The snack that is definitely not chocolate
The story of carob
Hello, Snackers. It’s Part II of Healthy (??) Snack Week!
On Monday, we learned about the many lives of Fig Newtons and how they’ve been perceived as both healthful and unhealthful at various points over the last century. Today, we’re talking about carob. Come back on Friday for another snack that may or may not be good for you.
Also, check out this interview I did with Substack over the weekend. You’ll learn more about this newsletter, why I started it, what Halloween candy I despise, and much more.
If you’re new here: Snack Stack explores the history and cultural significance of snacks. Wednesday snacks are free for everyone; paid subscribers get additional snacks on Monday and Friday. Check out the list of past snacks here or travel by map.
I wouldn’t classify my parents as hippies, but they’ve always been at least hippie-adjacent.
When I was a kid, in the 1980s, they took me and my sister to many protests and marches: for women’s rights, for affordable housing, against war. I went to a cooperatively-run child care center that emphasized collaborative conflict resolution. At home, we had no television but endless wooden toys. We ate a standard White Midwesterners of the 1980s menu—hard-shell tacos, Crock Pot stews, iceberg lettuce salads, frozen pizza—but within our broader orbit, at my child care center or potlucks with my parents’ friends, there always seemed to be adults serving something they claimed was good for me. There was plenty of seed-flecked whole wheat bread and brown rice, both of which I liked just fine, but the thing that most sticks in my memory are the little brown balls they’d buy from the bulk bins at one of our neighborhood’s natural food co-ops and give to me and other kids as a treat.
“It’s carob!” they’d say. “It’s just like chocolate … but it’s good for you!”
I was a shy, obedient kid, so I never voiced my opinion out loud—but this was one of the rare times I wanted to yell in the grown-ups’ faces and tell them, “NO, YOU’RE LYING, IT DOESN’T TASTE LIKE FUCKING CHOCOLATE.”
To this day, whenever I hear someone mention carob, I’m zoomed back to those little balls and the accompanying sales pitch. And I’m struck yet again by the feeling of being conned by an adult I trusted, someone I knew to be a generous idealist who wanted to make the world a better place—but, apparently, intended only disappointment for my taste buds. (For the record, because they will want you to know: my parents only ever gave me real chocolate.)
I hadn’t thought about carob for a good long time until a few weeks ago, when I was listening to the podcast Maintenance Phase. I was catching up on old episodes I’d missed, and in the middle of one on the infamous Twinkie Defense, hosts Aubrey Gordon and Michael Hobbes riffed for a moment on carob and their own childhood experiences with it, which sounded similar to mine. Hobbes suggested they do a deep dive on carob for a future episode, but when I went looking for the follow-up, it didn’t exist. They’d set up a question that piqued my interest— What was the deal with carob?—but there were still no answers.
So I decided to investigate for myself.
* * *
People all around the Mediterranean region have grown carob trees for millennia, using the seeds and the surrounding pulp mostly as animal feed. As author Jonathan Kauffman, author of Hippie Food: How Back-to-the-Landers, Longhairs and Revolutionaries Have Changed the Way We Eat, recounted in a New Yorker story on carob in 2018, the trees have only been in the USA since 1854, when “the U.S. Patent Office imported eight thousand carob trees from Spain, distributing them primarily around California.” Here, too, the focus was initially on livestock—the page-long “carob” entry in the 1914 edition of The Encyclopedia of Practical Horticulture says that “the ripe pods are heavy, and contain about 65 per cent of gum and sugar, making excellent food for sheep and hogs, particularly when it is desired to fatten these animals.”
There’s more than a bit of exoticism to the American writing about carob in this early era, a sense that perhaps this magnificent, importable product from this magical, far-off place will boost our own society—a foreign plant as domestic panacea (see also, at various times, figs, quinoa, açaí, kiwi, etc.). One awestruck piece in The New York Times, in 1890, called carob “one of the most beautiful and useful trees,” lauding its flowers, its “admirable furniture wood,” “the grateful shade its heavy foliage affords,” its ability to thrive in dry, rocky places, and its links to St. John, since carob pods are generally understood to be the “locusts” on which he fed in the wilderness. Kaufmann writes that by the 1940s, “though, the trees, hardy and evergreen, had been demoted to a Southern California ornamental,” less wonder-plant than curiosity whose fundamental purpose Americans were still trying to figure out.
According to Kaufmann, here’s what happened next:
Los Angeles’s burgeoning health-food industry may have been the only one to give carob a proper chance. … By the nineteen-fifties, one of those health-food faddists must have wondered whether, if you closed your eyes tight, and meditated on your well-conditioned bowels, carob didn’t maybe taste a little bit like chocolate.
