Ralph Gardner Jr: Hunting For A Chocolate Heart
I paid a visit Monday afternoon to Vasilow’s. That’s my go-to, old-fashioned, tin ceiling candy store in Hudson, NY and yearly Valentine’s Day provisioner. I was trying to get a jump on the holiday not because I feared a run on their homemade milk and dark chocolate assortment in heart-shaped boxes, the way there was on Christmas trees over the holidays, but because I was sending the gift to my daughter in western Canada and I wanted it to arrive before Valentine’s Day.
However, when I got to Vasilow’s I faced a problem, a conundrum, a dilemma: the store only had half-pound boxes. Owner Nancy Vasilow apologized, explaining that her delivery of one-pound boxes was tardy because of the pandemic and to check back the next day.
One might logically ask wouldn’t a half-pound box suffice? Or two half-pound boxes? Or a pound of chocolate in a regular box, perhaps with a pretty red ribbon around it? Absolutely not. I’m not going to suggest there’s anything sacred about a critical mass of chocolate-covered creams and caramels in a crimson heart-shaped box; Valentine’s Day feels one of those manufactured holidays employed to push flowers and candy.
Chocolate, on the other hand, is sacred. At least in my family. I like to think we owe our longevity not to healthy eating, not to kale smoothies, but to a diet rich in cordial cherries, anything involving praline and mocha, chocolate-covered marshmallows and graham crackers – both milk and dark – as well as chocolate-covered glazed orange peel, marzipan in moderation, truffles and fudge. Also, peanut brittle. And chocolate-covered pretzels. And the entire cosmos of hard candy.
I blame my reverence for the Valentine’s Day’s assortment to childhood scarcity. Each year my father would buy my mother, whom I hold largely responsible for our genetic predisposition to sweets, a huge holiday heart.
In retrospect, I think it’s cruel that he didn’t buy chocolate hearts for his four sons, too. But I suspect his thinking was not only that he didn’t want our teeth to decay any faster than they already were, but also that Valentine’s Day was a romance-oriented holiday. In the days before gender neutrality a heart-shaped box filled with chocolate was something a man gave his wife or girlfriend.
Not that this rationale cut it with my brothers and me. We raided the receptacle as often as possible – a laborious two-step process first requiring us to discover wherever my mother had hidden it.
I vowed that my children not suffer, or be reduced to petty crime, the way I was. But how to solve the immediate problem of getting a box of chocolates to my daughter 3,058 miles and one international border away in time for Valentine’s Day?
I was reluctant to display disloyalty to Vasilow’s. They’re an esteemed local merchant providing, to my mind, an essential service and we should be doing everything to support local commerce during these rocky times. Also, my children have sentimental associations with the shop, probably all the more so if you’re a continent away. And the prices are reasonable.
But time was of the essence. There wasn’t a moment to waste. So I reluctantly went online and searched for another candy maker to whom I also pledge allegiance and whose wares provoke almost as pleasant and as nostalgic associations as Vasilow’s do: Li-Lac Chocolates in New York City. Li-Lac opened its original shop on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village in 1923 and has been manufacturing happiness ever since.
Li-Lac, indeed, was selling chocolate hearts but not in the configuration or price range I required. Their giant, 210-piece assortment looked promising, but vastly beyond my budget. A smaller box contained only dark chocolate and part of the feng shui, the yin-yang of an assortment that lives up to its name is that it include a harmony of both milk and dark chocolates; something that will assuage the needs and prejudices of your taste buds in any mood and given moment.
I realized I needed to think outside the box, something I’m not very good at. Or rather, I needed to think inside the box, only a different shaped box. The existential question became: is it less meaningful to send someone Valentine’s candy in a box that isn’t heart shaped?
With my cursor poised over the “purchase” bar, I reluctantly decided that, yes, it was ok. It helped that Li-Lac’s default box is attractive and evocative of Old New York, decorated with the same purple lilacs that’s been its trademark for decades. Their French assortment also met all my other requirements in terms of size, selection, and price.
That is until you added the international priority mail shipping fee, almost as much as the chocolate itself. I eventually pulled the trigger because some things are more important than money. And one of them is a daughter far from home who inherited your passion for chocolate.
Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com
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