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The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Thursday, October 14, 2010

The American Chocolate Meltdown

As you stand in line at your local mega-mart preparing to plop down somewhere around a buck for a candy bar – and if you're under, say, forty years old – you'll probably think I'm nuttier than that PayDay bar you're holding when I tell you that that selfsame bar used to sell for – ready for this? – a nickel! That's right. A single silvery coin with Jefferson's likeness on it, or five little coppery Lincolns. Not only that, most of them used to be bigger than the one for which you're about to offer twenty times as much. And, to add the final insult to injury, they tasted better!

Back in the early to mid 1960s – ah, the days of my misspent youth – I had a sweet tooth the size of Canada. Probably why I now have the physique to match, but that's another issue entirely. And since I was paid a weekly allowance of twenty-five cents, I could pig out on two-for-a-penny candy and still have enough left over for a couple of the big-ticket items, my favorite candy bars.

Contenders for favored status have come and gone over the years; I've been besieged by Butterfinger and tempted by Twix. I've mulled over Mounds, and trysted with Three Musketeers. But through all the brief, superficial dalliances, I've always remained faithful to my two stalwarts; the Kit Kat bar and Nestle's Crunch.

But, alas, they have not remained faithful to me. They have betrayed and abandoned me. Not because they have radically shrunk in size and increased in price. No, I could handle that. Bigger prices and smaller products often result in slimmer waistlines. However, friends and readers, I cannot abide the heartrending decline in quality and taste.

Give me back the candy bars of my youth!

Take my beloved Kit Kats. Introduced as an English workingman's snack in the mid-1930s, I became addicted to the delicious little chocolate-covered wafer concoction back in the early 60s when they first appeared on the shelves of the place where my dad was working. They were made by the superior British confectioner Rowntree's of York, England, a company that traces its lineage back to 1862. They even had “Rowntree” engraved in fancy script on every luscious chocolate finger.

Under the Rowntree brand, Kit Kat bars were exquisite. Three layers of crispy, creme-filled wafers bathed in silky, luxurious milk chocolate! I could - and frequently did - eat my weight in the wonderful little treasures, breaking off each finger along its scored line and savoring every bite. I begged for them, pleaded for them, and saved up my allowance for them. I even did extra chores for the sake of acquiring more of them.

But times change, and all good things must end. In the late 60s, Rowntree merged with Mackintosh and the resultant company was eventually acquired by Nestle. Now, if you live across the pond, that's not necessarily a bad thing, since the Swiss food giant still makes pretty good chocolate for European consumption.

However, here on the American front, production of Kit Kats has been licensed to Hershey Foods and therein lies the decline of my favorite candy bar.

There was a time when Hershey manufactured a fine chocolate product. Standing on the shoulders of Dr. James Baker, who opened America's first chocolate factory in Massachusetts in 1765, and of Italian immigrant Domenico Ghiradelli, who established his eponymous chocolate company in San Francisco in 1852, Milton Hershey and the company he founded were, for a time, synonymous with quality chocolate at reasonable prices. Unfortunately, that time has passed. The flat, waxy brown goo that flows in rivers from Hershey's Pennsylvania production facilities bears little resemblance to the fine substance they once produced there and no resemblance at all to chocolate. Mass production and cheap ingredients have decimated this giant of the American chocolate market, once on a par with fine European chocolatiers, but now not even worthy of standing in their shadow.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the Kit Kat bar.

Oh, the desensitizing of American tastebuds and the dumbing down of the American palate has been gradual, to be sure. But those of us with a strong “taste memory" are not so easily fooled. I can clearly remember what Kit Kat bars used to taste like fifty years ago and I can assure you that whatever it is Hershey is packaging in those traditional bright red wrappers, it is most definitely not a Kit Kat.

I've undertaken a one-man campaign to illustrate this point to hapless Americans who actually think they are consuming real Kit Kats instead of cheap, nasty imitations. You see, some years ago, I happened to be cruising the Bahamas aboard a Carnival cruise ship. On a whim, I purchased a Kit Kat in one of the shops on the Promenade. Oh, my chocolate-covered god! It was a real Kit Kat! A memory from my youth! A blast from the past! Had Hershey finally come to its senses? With trembling fingers and eager eyes, I examined the wrapper. This piece of ambrosia was still made in England! It had "Nestle" on the wrapper and it was made with real, honest-to-goodness milk chocolate that actually tasted like......like....dare I say it.....CHOCOLATE!

I gave a piece to my wife, who immediately rolled her eyes back in her head and insisted that I buy every bar the shop had. I did so, and carefully rationed the little bits of chocolate gold out to deserving friends over the course of the next few weeks, saving a good supply for myself, of course. They were universal in their acclaim. I even conducted taste tests, purchasing a quantity of the cheap, nasty, American things and mixing samples of them with the real Kit Kats to see if people could tell the difference. Not one of the dozens of people I conducted this experiment with failed to spot the obvious difference and not one of them failed to choose the British-made Kit Kat over its weak and inferior American imitator.