This definitely seems like a plausible origin for the carob-for-chocolate substitution.
But it turns to be wrong.
* * *
I can’t find records of precisely how much carob was eaten, and in what various forms, around the USA in the first half of the twentieth century, but it’s certainly mentioned in plenty of recipes and food-related articles in that time—and not just in California. This includes, for example, discussions in the aforementioned New York Times piece from 1890, a book published by the National Proctologic Association in 1938 (“it was the sustainer of the ancients—delicious, nutritious, and well-balanced”), and a University of Minnesota Agricultural Extension Division booklet from 1940.
Moreover, each of those three publications, and plenty of others, specifically highlighted its use as a chocolate substitute.
Here’s the Times in 1890: “It has been used in the manufacture of sirups, liquors, and an imitation of chocolate, and by the Egyptians in preparing a sort of sugar used by the Arabs.”
Here’s the National Proctologic Association: “Carob flour … yields the appearance and fine flavor of chocolate, lending a touch of charm to may mock-chocolate desserts.”
Here’s the University of Minnesota Agricultural Extension Division: “Carob tastes something like chocolate and is used as a substitute for cocoa or chocolate. Chocolate is sometimes frowned upon because it contains the stimulant caffeine, like coffee and colas.”
One other early example I found, from 1924, was a note from the Coachella-based Date Growers’ Institute suggesting carob candy as an alternative for people allergic to chocolate, which means the concept was definitely known in Southern California before it became a broader trend. So, sure, it’s possible that the use of carob as ersatz chocolate was popularized by the health-food industry in and around Los Angeles. But, no, the concept absolutely did not come from the midcentury flights of imagination of some bowel-obsessed wellness influencer. It originated many years earlier—and, based the Times piece from 1890, it seems that it started on the other side of the world, around the Mediterranean, among the people who originally cultivated and ate carob in the first place.
* * *
As carob took over as the go-to sweet for health-food-obsessed Americans, it left a trail of horrified children in its wake—my own experience was far from isolated, as the riffing by Gordon and Hobbes made clear. “At the pinnacle of our dietary suffering, worse even than sprout sandwiches or fruit leather or whole-wheat scones, there was carob, the chocolate substitute that never could,” Kaufmann writes, and the headline of his story instantly resonated with me: “How Carob Traumatized a Generation.”
Most of the early recipes and discussions I found in American publications labeled it a potential substitute for chocolate, one you could swap in as a backup in case of allergies or just for fun, like the recipe for toffee cookies published in Home & Garden Bulletin in 1950 that listed carob cookies as a variation you could try—but real chocolate was the preference.
By the 1970s, though, it was the main attraction, not just something to consider if necessary. One 1978 New York Times trend piece on organic foods included recipes for both carob cake and carob frosting. Another story the same year in the same paper, which opened with the observation that “everyone knows that vegetarianism in the United States is on the rise,” featured a recipe for a date, coconut, and carob pie, along with the advice of one health-conscious mother who recommended “substituting … carob for chocolate, fruit for sugar … agar-agar for gelatin and lemon for salt.” The burgeoning obsession with the plant was perhaps best exemplified by the arrival, in 1977, of a carob version of Ovaltine.
* * *
The problem with carob as a chocolate substitute, if I really need to spell it out, is that carob is not chocolate. It doesn’t taste like chocolate; it doesn’t feel like chocolate; you know it’s not chocolate—and this is a disappointment because you also know, thanks to every ad and cue from our consumer society, that chocolate is delicious and desirable. To present one as the other is to start to enter the uncanny valley and then taste it and go, “NOPE,” because the similarities just aren’t there, not really.
Using carob as a direct stand-in for chocolate reminds you of what you’re missing. It also plays into the idea that nutrition and wellness are a matter of swapping one thing for another without looking at issues of, say, moderation or a general balance in your diet or the whole matter of sustainability. (To be fair, plenty of the health-food aficionados who boosted carob’s profile did keep that more holistic view in mind, or at least tried to; the more typical American eater, like the the consumers of carob Ovaltine, perhaps did not.) Most of all, though, carob-as-fake-chocolate misses the possibilities of carob as something unto itself.
The idea that carob could be enjoyable on its own terms was, for the longest time, not something that had occurred to me at all. I mean, here’s a tweet I sent out a few weeks ago:
I cringe when I read that now, but the framing of the question—more or less assuming that everyone reading it shares my viewpoint—came from my own experiences, which are difficult to see past because they’re so harshly etched in my memories and confirmed by conversations with my own friends over the years, along with the words of higher-profile commentators like Kaufmann, Gordon, and Hobbes.
But if those of us who grew up with that experience—and, of course, the Boomer adults who inflicted it upon us—had paid a bit more attention, we’d know there’s so much more to the story than that.
