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    Notes From Last Nights Reading

    (Note: I gave a brief talk last night at the reading of Sweet Tooth at Theo Chocolate. I’d thought I’d share what I had written down before the event and later shared with the many folks who showed up last night. I didn’t cover everything listed below, but was able convey the key points.)

    This is my second book, the first one being 99 Drams of Whiskey released in 2009(Quick! There’s still time to buy a copy for Father’s Day), and now this book release.  I have to say, I’ve enjoyed the process surrounding the researching, writing, and promotion of the book. 

    The reason I’ve enjoyed it is because there is no “Orientation 101″ to being a published writer. There is no, “when you find yourself here, this is the only correct course of action.” No “here’s a list of things you should never, ever do”. Writing a book and having it published is a text-book example of the “sink or swim” principle.    

    It’s when it comes to the “promotional interview” that this concept becomes clearly understood. You are on your own, with a complete stranger, who wants to talk about your book, but on their terms. Your publisher isn’t there. If you’re lucky enough to have a publicist, they aren’t there either. And when you’re in a “sink or swim” environment? All you can do is learn. 

    And do you want to know what I’ve learned about participating in “promotional interviews?” 

    I suck at them.  I’m horrible.  I’m the promotional equivalent and an elementary school choir trying to sing Handel’s Messiah. The only ones who think I’ve done a good job are my friends and family. 

    I’ve tried to figure out why I’m bad at them, and I’ve come up with several reasons. And they boil down to three key reasons. Me, myself and I. 

    First, I have to give a shout out to interviewers because they do a heck of a job. They’re trying to do twenty-five things in any given day, and their interview with me is often 24th on the list of their priorities, right below making sure that their dog has taken their heart-work medicine.  They work under deadlines everyday, which is an environment I could never work under, as I would seize up like a Catholic Cardinal who had just received a phone call from a reporter from the New York Times. 

    I can only imagine what they think when they deal with me.  I’m horrible at remember ing specifics. This is why I’m a writer. I write them down specifics because I can’t possibly remember them all.  There seems to belief that writers have committed to memory everything that they’ve written, and instant and total recall of every fact, figure and sentence that was committed to the page. 

    “So Kate, what were you thinking as you wrote page 64?”

     “Oh I don’t know. Maybe, that, I had to write another 230 pages?

     Or my favorite question that I received when I was promoting my whiskey book:

     “Do you remember in your book when you wrote about the tax legislation that the English government imposed on the Irish distillers?

    “Uhh…No.”

     This is what I call a learning moment.  And what I learned was three things:

    1. That under no circumstance was it a good idea to imply to thousands of listeners that the host of the their trusted radio program had invited an idiot onto their show.
    2. If you must make that implication, it’s best not to do it with a single word answer.
    3. If you must give a single word answer, preceding it with “uhhh”…well, that  just makes you sound silly.

     These are the things I learned when I was doing interviews for 99 Drams of Whiskey. And now, with this Sweet Tooth book, I vowed to be more prepared for these interviews. I approached the problem in the same way that a press secretary would, creating talking points- several key points that I conveyed in the book that I should work into the interviews as much as possible in order to make either the book, or by extension, myself sound interesting enough that it would encourage people to buy my stuff. After all, that’s the point of promotion.

     And after several interviews for my book, not one has yet to use the bits of the interview where I effectively and adequately used my talking points in the correct context.

     I have, however, repeatedly used the phrases “phlegm” and “bowel movement” to a National Irish audience during a recent interview with their national radio service.

     Yeah, I suck at interviews.

     The reason I bring this up is that these talking points are relevant to why I’m here at Theo.

     For those who haven’t read the book yet, Theo plays an important part in the book. They are the last company I visit, and it was this company that allowed me to come to terms with certain aspects of the candy industry.  However, when Audrey Lawrence, the Sales and Marketing Manager here at Theo, first contacted me back in January via e-mail to ask how can they help- I don’t think they knew they were in the book. 

     I e-mailed Audrey back, with a plan on getting her an advanced copy of the book, so she could read it to ensure that I didn’t refer to their tour as “an ecstasy trip gone horribly wrong”.

     You may laugh, but that phrase does come up at least once in the book when referring to another company…like Cadbury.

