This morning I was riding on the train between Quebec and Montreal, and I was enjoying a small collection of snacks, including a promising square of chocolate with a brand name of theobroma. The chocolate lived up to its name; dark and silky, it delivered both flavour and a little dose of caffeine and theobromine, one of my favourite chemicals. Theobromine, for those who don’t know, is the stimulant in chocolate that makes a person feel happy, as if they were in love. Pretty nice stuff that. It is also the chemical that is dangerous to cats and dogs, but that leaves more chocolate for us!
As I savoured my chocolate, I suddenly had a spike of intense, random anger at carob, the chocolate of disappointment, Though not a hippie herself, my mother adopted the hippie way of eating in the seventies, and my sister and I were tricked into thinking carob was “healthy chocolate”. Carob is almost the only food that makes me angry, and as I was stuck on a train with wifi, I decided to learn a bit about it. Was I the only person with this odd loathing? Why was carob so popular? Why did this one product bring out, at random, a towering disappointment at life in general? I needed to know.
It turns out that in North America, there is a large population of people born in the 60s and 70s who have about the same reaction to carob that I do; violent resentment. Carob became hugely popular at the time among hippies and health food loving folks, and was marketed heavily as a substitute for chocolate that was the “healthy” choice for children. Giving chocolate to a child, once an accepted practice, was suddenly in line with giving them a fifth of rye. Unfortunately, children aren’t idiots. We were presented with what appeared to be chocolate, and when it then turned out to taste pretty much like crayons, our trust in our parents was shattered. To our young minds carob demonstrated the fallibility of adults, or else demonstrated a previously hidden malice towards us. Carob caused an entire generation to never quite trust in the same way again. No wonder Generation X is jaded! In seriousness, the carob craze depended on a sort of suspension of disbelief to move forward. Eventually the candies, beverages, and horrid carob chips largely faded into history. But was carob healthier? Well, it didn’t have caffeine, or theobromine, so it was much less of a stimulant. But carob often did have damaging fats such as palm oil, while chocolate has healthy fats. In its raw form it didn’t have as much sugar, but the truth is a lot of carob treats had sugar in them. So we were likely suffering for nothing.
The history of carob is actually very interesting; it was a crop in its own right for thousands of years before it was foisted on us as a substitute for chocolate. The carob tree produces a fleshy pod, and the pod is ground and dried to make carob flour or powder. It is mentioned fondly in the Epic of Gilgamesh, and was an important source of sugar before cane was used. Carob was often used as a sweet nourishing drink, or made into a cake with dates. It is an important feature of Jewish and Muslim tradition, and the seeds of the pod were once used to weigh diamonds, thus the word “carot”. The seeds are also used as a thickening agent in commercial food processing. In short, this food has thousands of years of history, and is hated by a small group from a specific time period only because it is nothing at all like chocolate, and people we trusted suggested that it was. Those of us who hate it might actually like it, of the smell of it didn’t trigger the angst of childhood betrayal.
In the spirit of full disclosure, carob did treat me an important lesson about barter. At school I often traded the cursed carob bars for Wagon Wheels, by playing up the rare, exotic nature of my pretend chocolate. My mother went on long rants about parents who would be so thoughtless as to feed their children industrial products, but to me these classmates were the first targets of my stories about food. It has been a long time since I had a Wagon Wheel, but I remember them with nothing but fondness.