American Plate - Bite #77: Hershey Bars

Tuesday, September 22, 2015
While I'm not dreading any of the Bites I'll be sampling for this project, there's no denying that some of them are a lot more fun and accessible than others. I'm not even a sugar-hound, but I was very pleased to see Hershey Bars on the list. I mean, just about everyone enjoys chocolate in some way, shape, or form, so what is there to dislike about being tasked with wolfing some down? Americans can't get enough of it, but its popularity is anything but modern.

Archaeologists have found vessels in Olmec sites dating to about 1700 BC that still have remnants of chocolate in them. Ancient citizens of South American and Mesoamerican societies loved chocolate at any temperature in its natural, more bitter form. They consumed it as a drink, as medicine, or with added cocoa butter. Their intense love of chocolate caught the attention of European explorers, and it was speedily transported back to the Old World. Religious types feared it as a powerful aphrodisiac, so it was kept mostly under lock and key during the 16th century.

Chocolate couldn't stay secret forever, though, and once it was sweetened, it spent the 17th and 18th centuries exploding into popular use. It was definitely a luxury, but during the 1820s and '30s, a Dutch family named the Van Hootens developed a method of processing the beans that made cocoa powder a lot more affordable, allowing chocolate to filter down to the common man. By 1875, the Swiss had perfected milk chocolate.

While all this history is fascinating, this Bite is about one company and its instrumental role in spreading chocolate across the United States. Milton Hershey first ran across the chocolate-making process demonstrated at the Chicago World Columbian Exposition in 1893. He was utterly convinced that chocolate was the future of American sweets, and eagerly jumped into the business. By 1900, he had developed the Hershey Bar, and a short 3 years later, he sold off his existing caramel business to devote all his energy to chocolate.

We've seen time and again that the development and spread of certain food products can take years, if not decades or even centuries. This is emphatically not the case with Hershey Bars. After its development in 1900, its popularity immediately skyrocketed, and variations on it were rolling out in the blink of an eye. Hershey Kisses appear in 1907. Mr. Goodbar popped up in 1925. Hershey Syrup followed in 1926, and by 1938, Krackel was on the scene.

Hershey Bars weren't only used as sweets, though. It was also adapted into a high-calorie ration that could be given to soldiers during World War II. These D Rations were resistant to melting and lightweight, so they could be taken anywhere. They weren't developed to be a delightful treat, and in fact, and most servicemen detested them. They were certainly effective, though, and not only in a nutritional sense. Soldiers would give them out to civilians, some of whom were under-nourished children who really benefited from the calorie boost. American GIs gained a reputation for being generous and kind, and the Hershey company would get a military award for excellence for their participation in the war effort.

Happily, I didn't feel the need to eat military rations for this project. I started with the obvious: Just straight-up eating some Hershey Bars, though I did sneak a little variation in by getting one with almonds, too. You'll also note a bag of Hershey Miniatures in the pic. Those things are not only perfect for trick-or-treaters, but they're usually the sole method by which I can get my hands on Mr. Goodbar and Krackel, both of which I adore. The second picture features some Hershey Bars I broke up as an integral component to the S'mores plate I took to a party, which was very well-received. Though I didn't consume any for this particular project, I can also report that Hershey Syrup is my go-to if I ever find myself in need of chocolate milk.

Hershey is not without its drawbacks. The glut of milk and sugar means it doesn't taste enough like "real" chocolate to a lot of discerning eaters these days. I try to be more expansive in my food habits, and don't feel like I have to choose sides. It's true, I'll often want the stronger cocoa flavor in the bars and truffles made by one of my local chocolatiers. But that shouldn't preclude me from enjoying a Hershey bar from time to time. As I mentioned at the beginning of the entry, I don't have much of a sweet tooth, but even I have a fondness for the classics. Hershey represents different things to different people, but it's more than earned its reputation as a benchmark of American sweets.