Thursday, June 18, 2009

My Buddy Carob

Show of hands many of you came of age in the 1970s? OK, good. Now how many of you had parents who belonged to a food co-op? Wonderful. Now, of those, how many of you remember carob? Great. One more many of you have introduced carob to your children?

Both of you? Thank you. I hope you two are proud of yourselves. You may put your hands down now.

For those of you who know nothing of this wonderful fruit, carob (a.k.a. St. John’s Bread a.k.a. locust bean a.k.a. boxer) is the edible pod of the carob tree. Carob trees are large trees (50-55 feet at maturity) that primarily grow in Mediterranean climates. Carob pods contain both pulp (90%) and seeds (10%). The seeds yield locust bean gum, a complex polysaccharide (galactomannan) which is an important commercial stabilizer and thickener in bakery goods, ice cream, salad dressings, sauces, cheese, salami, bologna, canned meats and fish, jelly, mustard, and other food products. The rest of the pod can be roasted and ground into carob powder which is made into a wide variety of foods, including drink mixes, baked goods, candy bars, candy-coated fruit and nuts, and ice cream.

Carob has a very long and proud history. Its seeds are very regular in size and are thought to be the origin of the word ‘carat,’ as jewelers would use carob seeds to weigh out diamonds. Due to its high sugar content and relatively low cost, carob pulp was among the first horticultural crops used for the production of industrial alcohol by fermentation in several Mediterranean countries.

Carob seemed to really come of age in this country back in the 1970s, primarily as a chocolate substitute. Carob powder is higher in fiber, calcium, and vitamin A than cocoa powder, and it is lower in saturated fat, theobromine, and caffeine. More recent studies have shown that carob plays a role in treating hypercholesterolemia.

Back in the day, healthfood stores and restaurants sold carob goodies in every shape and size. I fondly remember the healthfood store in South Bend, Indiana that sold carob ice cream along with its bran muffins and fruit juice-sweetened cookies.

So, what happened? Where did all the carob products go? Why is it so hard to find good, tasty, sugar-sweetened carob candies nowadays? I am sure that the food scientists and agronomists will point to the world-wide decline in carob production over the past 50 years primarily due to low prices and low consumption. However, I blame it on all the idealists and hippies and new agers and health foodies. You all got lazy. The moment those first studies came out linking dark chocolate to antioxidants, you dumped carob like a bad prom date.

Shame on you.

Granted, as a chocolate substitute, carob is a paltry surrogate. Carob truly has its own personality. It had a roasty, earthy, sweet flavor that does not have the bitter refinement of chocolate. It is the Jerry Garcia of confections.

However, carob will always have a place in my heart. When I was a young boy, I was allergic to chocolate. From the age of about five through high school, I ate no chocolate. Picture it: no Three Musketeers bars, no Klondike bars, no Oreos, no Hydrox, no Hershey bars, and no M&Ms. I grew up eating only half of black and white cookies. I could only eat two-thirds of Neapolitan ice cream. Chocolate was this ubiquitous presence, always laughing at me, taunting me, giving me the proverbial wedgie.

But carob was my loyal friend. Carob stood by me when chocolate left me out in the cold.

So, even now that I have outgrown my chocolate allergy, I still have a soft spot for carob. Every Tu B’Shevat, I make carob bars (recipe to come later). I still occasionally make carob chip cookies, carob brownies, and carob cake.

A couple of weeks ago, my youngest son begged me to make some peanut butter carob chip cookies. I happily acquiesced. When my wife, who equates dark chocolate with earthly pleasures usually only found in the Kama Sutra, heard what we were making, she had only one question. “Why?”

How could I explain to her the nostalgia, the comfort, the companionship inherent in a single carob chip? How could I explain to her the childhood memories that flood back every time I open a canister of carob powder? I didn’t even try.

“Why not?” I answered. And that seemed good enough for her.

1 comment:

  1. Come visit in Jerusalem where every other street has a few carob trees. (They don't smell so good when in bloom.) I don't have the affection for carob, but I do occasionally pick up the fruit and eat it...