A book published in the 1980s, "The Chemistry of Love" by Dr. Michael R. Liebowitz, traced our cultural love affair with chocolate to a chemical called phenylethylamine that releases endorphins into the brain, making us feel good.
The same chemical is released when people are falling in love, leading to the theory that chocolate is an aphrodisiac.
No wonder chocolate is so popular at Valentine’s Day. Science might have debunked that theory, but chocolate remains a popular gift for the holiday that celebrates all things love.
Stephanie Patterson Gilbert, owner of Georgie Lou’s Retro Candy and Gifts at 22 N. Pitt St. in Carlisle, said the popularity of chocolate at Valentine’s Day may be based in the cultural history of the sweet treat. “Chocolate was something that only affluent people could afford for a very long time,” she said.
So, it became customary for people to spend extra money on Valentine’s Day to show loved ones the extent of their love. Then, along came Milton Hershey.
“His goal was to make chocolate affordable for everyone,” Patterson Gilbert said.
Hershey Entertainment and Resorts’ website tells Hershey’s story. With only a fourth-grade education, Hershey apprenticed with a Lancaster candy maker before establishing his first candy making business in Philadelphia. That was the first of three failed businesses that took him to Chicago and New York before he returned to Lancaster to establish the Lancaster Caramel Co.
He soon became fascinated with making chocolate and bought the equipment to make it at his company. He sold the Lancaster company for $1 million in 1900 so he could concentrate exclusively on making chocolate.
Hershey built a new factory in an area that eventually became home to the town that bears his name. The location was perfect for acquiring large supplies of fresh milk needed to make fine milk chocolate. It took a few years of trial and error, but he eventually perfected his formula.
Hershey — the community — carries that legacy into its celebration of chocolate coinciding with the Valentine’s Day holiday. “Our town was built on chocolate,” said Kathleen McGraw, director of communications for Hershey Entertainment and Resorts. “Valentine’s Day and chocolate are synonymous so let’s take it to the next level.”
McGraw said this is the ninth year for “Chocolate Covered February,” which includes events for all ages.
“There’s things you can do with your girlfriends, there’s things you can do as a couple, there’s things you can do with girlfriends and things you can do as a family,” she said.
Those planning to postpone Valentine’s Day celebrations into the weekend and beyond can make reservations for any of the special events at chocolatecoveredfebruary.com, McGraw said.
The events include activities for adults such as “Cupcakes and Cocktails,” a dessert experience held every Friday night at the Hotel Hershey that includes petite cupcakes and specialty drinks with tips on pairing the two.
McGraw also pointed to the “Chocolate Covered Tapas party” on Feb. 16 at The Hershey Lodge. Attendees move through the rooms of the lodge sampling a variety of food items prepared with chocolate or cocoa. For example, there’s Kona coffee and cocoa-crusted bistro beef filet or dark cherry and chocolate tagliatelle.
McGraw suggests families take in the HersheyPark Chocolate Parade at Chocolate World on Saturdays and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. A band with horns and drums play songs mentioning chocolate or sweet treats and all the chocolate characters join in the parade. “The little kids can dance with the characters and get their pictures taken,” she said.
Chocolate-related activities aside, the clock is ticking for those looking to buy chocolate or other sweet treats for their sweethearts for Valentine’s Day.
“Valentine’s Day is really a last-minute holiday,” Patterson Gilbert said. “I think that’s mostly because men are in charge of the shopping.”
At Georgie Lou’s, truffles are always a popular item. Truffles were originally brought in as a one-time thing last Valentine’s Day. When they sold out, Patterson Gilbert thought they would pack away the case and that would be the end of truffle sales at the store.
“We found we sell them every day,” Patterson Gilbert said. So, the truffles stayed.
People are drawn to the treats because they’re beautifully decorated — especially when compared to the plain chocolates in the average box, Patterson Gilbert said.
Other popular chocolate treats at the store include dark chocolate-covered espresso beans, chocolate-covered pretzels and malted milk balls that come in a variety of flavors including milk chocolate, dark chocolate, espresso, mint cookie and Neapolitan.
Vonnie Getz, store manager of Brittle Bark at 33 W. Main St. in Mechanicsburg, said Valentine’s Day-related business is picking up. “I’ve had more men in my store today than I sometimes do a week,” she said.
But, the holiday isn’t the busiest one for the store. “Christmas is definitely our busiest holiday, but I have people coming in for the heart boxes and chocolates for Valentine’s Day,” she said.
The store is most known for its 16 varieties of Brittle Bark. It’s “Poppin’ Time” Brittle Bark — popcorn and pretzels topped with Just Peanuts Brittle Bark and finished with drizzled chocolate — was the snack of the day on the Rachael Ray show in 2008.
The store also will be dipping fresh strawberries in chocolate for Valentine’s Day, Getz said.
Another popular item is the Jubilee Fudge Pie on a stick — a wedge-shaped piece of fudge covered in chocolate, Getz said. As with Brittle Bark, the fudge is made locally. Getz said about 50 percent of the candy in the store is made locally.
Patterson Gilbert is an advocate of shopping local. The advantage of patronizing a local store is that it’s the store’s job to know where to find a particular type of candy, why it can’t be found just anywhere anymore and where it can be found, she said.
At the big box stores, though, “nobody’s going to be able to tell you anything other than where it is in the store,” Patterson Gilbert said.
Both stores will be open on Valentine’s Day to help out last-minute shoppers and make those gifts look extravagant even if the shopper doesn’t have a lot to spend.
The important part is to get there and get something. “If you’re guy and you’ve got a girl, do something for Valentine’s Day,” Patterson Gilbert said. “As much as we say we don’t want something, do it.”