Chocolate caramels are far from a monolith in the confectionery world. Whether caramel filled chocolates or chewy candies made by melting chocolate and caramel together, chocolate caramels become further diverse with different flavorings such as salt, orange, elderflower, cherry, cinnamon, and more. But do caramel and chocolate have a more significant relationship beyond being culinary soulmates? To answer this question requires first exploring what caramel is and then analyzing the artistic representations of caramel using modern understandings of chocolate. This blog post will discuss caramel as a literary symbol in two creative pieces – one fictional and one nonfictional – to argue that caramel, like chocolate, is a paradoxical figure of both familiarity and exoticism.
Caramel refers both to a chemical manipulation of sugar – the results of which are featured in many sweets such as toffee, caramel hard candies, dulce de leche, and creme brûlée to name a few – and a soft, gooey or chewy golden-brown sweet substance popular as a candy itself, a filling or mixer for chocolate, or a thick sauce.
Caramel is named after Count Albufage Caramel of Nismes, who is credited with discovering caramel as the final stage of boiling sugar in the 17th century (The Complete Confectioner 1883), though this perspective does not take into account traditional caramelized goods, candies, and recipes in non-Western contexts. Thanks to the trade network among the Americas, Africa, and Europe, the upper echelons of European and American society were familiar with sugar, the crucial ingredient in caramel. The difficulty of properly boiling and manipulating sugar soon made caramel in high demand (Confectioner).
In an American context specifically, the history of chocolate and caramel are inextricable. Milton Hershey, for example, is a name almost synonymous with chocolate. The truth is, Hershey was a repeatedly failed businessman until he perfected his recipe for caramel and created the Lancaster Caramel Company (Koonar 2018:341). It was only after the company’s success that Hershey became interested in chocolate, and his ability to fund his new hobby was largely due to selling the caramel company for $1 million, an unprecedented price for the beginning of the 20th century (341).
The influence of Hershey and other American confectioners quickly established caramel as an American treat among European audiences (Olver 2000). Industrialization made mass-producing chocolate and caramel possible, yet the continued thought of these foods as American belies their dependence on chief ingredients cacao and sugar, both of whom came from exploitation of non-Western workers and goods.
Most of a century later, the familiar-yet-exotic connotations of both chocolate and caramel stay strong. In the 2000 film Chocolat, for example, chocolate is rendered both instinctual and foreign, as an outsider opens a chocolate store in a sleepy French town and demonstrates her knack for guessing everyone’s favorite chocolate, even if they do not know it themselves.
Similarly, caramel appeals to the basest biological senses of taste and consumption yet is rich and rare enough to be foreign – or recognizable but uncommon at most – to many people’s diets. For example, a study in Israel on consumer behaviors toward unfamiliar foods used imported caramel and peanut candies to examine how consumers may use unfamiliar goods’ prices as a proxy for their perceived quality (Heffetz and Shayo 2009:174).
This sweet paradox of familiar foreignness, of exotic familiarity, manifests in artistic representations of caramel as well. In particular, this blog post examines a short story and a nonfiction essay for two modern ways of rendering caramel at once familiar and foreign beyond its history as a colonial food.
Reeni Fischer’s humorously disturbing ode to caramel takes the form of a short story about an unnamed narrator who cannot resist her husband Sammy’s favorite junk food: a mess of popcorn, butter, nuts, and caramel known as Poppycock (Fischer 2007:40). Usually she disagrees with her husband’s tastes, denouncing his proclivity for all things fatty (39). Her one exception is Poppycock, which Sammy keeps locked in the closet along with his other favorite snacks. (40)
It quickly becomes apparent that Sammy keeps Poppycock under lock and key at the request and for the benefit of the narrator, who instructs him not to open the closet unless she begs (40). Her desperation for the food eventually grows so great that she tears at Sammy’s clothes and threatens to dissect him, after which he unlocks the closet and she devours the whole industrial-sized tin of Poppycock in a haze (40).
The narrator’s craving for Poppycock is shocking, especially against the backdrop of her usually healthy diet and her evident affection for her husband. In this story Poppycock practically takes on a mythical air, transforming the narrator into a golem-like creature who loses even the ability to form complete sentences or thoughts in her one-minded mission for the food (40). At the same time, this unearthly substance resides not in some faraway kingdom but in her husband’s closet, locked by her own command. Fischer’s story, therefore, epitomizes the familiar yet exotic nature of caramel, to the point of near absurdity.
Jenny McKeel’s essay, on the other hand, approaches the caramel paradox from a perspective based in memory. She writes about growing up with her siblings on a strict macrobiotic diet, with exceptions for holidays thanks to her father’s advocacy (McKeel 2013:102). While the essay’s focus is on how McKeel’s relationship with her father is transformed by the latter’s eventual battle with Alzheimer’s disease, she tells the reader about their relationship by recounting the times they cheated on their strict diet together, sneaking into the kitchen at night or eating particularly fatty foods when her mother was out of town (103, 106).
As a result, despite being a vegan and health nut McKeel describes a positive impression of decadent foods, over which she and her father bond throughout the years. But most striking is her describing a childhood visit to her paternal grandmother’s house and eating her grandmother’s caramel pie. Although she has listed several contraband foods that she and her father enjoy together by this point in the essay, the caramel pie is the first where she describes the experience of eating a contraband food with him.
The importance imbued on the caramel pie by this artistic choice is furthered by McKeel’s and her father’s contrasting reactions to the pie. She eats the dessert with joy and is disturbed by her father’s lack of enthusiasm (102), which the reader realizes later is uncharacteristic for a man so enthusiastic about cooking and food.
McKeel’s confusion, namely, “How can you still be sad with caramel pie?,” points to an alternate understanding of caramel as both commonplace and special (102). While McKeel and her family did not eat caramel pie at home, they had it every summer when they visited her paternal grandmother, thereby associating the pie with comfort and routine (102). On the other hand, McKeel’s question lends almost a medicinal quality to caramel pie, as if all emotional ailments are curable with caramel pie and therefore her father’s sorrow is confounding. For a mere pie to have such qualities is certainly unusual, thereby bestowing a strange or exotic air upon this otherwise homely food.
While Fischer’s and McKeel’s writings are only two examples of caramel as a literary or artistic symbol, the striking parallels between their use of this confectionery demonstrate caramel’s function as both exotic and familiar, not unlike Chocolat‘s use of chocolate. In addition to complementing each other perfectly in the kitchen, caramel and chocolate can both evoke contradictory feelings of home and the unfamiliar as well. Perhaps caramel’s role as both familiar and unfamiliar is thanks to its affinity for chocolate and therefore gains this role by association. Whatever the reason, worldwide enjoyment of chocolate, caramel, and chocolate caramels has influenced creative and academic endeavors in addition to culinary adventures and will likely continue to do so.
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Fischer, Reeni. “Licking the Platter Clean.” Gastronomica 7, no. 1 (2007): 39-40.
Heffetz, Ori, and Moses Shayo. “How Large Are Non-Budget-Constraint Effects of Prices on
Demand?” American Economic Journal: Applied Economics 1, no. 4 (2009): 170-199.
Koonar, Catherine. “Making Chocolate American: Labor, Tourism, and American Empire in
the Hershey Company, 1903–85.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and
Biography 142, no. 3 (2018): 339-364. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5215/
McKeel, Jenny. “Hamburger Pie.” Gastronomica 15, no. 2 (2013): 101-118.
Olver, Lynne. “Caramel.” The Food Timeline. 2000. http://www.foodtimeline.org/foodcandy
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