* * *
When I posted that tweet, there were some answers that I hadn’t expected, from people who live in the Middle East or who have spent a significant amount of time there. Hisham A. Youssif, who runs a hotel in Cairo, said, “I love it as a Ramadan famous Egyptian drink. It's light and removes thirst in hot days and it's very tasty specially when seed cold.” Jessica Lee, who’s written many Lonely Planet guidebooks to the Middle East (among other places), noted her love of carob pekmez—a thick sweetener akin to molasses, I learned when I Googled it—which was echoed by my friend Zora O’Neill, who wrote the excellent travelogue All Strangers Are Kin: Adventures in Arabic. A bit more basic internet searching led me to an exuberant Palestinian vendor selling carob juice in in Gaza and all manner of carob-based shakes and drinks. None of this information was hiding. I just hadn’t looked beyond my own life to notice the rest of the world.
Of course carob’s better if it’s not being compared to chocolate. OF COURSE it is. This should not have been a revelation to me, but here we are. And, honestly, Americans would have understood this from the outset if they’d just looked at the ways carob was used in other countries. Again, The New York Times talked about this in 1890.
Read this sentence again and this time, note the way that the potential for a chocolate stand-in is mentioned merely in passing, one possibility among many: “It has been used in the manufacture of sirups, liquors, and an imitation of chocolate, and by the Egyptians in preparing a sort of sugar used by the Arabs.”
* * *
There are so many ways that white Americans—like me—have completely messed up in their relationship with foods originating outside Europe (especially Western Europe), ways that range from confused and ignorant to flat-out racist, and include the vast overlap between those categories.
There’s appropriation and its cousin Columbusing—claiming that you discovered something that you, uh, definitely didn’t. In the food world, the most famous recent example may be Alison Roman’s recipe for “The Stew”; as Roxana Hadadi wrote in Pajiba, “Roman made herself a curry and refused to acknowledge that she had made a curry, and this is colonialism as cuisine.”
There’s also the inversion of this, the declaration that a food is objectively vile because it’s unfamiliar, a topic Jiayang Fan discussed at length in The New Yorker earlier this year. Fan’s piece centers on the Disgusting Food Museum, in Sweden, and the way it curates which foods are “gross”—an impossible task, ultimately, because flavors are so culturally bound. She writes of her own experiences shortly after arrived in the USA:
To be a new immigrant is to be trapped in a disgusting-food museum, confused by the unfamiliar and unsettled by the familiar-looking. The firm, crumbly white blocks that you mistake for tofu are called feta. The vanilla icing that tastes spoiled is served on top of potatoes and is called sour cream.
But Fan also notes the imbalance in the ways that unfamiliarity gets rendered into “disgusting” at a societal level, creating an in-group and an out-group that, unsurprisingly, parallels broader racism and xenophobia:
Something happens when you discover that you yourself are “disgusting.” It does not matter whether you believe it to be true. Shame and fear flood your body, as involuntarily as the disgust face, until a kind of self-disgust takes root.
Reducing carob to something awful—something that “traumatized a generation,” never mind that it was really just a specific generation of a specific type of person, largely white, largely middle-class, largely hippie-adjacent—follows a familiar pattern. It also shows another way that Americans, especially white Americans, can mess up foods: not by claiming them as our own or shunning them as different but by simply making them worse, forcing them to pretend to be something they’re not.
As with so many other things, finding greater enjoyment in carob is actually a pretty simple proposition: get out of the way. Let it shine as its own thing, understanding and appreciating its distinct identity. Let carob be carob.
* * *
It seemed appropriate to find some carob to eat for this essay. Face my fears and chase them away forever, provide a sense of narrative closure.
But it turns out carob is not available at either of my two usual grocery stores, and when I checked Target, the only things on offer were carob-chip cookies for dogs (wouldn’t want your pup to miss out on a human-style dessert!). Whole Foods had a single item: carob chips “just like chocolate,” which falls right into that same trap.
It’s not actually easy to find anymore; the trend has passed. But, really, I shouldn’t have assumed it would be so simple. I need to venture out of my usual bubble—that should have been apparent all along. So I will—and I’ll take to heart the reminder to keep looking beyond my own circle, my own experiences, and my own memories.
If you enjoyed this, please share it on your social media platforms of choice, and consider a paid subscription to support this newsletter and enable me to keep writing it—I have a blast doing these posts but it’s also real work and paid subscriptions are what makes it worth my time.
When you pay, you get three posts like this every week, all for a mere $5 per month, which is less than you spend on actual snacks. If you’re already a paid subscriber, thank you so much!
Check out the list of past snacks here or travel by map.