     So St. Martin’s sent Audrey a copy, she read it, enjoyed it, and again, asked “How can we work together?”

     To which I answered with another question  – Could we do a book release at your place?

     The result of that? Well, this is why I’m here.  And as I’m here in front of you, I thought it would be the perfect time to tell you of the key talking points that I had written for the interviews surrounding Sweet Tooth.

     If there’s one thing I’ve learned in writing this book (and the whiskey book, to some extent), is that I have a list of characteristics that a company must have in order for me to respect them. I’m not saying this list is universal, nor that everyone should look for them and judge companies based on them. This list is personal and is little more than an opinion base on my experiences.

     Now hold on, because here’s the talking point:

     In my opinion, a good candy company should have 3 things

    1. A sense of responsibility
    2. A sense of place.
    3. A sense of fun

     Let me extrapolate on them a bit:

     A Sense of Responsibility – This comes in two forms: Respect the ingredients, and respect the people.

     First, ingredients – Let’s use Hershey’s as an example. Did you know that Hershey wanted to change the legal definition of milk chocolate? They wanted the definition be changed to allow for less expensive ingredients –  specifically replacing cocoa butter — the ingredient famous for giving chocolate its creamy, melt-in-your-mouth texture —with vegetable oil.

     This practice – resulting in what is now known as “mockolate” – leaves the chocolate gritty and oily, and notably less in quality than a standard milk chocolate bar.

     I don’t know how to make a great piece of chocolate, but I do know how to make a mediocre one. Create a recipe that aims at the lowest common denominator of the marketplace, and then ensure to over process it with lower quality ingredients. Good candy takes thought and an ability to coax the best aspect out of every ingredient.

     There’s no better way to demonstrate this than to compare two alike products from two different companies. More often than not, the company that respects the ingredients will make a better product than a company that is looking to have a greater profit margin.

     But it’s more than being responsible to the ingredients. It’s about being responsible to the people invested in the product.

     I’m not just referring to stockholders and stakeholders in a company, but everyone who has a vested interest in the company, from the farmer who supplies the cocoa and sugar, to the consumer who buys the product.

     There are aspects of the current start cocoa farms that are nothing short of tragic, including the worst forms of child labor. A lot of this is the result of the major chocolate companies wanting cheaper prices for the commodities used in their products.

     Theo has a different business model. Their  founding principle is that the finest artisan chocolate in the world can (and should) be produced in an entirely ethical, sustainable fashion. In other words, they have that sense of responsibility to those who supply the cacao used right here in this plant.

     A Sense of Place:  This relates to the sense of responsibility, but ties it to the local community.  One of the constants I’ve come across in my travels is how proud communities are to the confections that define their region. Whether it’s the Pontefract Cakes that come out of Pontefract, England, to Hershey in Pennsylvania, there’s a deep sense of pride that defines the people of these regions, and they surround confections. It becomes part of their identity.

    (This community identity existed in a small town outside of Bristol, England called Keynsham (KEEN-shim). The entire region had deep roots to the history of chocolate, thanks in large part to the Quakers in the area who played an integral role in that history.  As per their traditions, the Quakers who owned the chocolate companies (Fry’s, Cadbury, and others) committed themselves to the success of their communities.  But as the companies became larger, the more the more these community traditions were lost. When Kraft bought out Cadbury in 2009, they closed the one remaining plant in the area in Keynshem, and the history of chocolate to the region is little more than an afterthought. We have a multi-billion dollar chocolate industry that started in the Bristol region, and today the only marker we have to that history is a closed factory. )

     And if you think it couldn’t happen here, I should let you know that Hershey’s has talked about on more than one occasion about moving their plants to Mexico, a move that would devastate the town of Hershey, Pennsylvania.

     When I look at Theo, I looked at a company that’s a perfect representation of Seattle and its work ethic. In my mind, Theo represents perfectly what being from this area means. I can’t think of any location better in the United States  for Theo to exist and thrive than here in the Pacific Northwest,  here in Seattle, and here in Fremont.

     Finally – A sense of Fun! Let’s be honest here – candy is a luxury, possibly the cheapest luxury on the planet. And Luxuries are meant to be fun. Candy is meant to be fun.  I believe the great candy companies know  this, and it manifests itself in two ways.

