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Thursday, Dec. 9, 2010 10:00 pm

Chocolate cockroaches, a 19th-century treat


Finished chocolate cockroaches.

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse…
The children were nestled, all snug in their beds
While visions of cockroaches danced in their heads…

Sound like the Addams Family version of Clement C. Moore’s famous poem? It’s easy to picture macabre little Wednesday Addams licking her lips at the thought of eating nasty bugs instead of sugar plums. This riff on Moore’s ode refers to an Addams-like Christmas tradition practiced by late 19th-century Illinoisans and other Victorians.

Let’s get one thing clear – they didn’t eat real roaches, they ate chocolates molded to look like them.

Those crazy Victorians.

“The chocolate cockroaches are a real window into the Victorian sensibility and soul, what they thought was wonderful was so different. If we looked back at some of that stuff, we’d go ‘Ewwww!’” says Marcia Young, site manager of the David Davis Mansion, a state historic site in Bloomington where chocolate cockroaches are a must for Christmas. Young is scheduled to speak in Springfield Dec. 9 at Edwards Place on ways Victorians celebrated Christmas.

The 36-room mansion was the home of Judge David Davis and his wife, Sarah; Davis was a friend and colleague of Abraham Lincoln’s. Sarah had grown up in New England and brought its traditions here with her. Central Illinoisans didn’t celebrate the holidays much when Sarah moved to Bloomington in 1839. Young says Sarah helped change that and brought what we think of as a more modern Christmas celebration to the prairie.

Tara Navik, mold master chocolatier, fills the cockroach molds from a vat of milk choclate.

That included decorating the home and tree, giving gifts to loved ones, and eating special foods on Christmas day. The chocolate cockroaches tradition stemmed from two Victorian beliefs: that children should receive special treats for the holiday and that nature was wonderful.

While candy is omnipresent in modern society, that wasn’t the case in the 1800s. “Candy was a big deal to kids. Getting candy only happened on very special occasions,” says Young. For Christmas, Victorians gave them lots of candy in stockings or as gifts.

Some of that candy was made to look like items in nature. “This was a time in which a lot of exploration is occurring all over the globe,” Young says. “Victorians are very excited about what they’re finding. They’re fascinated by the natural world, even the smallest parts, like insects.” That fascination inspired their candy-making, so they created chocolates that looked like carrots, lobsters, rabbits, beetles, spiders, and even cockroaches.

“The David Davis Mansion has chocolate cockroaches at Christmas because we’re trying to tell the story of how all these Christmas customs evolved,” Young adds. “Christmas traditions we think were from time immemorial were not. Christmas as we know it today started in the 19th century…We show Christmas as it was celebrated after the Industrial Revolution.” (The Mansion is really decked out for the holiday, with more than 15 Christmas trees and many other decorations.)

Young says she knows Sarah Davis was aware of Christmas cockroach candies because the Mansion has a letter Sarah received telling how a former young neighbor of hers in Massachusetts was given one for the holiday. (In the letter it was called a “sugar cockroach.”)

About eight years ago, Young decided it was time to add chocolate cockroaches to the Mansion’s Victorian peppermint pigs and other holiday treats. So she tried to find a chocolate manufacturer to make them. “I called several and I think they thought I was looney tunes!” she laughs.

Then she called Pease’s in Springfield, which has been here for 82 years (and was in Bloomington in 1918). Pease’s wasn’t disgusted or shocked at her request, Young says. They even asked if she wanted the candies with or without legs (she opted for the latter).

“We like to do odd orders,” says Doug Anderson, vice president of Pease’s, who oversees the production of its candy. (It made chocolate coffins for the gift shop in Springfield’s former Museum of Funeral Customs.) Anderson ordered chocolate moulds in the shape of cockroaches to fill the Davis Mansion’s request. “If people are looking for something, we want to help them out. You can always have a chocolate mould made.” Currently, Peases only makes cockroaches for the Davis Mansion; it’s had no other requests for them.

The Mansion includes the cockroaches in its decorations and sells them for 95 cents apiece in its gift shop. “They sell very, very well,” Young says. “They’ve become known as something you can get here. We’ve had people come here from other towns just to buy the cockroaches.”

Wednesday Addams, eat your heart out.

Contact Tara McAndrew at tmcand22@aol.com.


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