The World of Food: Valentine’s Day

By Julia Maish |

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Ahhh…St. Valentine’s Day. If you’re a Chicago history buff, the next word that comes to mind might easily be “…Massacre.” But of course, to most people, this red-and-pink hued holiday is an excuse to shower gifts on, and dine out with, the one you love. Thrifty lovers beware: a fast food place isn’t going to cut it. But you already knew that.

How did this become an annual rite of romance? Trust us — it was not always so genteel.

It all started, as with so many things, with the ancient Romans, whose fun activities included a yearly three-day eating extravaganza called the Feast of Lupercalia. The origins of this bacchanal are sketchy, but we know it took place between February 13 and 15, organized by a group of priests known as the Luperci, who supposedly thought it would ward off evil spirits and help with procreation.

The festival began with the Luperci sacrificing a goat and a dog. Two of the priests would be marked on the forehead by the bloody knife; the blood would then be cleaned off by a woolen cloth soaked in milk, during which the two men were required to laugh. As the feast got underway, thongs were cut from the skins of the dead animals, and the Luperci, naked, would run around the nearest hill, using the bloody thongs to whip women who lined up for this privilege, believing that it would render them fertile. (Is this where we got the expression “to hit on?” Or perhaps “speed dating?” No idea.)

Another standard part of the celebration was a matchmaking lottery, where women’s names were drawn at random to be paired up with a man for the duration of the event, or longer if things worked out. Romantic, huh?

Later, Lupercalia morphed into St. Valentine’s Day, in honor of two martyrs executed on February 14 by Emperor Claudius II, and it became simply a day to celebrate love. This idea picked up steam after Chaucer and Shakespeare got in on the act. According to Smithsonian Magazine, Chaucer’s poem Parlement of Foules (1382) included the line, “’every bird cometh to choose his mate’ on ‘seynt Voantynes day.’” And during the Bard of Avon’s lifetime, perhaps inspired by his plays and sonnets, paper Valentines became all the rage (one of the protagonists in his early comedy The Two Gentlemen of Verona is named Valentine). In America, we can date Valentines to 1913, when they were popularized by Bostonian Esther Howland and began to be mass-produced by Hallmark. Last year, according to USA Today, Americans spent approximately $18.2 billion on the holiday, or about $137 per person (presumably, this includes people who present Valentine’s Day gifts to their pets, an actual thing).

For “conversation” hearts, we can thank another Bostonian: a pharmacist named Oliver Chase. In the mid-19th century, lozenges were the remedy of choice for everything from halitosis to cold symptoms. In 1847, Chase, hoping to simplify the production process of his lozenges, accidentally invented the first candy-making apparatus, which punched out those chalky discs that we now know as NECCO wafers. Later, Oliver’s brother Daniel formulated the vegetable dye used to print witty messages on them. It wasn’t until 1902 that someone came up with the idea of cutting them into heart shapes, and by the beginning of World War I, they were already a Valentine’s Day staple. Today, NECCO produces, by its own estimation, more than 100,000 pounds of the hearts daily throughout the year in anticipation of the holiday, and the messages are continually updated to keep pace with changing times.

We have already covered the history of chocolate, but did you know that the satin and lace-trimmed heart-shaped chocolate box was developed to be reused for lingerie? And that Hershey’s Kisses, marketed as “a most nourishing food,” got their name because of the “smooching” sound the chocolates made as they hit the factory conveyor belt?

So what constitutes a true romantic Valentine’s Day dinner? Descriptors you might think of include “dimly lit”; “intimate”; “cozy”; “Parisian”; “elegant”; “shareable”; and “decadent,” which seems to be a descriptor mostly for the desserts, which MUST include crème brûlée, something creamy in a tart, or a concoction involving “ganache.” You will find many of these rolled into one at the legendary Geja's, which raises fondue (which is decadent and shareable, after all) into a high art form.

And judging from the other “special holiday menus” we’ve seen, a Valentine’s Day meal is one that looks as good as it tastes, with no calorie-counting allowed. Perfect steaks, rich sauces, potatoes prepared in innovative ways. The more elaborate the meal, the more indication that someone — the chef, the waitstaff, and especially, the customer — truly cares. And the ambiance? If it’s an environment where there’s champagne on ice, soft music, mood lighting, and you might feel inspired to drop to one knee with a ring box in your hand, you’re probably in the right place.

Happy Valentine’s Day!