I later discovered a small British import shop in a town about forty miles from my home. I quickly became their best Kit Kat kustomer and continue to extoll the virtues of "real" Kit Kat bars to all I encounter.

Milton Hershey has been referred to as “the Henry Ford of the chocolate industry.” If that's so, the bastardized recreation of the Kit Kat may well be his Edsel.

And then there's the equally sad story of the once glorious Nestle Crunch bar.

The Nestle company has a distinguished confectionery history that dates back to the same era as Rowntree's. And the Nestle Crunch bar made its debut in American lunchboxes about the same time as the Kit Kat appeared on the scene in England.

Crunchy morsels of crisped rice enrobed in rich, creamy, dreamy milk chocolate, the Crunch bar was already my established favorite when the Kit Kat first caught my attention. The advantage to Crunch bars was their availability. Everybody sold Crunch bars, while Kit Kats were a little harder to come by in the early days. Kit Kats were like a special treat and Crunch bars were for everyday consumption.

Here we are, a half-century later and my cherished Crunch bars have been despoiled by the same use of cheap, inferior ingredients that lowered the Kit Kat from ambrosia to dreck. In fact, when faced with a choice, the cheap, nasty, inferior Kit Kat currently available on common store shelves is actually a better option than the totally desecrated Crunch bar.

Now, if this seems to fly in the face of logic based on my earlier comment about Nestle chocolate, bear in mind that Nestle SA, based in Vevay, Switzerland, and Nestle USA, headquartered in Glendale, California, are very different legs on the same animal. And I believe the chocolates produced by the American leg to be decidedly associated with the hindquarters.

Compared to the confection I craved as a child, today's Crunch bars are simply inedible. The manufacturer has somehow figured out a way to screw up what are basically Rice Krispies so that they are limp and tasteless and the so-called chocolate that disguises them is flat, chalky, grainy and bland. They've even stopped using the iconic foil wrappers in favor of something I'm sure costs less to produce – and probably tastes better than the product it encloses.

Why? Why has this desecration occurred? Two words: processed food.

Chocolate made in the good ol' US of A is made in the same manner that marks all foods made in the good ol' Us of A. It is chemically processed to within an inch of its natural life. These chemical substances are deemed necessary to “ensure quality” and “prolong shelf life.” Never mind that the resultant product tastes like manufactured merda; it'll outlast the cockroaches! The only difference between manufacturer's “test kitchens” and your high school chemistry lab is that the “test kitchens” usually smell better. Usually.

Another problem is in marketing. European manufacturers market chocolate to adults whereas American producers aim for kids. And what do kids care about quality as long as it's sweet and sticky? Why waste expensive milk, cocoa butter and sugar on kids when palm oil and high fructose corn syrup can be made to sort of look and taste like chocolate and are much cheaper to use?

If you are fortunate enough to find a real, honest-to-goodness – and I do mean “goodness” – Kit Kat bar, one that's made in a place where chocolate is still an artisinal food product rather than a substitute for automotive wax, carefully examine the wrapper. There it is! Under the fold. An expiration date! That's because real milk chocolate, made with real milk and real chocolate, expires! Sweetened brown shoe polish never expires.

Nowadays, when I crave chocolate, I don't even spare Hershey and Nestle products a second glance. I go straight for the Lindts or Ghirardellis or Peruginas or Cadburys – although that company's recent acquisition by Kraft may remove them from the equation. Even though many of these chocolates are produced in American factories, they retain European standards for quality and content and are thus vastly superior to anything America's Big Chocolate cabal can create in their cheap chemistry labs.

What it boils down to is this: European manufacturers strive to make chocolate good. American manufacturers try to make it cheap.

I know this is a rant. Voices crying in the wilderness usually wind up being ranters. Big Chocolate is firmly committed to the bottom line and no amount of protest about taste and quality from old fogeys like me is going to matter the slightest bit to them. Give them another couple of decades to further dull American palates and they'll probably find a way to make chocolate taste even nastier than it does now.

In chocolate's early heydays – the 16th and 17th centuries – unscrupulous chocolatiers attempted to offset the high cost of producing quality chocolate by incorporating cheap ingredients into the mix. Things like potato starch, veal fat, and even ground brick dust adulterated their products for the sake of lowering prices. I probably shouldn't divulge that information. Somebody from Hershey's might get ideas.

Understand, I have to eat the waxy brown garbage from time to time just like you do. If I'm on the road and pull into a convenience store, Ferrero Rochers may not be an option, so I wind up with a cheap, imitation Kit Kat bar. Big Chocolate knows this and feels no need to produce a palatable product as long as people keep buying processed waste. It's cheap and convenient and that's all most Americans demand.

But I have to at least try. I owe it to the memories of my pre-adolescent indulgences and to all those who share them. I owe it to the present generation and to generations yet unborn who will never know the pleasure of indulging in a real chocolate experience for a trivial price.

I say again, give me back the candy bars of my youth!

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