IT’S A TOUGH JOB, BUT…
BY Gil Marks
Among the most frequent questions that I am asked these days is “What is your next book?” After the enthusiastic reception to my Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, I did not want to do an inferior Jewish cookbook. So I decided to pen “American Cakes.” It’s a history of American through its cakes.
I finished my first draft and am now in the process of checking and clarifying all of my facts. One of the most difficult aspects of writing food history is that much of the ‘information’ circulating out there is actually wrong. For example, this week I was checking the chocolate cake section and came upon one of those widely circulated and accepted bits of misinformation. Almost every source insists that the first person to make chocolate in North America was John Hannon, who in 1765 opened a chocolate factory in Dorchester, Massachusetts with the financial backing of Dr. James Baker. Hence the term and brand “Baker’s Chocolate.” (There are even sources claiming this was the first instances of chocolate in North America.) However, this is wrong. Americans were producing chocolate nearly a century before Hannon and consuming it even earlier.
In 1670, Dorothy Jones and Jane Barnard of Boston received licenses to sell “Coffee and Chucaletto” (chocolate) from their separate public houses. Benjamin Harris, an English immigrant best known for penning the influential The New England Primer, received a city license in 1690 to sell “Coffee, Tee, and Chucaletto” at his bookstore in Boston. (This was the first record of the word tea in America.) Women, who were forbidden from patronizing taverns and inns, opted for chocolate houses. Chocolate in these instances referred to hot chocolate the beverage. It would be more than a century before Americans used chocolate in baking. The only other use of Chocolate in America before the Revolution was in coating almonds, an English treat appropriately known as “Chocolate Almonds.”
Meanwhile, Americans increasingly brought (or frequently smuggled it when the English tried to direct all commerce through England) cacao beans directly from the Caribbean and roasted the beans, then processed them in small American chocolate mills instead of importing chocolate blocks from England. Sephardic Jews, who dominated the early cocoa trade in the Caribbean and parts of Europe, turned New York, Providence, and Newport (Rhode Island) into American chocolate centers. (Check out the chocolate entry in Encyclopedia of Jewish Food for more on Sephardim and chocolate.) Quakers brought their love of chocolate and knowledge of its preparation to Philadelphia. (Quakers were among the earliest and most ardent English and American supporters and makers of chocolate, which they considered an alternative to alcohol. Apothecary Joseph Storrs Fry of England, a Quaker, introduced mechanized grinding of cocoa beans, producing a finer chocolate and lower price, and in 1847, added extruded cocoa butter and sugar to chocolate liquor to launch the first “eating chocolate” recognizable to modern chocolate lovers. The Cadburys and Rowntrees were also Quakers.) Sometimes various other American merchants along the East Coast returned from Curacao and Jamaica with cocoa beans in payment for cargo. By this time, much of the chocolate in North America was made there. Those early blocks of pure chocolate liquor were a rougher product than the mechanically-produced modern unsweetened chocolate.
In 1735, Benjamin Franklin advertized locally-made chocolate in his Pennsylvania Gazette: “To be sold, by the Printer hereof, very good Chocolate at 4 shillings per Pound.” After the Townshend Acts of 1767, as a protest against the British tea tax, American patriots substituted cocoa or coffee for their breakfast beverage.
In 1765 Irish immigrant John Hannon and Dr. James Baker opened thier chocolate factory in Dorchester, Massachusetts. Hannon roasted the cocoa beans, then ground them between two massive circular millstones in a water-powdered mill. The chocolate blocks were wrapped in paper labeled “Hannon’s Best” and boasted “if the Chocolate does not prove good the Money will be returned.” In 1780, the company was incorporated as “Baker’s Chocolate”; thus both the term and brand name. Following the American Revolution, during which many American chocolate makers ceased business and most of the continuing production was procured for the army, Baker’s mass-produced chocolate and a few other Boston-based chocolate manufacturers dominated the entire American market. Baker’s remained the biggest name in American chocolate well into the twentieth century, but it was in no way the first American chocolate maker.
In the mid-nineteenth century, American companies, drawing from the various European innovations, began to also produce eating chocolate and cocoa powder. San Francisco, the area’s moderate weather proving ideal for making chocolate in the time before air conditioning, emerged as a major chocolate producing center, including Ghirardelli (1852) and Guittard (1868). After discovering the production of eating chocolate at the World’s Columbus Exposition in 1894, caramel-maker Milton Hershey, a Quaker, went into the chocolate business and two years later introduced the first mass produced inexpensive chocolate bars in Lancaster, Pennsylvania before relocating his growing business to his hometown, Derry Church (renamed Hershey).
(For more on chocolate cakes, you’ll have to wait for the book.)
But research is not the tough part of my job. It is actually fun to discover truths. Sort of like putting together puzzle pieces.
In addition to checking facts, I also check cake recipes. I have been collecting recipes, after trying them first, in my computer for more than two decades. In my review of the text, I’m doing comparisons and additions. Which means that I have to make cakes. Sometimes I will try a nineteenth recipe not to include in the book, but to examine what type of cake they were preparing back then. This is not the tough part of my job either. I enjoy potchaing in the kitchen.
Of course, I have to sample every experiment. And I can’t let anything go to waste. Which is why I have put on a few pounds in the course of compiling American Cakes. As I said, it’s a tough job, but….