Tag Archives: familiarity

American Confectionery or Exotic Good? Caramel’s Modern Parallels to Chocolate

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.

Works Cited

Author Unknown. The Complete Confectioner, Pastry-Cook, and Baker. Philadelphia: J. P.
Lippincott & Co., 1864.

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

Time Toast. “History of Hershey Chocolate.” Last modified May 17, 2018. https://www.

CVS, Cardullo’s, and Their Consumers

We often see varieties of chocolate neatly arranged in so many stores, and the display is so tempting for customers walking by. Every shopping trip to a convenience or drug store is the same – make a rewarding selection between mainstream (and sometimes exotic) chocolate products. The tastings were set up in a way to acquire as much information as possible. The samples I acquired from CVS were: Ferrero Rocher hazelnut truffles (Italian), Hershey’s milk chocolate (American), Cadbury milk chocolate (English), Toblerone milk chocolate with nougat (Swiss), and Brookside dark chocolate with blueberries and almonds (American). The samples I acquired from Cardullo’s were: Niederegger’s Chocolate with marzipan (German), Truffettes milk chocolate covered marshmallows (French), Chuao Milk chocolate with potato chips (American/Venezuelan based), Vivra 65% dark with candied violets (American), and Taza 50% dark chocolate with guajillo chili. I recruited six tasters, and one taster was unable to try the dark chocolate samples, because dark chocolate disagrees with him. I expected that the tasters I shared various chocolate samples with would prefer more generic and familiar brands, such as the brands offered by CVS. However, by analyzing the results of my research done on various flavors of chocolate, it is apparent that my tasters generally preferred the less common chocolate bars without realizing it. This suggests that people do not put as much thought into their chocolate preferences as they really should be.

When organizing tastings for my research, I tried to get as many tasters as possible to taste my CVS and Cardullo’s products by themselves. There ended up being two groups of two, and two lone tasters. I wanted each person’s response to influence another person’s response as little as possible. Furthermore, none of the tasters were enrolled in Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. The students of the class now have an above average level of training for identifying specific tastes and smells in the chocolate, so I decided to test the abilities of non-chocolate scholars. I must admit that the whole tasting set-up was done by having in the back of my mind Barb Stuckey’s self-observation of her tasting skill after spending time working for the Mattson company. Barb excitedly recalls her “newfound skill” explaining that she “could take one bite of a food, consider it for a millisecond, and know exactly what it was missing that would give it an optimal taste (Stuckey 3)”. However, I was delighted to hear my tasters use descriptions for the samples, such as: dry, “varied texture”, “pop rock texture”, generic, “dull ‘thud’ sound”, sandy, “old book taste”, chalky, and/or matte colored.

The chocolate samples came from two different stores: CVS, and Cardullo’s Gourmet Shoppe, both in Harvard Square in Cambridge. Both stores are conveniently located in an area filled with people, some of whom may be hungry for a chocolate snack. Cardullo’s and CVS have their similarities, including the fact that they have their specific chocolate-seeking audiences. However, there is a difference between the chocolate-seeking audiences of Cardullo’s and CVS. Cardullo’s targets consumers of European origin and consumers with an interest in European culture, while CVS targets consumers that are not extremely fussy, and less willing to spend more for chocolate that would satisfy their cravings just as effectively. On a side note: the cost for all of the products between CVS and Cardullo’s totaled $46.34.

CVS’s chocolate is meant to “cater” to the general public. The store manager of the CVS location himself explained the ways in which the companies featured in the store cater to the general public. The confections sold at CVS are internationally recognized American and European brands whose confectionery styles do well with their plain chocolate, but also with commonly added flavors (some additional flavors include: caramel, nougat, nuts, and fruit). Hershey’s is a quintessential product at CVS, and must maintain their consumer loyalty with recognizable packaging, as well as producing creative ideas. For example, Hershey’s has designed resealable packaging to give their consumers a choice to eat some chocolate now and save the rest for later. A better alternative, rather than the consumer being forced to eat the entire product once it has been opened. Chocolate investigator, Kristy Leissle, begins her journal with, “Consider a hershey’s (sic) kiss. At once minimalist and iconic, the twist of silver foil sends a familiar flavor message to the brain, while the wrapper imparts nothing substantial about the chocolate (Leissle 22)”. When we see a chocolate product that is familiar to us, its iconic and memorable packaging prompts us to remember that what the product is. We also can trust familiar looking products to taste delicious if we decide to purchase them, rather than us risking the possibility of feeling like our money has been wasted on a bad tasting product.