     The first is obvious – they add a goofy, silly name to the confection.  This is how we end up with candies with the name: Abba Zabba, Big Daddy, Big Hunk, Snickers, Twix, Jelly Babies, Hubba Bubba, Skittles, Gobstoppers and a whole list of other names to numerous to list here. This sense of fun is what allowed  Roald Dahl to come up with names such as Nut Crunch Surprise, The Everlasting Gobstopper, and Fudgemellow Delight and allowed Monty Python to invent the name “Whizzo Chocolate Company” for their “Crunchy Frog” sketch. We ascribe playfulness with the words we choose surrounding candy. Why, because  sweets bring out the playful side of us.

    It is this playfulness that mark the better candy companies. Rare is the great confectioner who sits down and tries to “engineer” a candy bar based off of market research and sales patterns. This approach is for hacks and industrial giants. 

    No, the best confectioners in the world get into their kitchen and play with their food, and ask some variation of the following question “Ooo…Wouldn’t it be cool if we did THIS?!?”

    It is this playful attitude that has resulted in a world renown chocolatier adding marmite to his chocolates just to see if it would work (It does). It has resulted a marketer at General Foods deciding to release a confection called Pop Rocks that fizzled in your mouth when consumed.  And we see that here at Theo in their Fantasy Flavors line, where Chai Tea can be found in one bar, and Curry can be found in another.

    These are candies that play with our inner child, that allow us to have “fun”, even if only for a moment. 

    And as I looked at these three different characteristics,

    1. A sense of responsibility
    2. A sense of place.
    3. A sense of fun

     I realized something. These aren’t just characteristics I like to see in a company. These are characteristics I like to see in people too.  So, in search for a solution for my mid-life crisis, what I found was my own personal definitions of what I think are the best qualities of all of us. I admit, that’s a little woo-woo, but there you have it.

     But how did I arrive at that conclusion? Let me read to you the first chapter of the book, which sets the stage for all of what I just said.  (read first chapter)

    Infographic: Candy and the Sweet Tooth

    ‘Cause I’m still celebrating.

    More Food Porn: Barfi

    I had a longer post in mind for today, but considering the recent news, and that everyone and their mother will be talking about that, let me simply offer up some eye candy.

    The above is known as Barfi, an South-Asian confection. I had purchased this particular specimen last summer in London at a Indian Bakery found in the East End. At the time, I was thinking about how to include Indian confectionery into the candy book, but ultimately decided that to do so would expand the book’s scope far too much.

    This is to take nothing away from the various Indian treats out there. It is simply that there are quite a lot of them. Barfi itself has dozens of versions, sub-versions, and iterations off of those versions. Each of these would be dependent upon region, resources, and tradition. Typically, condensed milk is involved, and some sort of sweetener, usually corn syrup or cane sugar syrup, and then nuts, or coconut (as pictured above) or any number of other ingredients that are added. And as I soon found out, many confections in South Asia have this characteristic. Once I recognized that entering into this aspect of confectionery history would be a tremendous endeavor, I backed out almost immediately. South-Central Asian confectionery deserves its own book.

    All of this is my way of telling you that I have almost no knowledge of this aspect of culinary history. But it does make a damn fine photograph.

    Oh, and the name? Wikipedia says ” The name is derived from the Persian word barf which means snow since barfi is similar to ice/snow in appearance.” Do with that information what you will.


    Food Porn: Pearson Nut Bar

    Not one of my better pictures, I must admit, but it does call out to me in some way. Mostly because I love nut bars, from Planter’s Peanut Bar, to PayDays, to Pearson Nut Roll.

    Way back a long time ago, some friends of mine and myself drove down to New Orleans on a whim. Having never been in “the South” prior to this trip, I had the driver stop at a Stuckey’s just so I could purchase a Pecan Log Roll. This forever deemed me as “weird” in their eyes.

    Yet they all asked for a bit of my Pecan Log Roll, so felt I got the last laugh.


    The Sad Story of Hershey’s Chocolate

    Of all of the food blog’s I frequent, the one that holds on to my heart is Cybele’s Candy Blog. I think she is the definition of passion mixed with intelligence, and brings forth some of the best perspectives on candy.

    I was reminded of this during her recent foray into the world of Hershey’s. Her recent post called Rising Cost of Candy – A Brief Study of Hershey Prices provides exceptional insight into both the economics as well as historical context of the venerable institution.

