Hot Cocoa

First wine, then coffee, now chocolate: America goes gourmet. But is there a dark side?

| January-February 2006

  • chocolate

    Image by Flickr user: thepinkpeppercorn / Creative Commons

  • chocolate

You don’t need a Golden Ticket to visit Hershey’s Chocolate World, but a Golden Map might come in handy. Although it’s located in the small town of Hershey, Pennsylvania (the self-described “sweetest place on earth”), the ersatz chocolate factory is surrounded by a network of parking lots so byzantine you feel like you’re headed toward the notoriously unapproachable Mall of America. 

Fitting, since after you finally wend your way past the sea of cars and through the doors of Chocolate World, you’re confronted by a dizzying array of products: pillows shaped like giant Hershey’s Kisses, tubes of chocolate-scented lip gloss, trendy blue handbags embossed with miniature candy bars, and, of course, rack after rack of the Hershey chocolate candy most of us grew up with—Hershey’s bars, Kit Kats, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Almond Joys, you name it. 

Founded on a humble six-acre plot in 1903 by Milton Hershey, the Hershey Company has since grown into a manufacturing juggernaut, single-handedly turning the town of Hershey into a major tourist destination that features not only Chocolate World but also Hershey Gardens, Hershey Theater, and Hersheypark, an amusement park that helps draws an astonishing 2 million visitors to town annually. Yet, taken as a whole, the various Hershey attractions are at once exhausting, lifeless, and obsolete. Sure, the town might service families who want to wear out their kids for the day, but the activities have little to do with any real passion for chocolate. To boot, the entire experience ignores—and feels woefully out of step with—the burgeoning artisanal chocolate movement. 

We’ve come a long way from the time when Milton Hershey and Forrest Mars Sr. held us in thrall with their chocolate confections. To be sure, the Hershey Company and Mars Inc. together still dominate the $11.4 billion sales of the U.S. chocolate industry, but premium chocolate companies like Ghirardelli, Lindt, and Perugina, for example, have broken out of the specialty-store ghetto into mainstream venues. Americans, it seems, are finally getting savvy about chocolate. 

“It’s like olive oil,” says Mort Rosenblum, author of the recent book Chocolate: A Bittersweet Saga of Dark and Light (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2005). “Once people catch on, it goes through levels. First is the big fad level where you can sell anything in a fancy box. Then, suddenly, people start noticing what’s in the box, and you have to start producing good quality. We’re at that stage now where a lot of people are demanding good chocolate.” 

After discovering the pleasures of premium coffee beans, heirloom tomatoes, and microbrewed beer, many Americans have learned to appreciate the difference between mass-produced, industrial chocolate like Hershey’s (what Rosenblum refers to as “sugared wax”) and artisanal varieties infused with ingredients, such as sea salt, balsamic vinegar, chili peppers, and saffron, that are normally reserved for savory dishes. 

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