Here is a selection of the most common chocolate products that we see for sale. The labels include the company name (i.e. Hershey), or a familiar product from Hershey (i.e. Reese’s). The label names are chosen carefully for consumers to easily recognize the products we want to purchase. The “Hershey’s” label will tell us that we are looking at a bar of plain chocolate, and might have a sub-description of nuts or caramel inside. The “Reese’s” label automatically signals to consumers that there is peanut butter complementing chocolate. “York” is a familiar label to consumers that signifies minty flavor in chocolate (hersheyindia).

The products from CVS have important descriptions that set them apart from the products at Cardullo’s. There were a few products made with dark chocolate, but most of the products sold at CVS were made with milk chocolate. The most popular CVS product was a tie between Toblerone and Ferrero Rocher – all six tasters liked the two products equally. Four out of six tasters especially liked the chocolate center of the truffles. The Toblerone sample was described by four out of six tasters as “better than Hershey’s.” Three out of six tasters did not care for the Brookside product, two tasters thought the product was “okay,” and one taster loved the Brookside product so much that it won CVS over as her favorite store of the two for buying chocolate. Fun fact: Hershey acquired Brookside in 2011 (Schroeder). Hershey’s milk chocolate was the least popular CVS product, and Cadbury’s milk chocolate was described by every taster as “better than Hershey’s,” while Cadbury’s still was not the most popular CVS product.

Most of the products were neatly arranged by brand on the candy aisle. The rest of the products could be found on the end cap of the candy aisle on the side furthest away from the registers. The products on the end cap are known as the “deluxe chocolates.” The Deluxe brands included, but were not limited to Lindt and Chuao. Recall that I bought my Chuao potato chip milk chocolate at Cardullo’s. I had gone shopping at Cardullo’s before shopping at CVS, and was surprised to find the same type of Chuao bar in the Deluxe section of CVS. The Chuao bar was more hidden than the easily seen Cardullo’s Chuao bar, and it was two dollars cheaper at CVS. Perhaps, the Deluxe chocolates at CVS are placed so that the adventurous customers who already know about the products will know where to find them. The specific placement of products could be CVS’s precaution against scaring away most of their customers with expensive, daring flavors of chocolate as the first available chocolate snack.

Cardullo’s confections are meant to cater to people with more sophisticated tastes regarding confections. More specifically, Cardullo’s employees pointed out that the shoppe targets Europeans (and a few other ethnicities) who grew up with their featured products that are hard to find outside of their countries. The store manager of Cardullo’s herself explained that Cardullo’s products are special because they invoke a strong feeling of nostalgia among visitors/immigrants from various countries. You can find a wall stocked with Cadbury products, and Cadbury is one of the few iconic chocolate brands featured in the entire store. There is no chance of finding any products from Hershey when shopping at Cardullo’s. The American products featured at Cardullo’s tend to have avant-garde flavors. For example, Cardullo’s features Vosges, a Chicago based chocolate company. One of Vosges products at Cardullo’s is a chocolate bacon bar. What a combination!

Cardullo's Front
Classy-looking photo of the front of Cardullo’s Gourmet Shoppe in Harvard Square at Cambridge, Massachusetts (Yelp).

As preferred by five out of six tasters, Cardullo’s was the most popular of the two stores for chocolate shopping. The opportunity to taste new flavors of chocolate was a little intimidating, yet exciting to each of my chocolate tasters. Chloé, the chocolate connoisseur featured in Raising the Bar, voices her concern for a general lack of appreciation for chocolate variety, “[c]onsumers can be fickle and even dismissive when it comes to matters of taste… (Raising 147)”. The tasters were enthralled by the Vivra dark with violets, and this product was enjoyed by everyone that could try it. Four out of six people did not care for the Chuao potato chip chocolate, but the two other tasters enjoyed the sweet and salty combination within it. Niederegger’s marzipan milk chocolate was described by three tasters as “too sweet.” The other three tasters liked the marzipan milk chocolate, especially the consistency of the marzipan. When biting into the Truffettes milk chocolate covered marshmallows three tasters experienced them as “too chewy.” The other three tasters enjoyed the consistency of the marshmallow. Five tasters could try Taza’s Guajillo chili. Four tasters did not care for the guajillo chili infusion with the dark chocolate. One taster said that the Taza sample with guajillo chili was “awesome stuff!”

