How Chocolate Works

Chocolate, Chocolate Everywhere
In Japan, bathing in chocolate has become another Valentine's Day tradition.
In Japan, bathing in chocolate has become another Valentine's Day tradition.
Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images News/Getty Images

People like Milton Hershey helped make chocolate a relatively inexpensive snack for the masses -- a candy bar could be bought for a few cents around the turn of the century. Today chocolate can be far pricier, but there are also lots of other sweet options available. Yet it's still present at nearly every holiday -- and some holidays, like Easter, Valentine's Day and Christmas, seem to practically require it.

This isn't limited to Western holidays, either. The Japanese, for example, have two festive days for chocolate exchange: Valentine's Day on February 14, when women give chocolate to men, and White Day on March 14 (blatantly invented by a candy maker), when men return the favor. This includes people you don't even love -- there's something called "obligation chocolate," or giri-choco.

Hanukkah wouldn't be the same without chocolate gelt, or coins. Diwali, a five-day-long Hindu festival celebrated in India and other predominantly Hindu countries, includes highly decorated chocolates shaped like the traditional oil lamps called diya. The Day of the Dead, a Mexican holiday celebrating ancestors, features chocolate skulls, drinking chocolate and dishes made with mole (a savory sauce incorporating chocolate with tons of other ingredients). Chocolate is everywhere!

For decades, we were satisfied with the "normal" chocolate fillings and flavorings. But as I mentioned earlier, chocolate is the new platform for all different kinds of flavor combinations these days. It's hard to say who first came up with the idea of dipping bacon in chocolate (bacon has also become a Thing), or putting potato chips and spices in it. All of this seems to have come about in the past 10 years or so, though. It probably has to do with the fact that cuisines and ingredients that were once considered exotic and unusual are becoming less expensive and easier to find. If I wanted to make chocolate candy with green tea or wasabi, for example, I could find everything at my chain grocery store to do it. That wasn't always the case.

But why does chocolate have such a stranglehold on our collective psyche? Of course, it tastes good -- humans are naturally wired to enjoy foods high in fat and sugar. Some of us might just be wired to enjoy that special mix in chocolate more than others. That perfect cocoa butter crystallization temperature is just below body temperature, so that melt-in-the-mouth sensation is unlike anything else. Some people describe it as sexy. Aside from its culinary credentials, we may simply love chocolate because it makes us feel good.