Montezuma was served “a certain drink made from cacao,” which “It was said that it gave one power over women, but this I never saw.” The myth survives to this day—think of all the chocolate you have given or received on Valentine’s Day, and ponder the effect those gifts actually had on your love life.
Americans buy chocolate all year long, to the tune of nearly $20 billion, but we particularly use it to commemorate holidays. Easter easily outdoes Valentine’s Day, with more than 70 million pounds of chocolate sold in the preceding week. The chocolate Easter bunny was a 20th century phenomenon, and the tradition of hollowing them out began during World War II, when the government rationed chocolate and cocoa.
The most expensive chocolate Easter egg ever made was created by London chocolatier William Curley. It weighed 110 pounds and took seven skilled craftsmen three days to manufacture. It was decorated with gold leaf but was otherwise devoid of jewels. The $10,000 price tag might give some buyers pause, but it was eventually sold at a charity auction, with the proceeds donated to children’s causes at a charity auction, with the proceeds donated to children’s causes.
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History (Lyons Press, 2012) and Moonshine Nation (Lyons Press, 2014); his first novel, Friend of the Devil, is forthcoming from Black Opal Books in 2016. For more information, go to amazon.com