    While the icon of Hershey’s Milk Chocolate is fun to use as a benchmark, what is important to recognize is that Hershey’s doesn’t just play with the size and price of their products. They also change the manufacturing process (Hershey’s no longer roasts their own beans or processes them into chocolate liquor, they’ve subcontracted that to Barry Callebaut), alter how long products are conched and lately have even started substituting substandard ingredients. In 2006 Hershey’s began using PGPR, which is an emulsifier and extender, in some of their milk chocolate products, but it wasn’t until this year that it finally appeared in the formula for the Hershey’s Milk Chocolate bar.

    There’s a lot of information loaded within her post, but the core piece of information that I got out of it was as follows: Hershey’s no longer uses milk chocolate in the majority of their products.

    Some of you may shrug, and others may ask “what does it matter?”, but to me, this news is the perfect example of how food companies have earned the mistrust of their consumers. But let me put it this way – Hershey’s is intentionally reducing the quality of their product in order to save money on production.

    Hershey’s no longer uses milk chocolate in the majority of their products. That’s akin to saying that McDonald’s is going to get rid of the Big Mac, or that Coca-Cola is going to change their formula.

    Okay, so maybe the latter is a bad example.

    I recognize the fact that corporations need to make money and need to improve their stock price in order to please the holders of said stock. But now it seems that the brand of Hershey’s is far more important than the products they release. Growing up as a child in Pennsylvania, home of Hershey’s, the company represented the best ideal a child could imagine. Milton Hershey stood for, not only quality, but respecting his consumers. It’s the only food company in the United States that I am aware of that has a city named after it and lends its name to an amusement park.

    I usually think it’s a bit trite to say that “if so-and-so where alive today, they wouldn’t be happy”. But in this case, I do believe that. I think that the company is far removed, not only from my idea of what they stood for when I was a child, but also what Milton Hershey stood for. And while they may show short term gain, they are do no good service for the products nor the brand long term.

    At any rate, please read her post. It tells the tale of just how far Hershey’s has fallen over the course of our generation.


    The Tragic Tale of Grape Bubble Yum

    It was the summer of 1977 and in the world of children and in the town of Arnold, Pennsylvania it was a bull market for candy. Throughout the town were several locally owned convenience stores that sold the main brands of sweets. Snickers, Three Musketeers, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups were all on the top of the lists of children throughout the town.

    Then there were the secondary markets, the smaller stores that served the folks within a three block radius. These were the stores that sold the lesser known candies such as Watermelon Stix, Bottle Caps, and yes, even penny candy. For those of us who ran through our bi-weekly allowance, the stores that sold 1 cent Mary Janes and Sweet Tarts were critical in ensuring that elementary aged children were able to maintain their sugar fixes.

    Because allowances were a finite resource, a child could not afford to buy every piece of candy in the store, even less if they wanted to purchase a bottle of Faygo or Pepsi. To make up for this lack of confectionery access, a trading market had been formed at the local playground. After a trip to one of the local stores, the children huddled together and tried to get the best deals for the candy they had on hand. Two Lick-A-Stix could be traded for one Reese’s Peanut Butter cup. A Twinkie could bring a return of a full Clark bar. Candies that had more than one piece in their package held a high value, as one could trade one or two pieces from the pack, and still have several pieces for later consumption.

    At the top of the list of many children were the bubble gums. Bazooka Joes were acceptable, Bubblicious was respectable, but the King of Bubble Gum was a brand called Bubble Yum. And if you wanted to really impress your friends, Grape Bubble Yum was were it was at.

    One piece of Grape Bubble Yum was a commodity unto itself. In the hands of a talented trader, it could return a Nestle’s Crunch or maybe a half of a bottle of Coke. When the kids started flooding the market with Grape Bubble Yum, new markets were explored. Children who had no allowance traded promises of inviting the Gum Dealers to dinner on Pizza nights. Those who had higher allowances invested in several packs of Grape Bubble Yum, with the plan of holding on to them until the day before allowances were given out.

    It was a child named Donnie who ruined the market. He said he heard it from his older brother, but no one believed him.

