A couple months ago, I started contributing to the school’s newspaper. Recently, I was asked to write an article for the “‘Tis The Season” column, which covers seasonal items, such as ingredients, recipes and food items.
My inner farmer suggested the topic of “Cabbage,” (Yes, I have an inner farmer. He helps me select produce in the grocery store and manage my chia pet.) but truth be told, my inner farmer doesn’t know a rake from a hoe.
Next, my inner chef attempted to find a seasonally appropriate recipe, like a simple Valentine’s Day dish for two. Or, alternatively, something including cabbage. Who doesn’t enjoy tasty slaw? (My inner chef is still in her development stages and mostly enjoys making chocolate chip cookies while sipping on a nice Pinot Gringo).
In the end, my inner candy enthusiast settled matters because we are both privy to the knowledge that seasons come and go as a result of the rotating candy supply on drug store shelves. February was upon us and the Conversation Hearts were all in bloom….
This is the article:
A friend once described St. Valentine’s Day as, “A day, which the lonely feel lonelier, and the spoken-for feel inadequate.” In a sense, it is the one day of the year specifically allotted to the validation of our love. In anticipation of the pressures created by the contrived nature of the holiday, eager companies paint themselves pink and red, slap on some hearts, and join in the celebration. Their guarantees of romantic success feed off of romantic insecurities, so by the end of the day we’ve all bought the roses.
The strategic, creativity of consumerism has spawned countless Valentine’s Day traditions and trends, some dating back to the early 1900s. Perhaps the most notable – and the most bizarre – Valentine’s Day progeny are those chalky, heart-shaped, message-baring bites known as Conversation Hearts. With the mystique of that chalky texture and winning flavors like banana and wintergreen, Conversation Hearts, or “Sweethearts,” have sustained popularity since 1902, when the New England Confectionery Company (NECCO) first introduced them. In 2005, Steve Almond, author of the book, Candyfreak: A Journey Into the Chocolate Underbelly of America, ranked Sweetheart’s Conversation Hearts as the number one Valentine’s Day treat. Today, according to NECCO’s website, the company still produces 8 billion hearts per year.
Conversation Hearts originated from small, shell-shaped candies called cockles, which contained mottoes printed on a small piece of paper rolled up inside each shell. By the 1860s, NECCO developed machines with felt rolling pads that used red vegetable dye to print words directly onto each candy. Soon, the iconic heart shape was developed, along with other shapes that are no longer produced, such as postcards, baseballs, horseshoes and watches.
So, what is it that keeps these kitschy, little hearts pumping? Well, first of all, being over one-hundred-years old, Sweethearts have obtained that automatic dignity granted to anyone that has been around long enough and reached a certain age. Like Elvis Presley films. Or Deloreans. The candy’s reliable presence in our memories of Valentine’s Day has transformed the treat from mere candy to a cultural icon.
Secondly, surrounded by the muck of heart-holding teddies and the sudden, seasonal influx of diamond commercials, Conversation Hearts retain a nostalgic innocence, untainted by the grasps of modern commercialism. The simplicity and playfulness are both refreshing and endearing.
Despite attempts to keep up with the Joneses by adding phrases to the candy’s lexicon, such as “Fax Me,” or “www.Cupid,” the upgrades feel jokey and have a campy nature that practically encourages us to roll our eyes and shake our heads like we’ve just been told the punch-line to painfully corny joke.
According to the Wall Street Journal, in an article entitled, “Conversation Hearts Keep Language of Love Updated,” NECCO has been revamping its poetry since the 1960s when it introduced phrases like “Cha-Cha,” “Dig Me,” and “Hot Dog.” In the 1990s, those messages were replaced with the newer “high-tech greetings.”
In a 1997 interview with People magazine, Walter J. Marshall, the Vice President of NECCO and overseer of “heart poetry,” commented on his approach to select the new, yearly sayings. Marshall is a seasoned veteran of the candy industry, working thirty years with Schrafft’s Candies before moving to NECCO in 1987. He says, “Keeping Valentine’s Day hip isn’t rocket science, but it is fun.” Referring to himself as “The Valentine-Meister,” Marshall undoubtedly keeps the language of love both updated and entertaining.
This year, NECCO has authored several new phrases including, “Soul Mate,” “Live 4 Ever,” and “Bite Me.” The theme? Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series: because nothing says love like the marriage of vampire romance and chalk-like candy. In addition to the new messages, new flavors have also been added. Most notable of these flavors is passion fruit, but the “Tempting Apple,” “Secret Strawberry,” and “Orange Obsession,” should not be disregarded. For those less adventurous candy-eaters, the classic flavors of wintergreen, banana, lemon, cherry, grape and orange will still be available.
Amidst the commercially fabricated romance and material-based declarations of love, Sweethearts and the “Valentine-Meister,” continue to entertain with childlike levity and practice a class of innocent commercialism, so we cannot help but be amused. Boasting dependably silly phrases, historical sweetness and a sense of humor, Sweethearts keep the season’s Conversations light.