I would especially like to highlight the presence of Taza products at Cardullo’s. Taza is one of the few American chocolate companies with products for sale at Cardullo’s, and they happen to operate locally in Somerville, Massachusetts. What is special about Taza in comparison to many other American products is that the workers of Taza are interested in traditional, authentic Mexican chocolate-making methods. With a high demand in place for their products, Taza has had to find means of efficient production that would still allow for the presence of a Mexican quality surrounding the chocolate. By producing solid chocolate bars, Taza is aware that consumers are seeking a snack with traditional Mexican flavors, rather than traditional Mexican beverages. Taza’s YouTube channel serves as an efficient tool to connect with their customers on a more personal level than relying only on their website and word of mouth to deliver information to consumers. Taza wants its consumers to remember that there is still care involved with Taza’s chocolate making process, as their YouTube page’s introductory paragraph states that, “we hand-carve granite millstones to grind cacao… (TazaChocolate)”. The introductory video on their YouTube channel is an invitation for all who would like to catch a glimpse of the chocolate making process inside the factory:


It is exciting to learn a little bit about another culture’s specific methods for creating products that are so similar, yet so different from what we are usually exposed to.

Truffette’s label for chocolate covered marshmallows is quick to flaunt its French origin. The photo of the confection looks so tempting by featuring a delicious marshmallow covered in smooth, creamy chocolate. The elegant, French words along with the Eiffel tower momentarily remind us of the culture-rich city of Paris, and it is almost as if we are tasting the confection while in France. However, what consumers do not immediately realize is that, as pointed out by Susan J. Terrio, “France itself is not a country historically famous for its luxury chocolates (Terrio 10)”. Perhaps, with the recent European involvement in chocolate, this product is an example of a French confectioner’s take on perfecting a use for solid chocolate. Members of newer generations from France would immediately recognize Truffette’s upon finding their products at Cardullo’s.

It is worth noting that every person has unique preferences for chocolate products, among all other products. There are people who prefer CVS products over Cardullo’s products, as astounding as it may sound to the people who appreciate variance in chocolate. Some people may enjoy every chocolate product presented to them, while others may only accept milk chocolate. Allergies to common foods such as nuts will skew a person’s preferences, because they must work around their health concerns when determining their favorite flavors to have with chocolate. The confections we looked at for this project demonstrate the many creative and culture-specific ideas that so many talented confectioners have cooked up since chocolate became more available around the world. Perhaps, if my tasters were all chocolate connoisseurs that my research would have yielded different results about chocolate preferences.

Works Cited

Leissle, Kristy. “Invisible West Africa.” Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture 13.3(2013): 22-31. JSTOR [JSTOR]. Web. 6 May 2017. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/gfc.2013.13.3.22&gt;.

Schroeder, Eric. “Hershey to Buy Brookside Foods.” Food Business News. Sosland PublishingCo., 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 6 May 2017. <http://www.foodbusinessnews.net/News/NewsHome/Business News/2011/12/Hershey to buy Brookside Foods.aspx?cck>.

Slide-img20.jpeg. N.d. Hersheyindia.com. Web. 6 May 2017.

Stuckey, Barb. “What Are You Missing?” Introduction. Taste What You’re Missing: The Passionate Eater’s Guide to Getting More from Every Bite. New York: Free, 2012. 1-29. Print.

TazaChocolate. “Taza Chocolate.” YouTube. YouTube, 20 Jan. 2012. Web. 10 May 2017.<https://www.youtube.com/user/TazaChocolate&gt;.

TazaChocolate. “The Taza Chocolate Story.” YouTube. YouTube, 20 Jan. 2012. Web. 10 May 2017. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7tcA51tUOxU&feature=youtu.be&gt;.

Terrio, Susan J. “People Without History.” Introduction. Crafting the Culture and History of French Chocolate. London, England: U of California, 2000. 1-22. Print.

TRUFFETTES DE FRANCE MARSHMALLOWS MILK CHOCOLATE. Digitalimage.Redstonefoods.com. Redstone Foods, n.d. Web. 8 May 2017.<http://redstonefoods.com/products/712331–truffettes-de-france-marshmallows-milk-chocolate&gt;.

Williams, Pamela Sue., and Jim Eber. “To Market, To Market: Craftsmanship, Customer Education, and Flavor.” Raising the Bar: The Future of Fine Chocolate. Vancouver, BC: Wilmor Corporation, 2012. 143-209. Print.

V, Sonam. Cardullo’s Gourmet Shoppe. 2005. Yelp.com, Cambridge, MA. Yelp.com. Web. 10 May 2017. <https://www.yelp.com/biz_photos/cardullos-gourmet-shoppe-cambridge?select=-Cg_WKg2ExKzcEgzCuyLzQ&gt;.