    “Craig said that Bubble Yum have Spider Eggs in them.”, he said. Since Donnie was a habitual liar, and his pants often being claimed to have been “on fire”, his rumor was quickly dismissed. But the next day when Angela, a straight A student whose reputation was beyond reproach, mentioned she heard the same report, the Bubble Yum Market crashed.

    Suddenly Bubble Yum investors could not give their gum away. When when offers of the gum were made in the market, they were met with choruses of “Nuh-uh’s” and “No way’s”. Fears about spiders emerging from one’s nose after gum consumption, or waking up with spider webs plastered over one’s face meant that the Yum investors could not even eat their remaining stock. In less than two days, pieces of Grape Bubble Yum went from fetching entire Hershey Bars, to being almost as despised as Circus Peanuts.

    Within this true tale of childhood consumption is a moral of some sort. Some may say that it has to deal with investing and the “putting all of one’s eggs into one’s basket”. Others may say that it has to do with the power of unsubstantiated rumors.

    But in truth, the real moral to this story is as follows: In the late seventies, in Western Pennsylvania, Bubble Yum infested with spider eggs were more likley to be eaten than Marshmallow Circus Peanuts.


    Don’t Mess With Our Chocolate

    Cybele, over at Candy Blog has clued me in to the latest FDA shenanigans, this time involving chocolate.

    It should surprise no one that there is a FDA regulation that stipulates what “chocolate” should be. The reason this regulation exists is to prevent the more nefarious candy producers from trying to foist less than desirable chocolate products upon the shelves, placing them in competition with those companies who put forth the time and effort to put out reasonable products.

    These regulations contain an essential guide in explaining what should be in chocolate. Aside from the base cacao product itself (be it sweet chocolate or milk chocolate o), they have a specific list of what else is allowed to be added to the chocolate without putting the “chocolate” nomenclature at risk.

    Item number one of optional ingredients is cocoa fat (aka cocoa butter). Currently you can’t substitute the cocoa fat in chocolate with a cheaper fat and still call it “chocolate”. You can call it chocolate flavored, but it can’t be packaged and sold in the same way as…say…a Hershey Bar.

    However, the Chocolate Manufacturers Association wants this rule to change. The CMA, whose membership reads like a Who’s Who list of the Greedy Corporate Bastards Association (including such luminaries as Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, Nestle, and yes, even Hershey’s) want to be able to replace the more expensive cocoa butter with something cheaper.

    I know some of you are thinking “yeah, yeah, why is this a big deal?” It’s a fair question.

    In my opinion, the cocoa butter is as critical of a component for chocolate as the chocolate itself. It is hard and brittle at room temperature but melts very sharply below body temperature, giving chocolate its desirable properties of ‘snap’ and ‘melt-in-the-mouth’.

    Cocoa Butter Substitutes fats usually based on soybean oil, cottenseed, palm kernel oil or coconut oil. They have snap and melting properties similar to cocoa butter but a different chemical composition. They are not compatible with cocoa butter and the presence of more than 20% cocoa butter in a mixture with them leads to softening and/or bloom formation. They also have a shorter shelf life.

    Or, as Cybele wrote in her post, “There’s no reason that consumers want this dilution of the standards for chocolate! It’s all for the chocolate companies to be able to make a cheaper product, an inferior product.”

    It will allow them to make a cost effective chocolate bar, albeit at the expense of quality.

    If this lowering of standards irks you, even a bit, fret not, as you have recourse. The FDA is allowing public comment on these standards and the suggested change.

    This page gives you a brief tutorial on how to get the FDA to listen to you.

    From my point of view, I have mixed feelings about this.

    First, I hate to see the lowering of any quality standards, which is exactly what this is. In a world of slow food and home cooking, we should be celebrating good foods, and preventing inferior products from being treated as equals.

    However, if I were a chocolate artisan, part of me would love to see this rule change. The taste texture of chocolate without cocoa butter is very noticeable, and never for the better. If Hersheys and Nestle want to lower their standards, I’d make sure that I was there, still producing higher quality bars, with my own takes on Snickers, Reese’s Peanut Butter cups, and Twix bars all at the ready.

    Part of me think that my latter take is a bit “pie in the sky”.

    Regardless, shame on the Chocolate Manufacturers Association. Way to thumb your nose at tradition, guys.

    Graphic courtesy of Cybele.