A wry disgruntlement will forever unite those of us who were children during the height of the nineteen-seventies natural-foods movement. It was a time that we recall not for its principles—yes to organics, no to preservatives—but for its endless assaults on our tender young palates. There was brown rice that scoured our molars as we chewed, shedding gritty flecks of bran. There was watery homemade yogurt that resisted all attempts to mitigate its tartness. And, 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.
In the nineteen-seventies, it infiltrated food co-ops and baking books as if it had been sent on a cointelpro mission to alienate the left’s next generation. “Delicious in brownies, hot drinks, cakes and ‘Confections without Objections,’ ” the 1968 vegan cookbook “Ten Talents” crowed, noting, too, that it was a proven bowel conditioner. “Give carob a try,” Maureen Goldsmith, the author of “The Organic Yenta,” encouraged, but even her endorsement came with a hedge; in the note to her recipe for carobpudding, she confessed that she still snuck out for actual chocolate from time to time—though less and less often! No one under the age of twelve could stand the stuff. Not the candy bars that encased a puck of barely sweetened peanut butter in a thin, waxy brown shell, nor the cookies—whole wheat, honey-sweetened—studded with carob chunks that refused to melt in the mouth, instead caking unpleasantly between the teeth. My mother—who, to her children’s lasting gratitude, never compromised her pie recipes, even during her peak whole-foods years—told me recently that she was never that fond of carob, either.
Carob was burdened with good intentions from the moment it arrived in North America. In 1854, the U.S. Patent Office imported eight thousand carob trees from Spain, distributing them primarily around California. The carob tree, Ceratonia siliqua, had been cultivated in the Mediterranean for thousands of years, providing sustenance for animals in the flush years, for humans in the lean. St. John’s bread, some called it; others, locust bean.
For a century after its arrival, American agricultural experts attempted to coax a profitable crop out of the carob tree, which seemed to flourish in the Southwest. According to a 1914 article in the Los Angeles Times, C. W. Beers, the Santa Barbara County horticultural commissioner, proclaimed, “The day may come when the deserts will be extensive forests of carob trees.” Some scientists, noting its high sugar content, fed the pods to calves and chickens in lieu of grains to fuel their growth. One set up a plant in Los Alamitos, in the nineteen-twenties, to mine sugar from carob. By the nineteen-forties, though, the trees, hardy and evergreen, had been demoted to a Southern California ornamental, and not even a particularly welcome one. “Care for a carob pod? . . . I got too many of them,” the L.A. Times’ humorist Abercrombie wrote, in 1945. They accreted in lawns and parking lots.
Los Angeles’s burgeoning health-food industry may have been the only one to give carob a proper chance. One of the country’s earliest raw-food cookbooks, “Mrs. Richter’s Cook-Less Book,” from 1925, included recipes for carob-almond milk and carob confections made with pine nuts. In 1932, the naturopath and Los Angeles Times alternative-medicine columnist Phillip Lovell mentioned sweets made of “figs, nuts, prunes, honey, dates, raisins and carob meal.” 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.
And so the natural-foods cookbooks filled with recipes: carob-chip-oatmeal cookies, carob puddings, hot carob cocoa, carob brownies, carob frosting, carob fudge. In food co-ops—trigger warning—carob-coated raisins became a bulk-bin staple. Even Häagen-Dazs, which débuted in Manhattan, in 1976, stocked a short-lived carob-flavored ice cream. What was so wrong with cacao? “Ten Talents” called it a “harmful stimulant”; others scowled at the high fat content of chocolate confections and the bitterness of unsweetened cocoa powder. The counterculture of the nineteen-seventies, ready to give any diet that Harvard nutritionists scoffed at a go, absorbed these prejudices with little question. Chocolate was bad? Chocolate was bad!
Until, suddenly, it wasn’t. By the nineteen-eighties, it had become more than acceptable to admit that you’d fallen victim to a new disease: chocoholism. To claim to be a chocoholic was a sort of boast, tinged, perhaps, with a pre-digested eroticism—a thick slab of Death by Chocolate cake, served with two or three spoons, please. Sandra Boynton’s “Chocolate: The Consuming Passion,” with the illustrator’s beloved hippo on the cover, became a Times best-seller in 1982.
Sometimes you hate a thing for so long that the loathing morphs into self-doubt. Did carob really deserve all the hate we heaped upon it? Recently, I made a batch of arob brownies from “Uprisings,” a 1983 collection of hand-lettered whole-wheat recipes contributed by the collectively run bakeries of the time. It has become my favorite whole-wheat-baking book, a fine demonstration of the heights that whole-grain doctrinaires were able to reach. (The sesame-millet bread, for instance: very good.) The brownies were convincingly brown, and, thanks to a cup of honey and some molasses, sweet enough. They tasted nothing like chocolate, and their texture was dry and dense, but their deep malt-and-date flavor wasn’t actually so bad. I posted about the brownies on Facebook, and friends around my age responded with dozens of gleeful complaints, interspersed with the notes of a few carob defenders, most of whom had first tasted it in adulthood. Poor carob, they wrote. It never wanted to be chocolate in the first place.
Cortney Burns, who is currently opening a restaurant in North Adams, Massachusetts, is among the believers. When she was the co-chef at Bar Tartine, in San Francisco, Burns made the only carob dessert that I have truly enjoyed: a semifreddo with mint and eucalyptus whose appeal, at the time, I attributed to her brilliance. I spoke to Burns recently by phone and learned that she, too, was first confronted with carob in her teens. “It tasted like nutty cardboard,” she said. She became interested in it again only when she decided to cut chocolate out of her menus at Bar Tartine. As a flavor, she found chocolate too obvious, too easy a sell. She experimented with using carob in her house-fermented sodas and desserts, and appreciated its innate sweetness. “I love that it was a flavor different from the everyday,” Burns told me. “It had this depth and earthiness to it that was different from other melty, creamy, chocolaty things. It just made my head go to different places.”
As adults, we make hundreds of carob-like dietary substitutions in the name of good health. We shave summer squash into long spirals and deceive ourselves that it’s anything like pasta. We tip coconut creamer into our coffee, ignoring the way it threatens to curdle, and project onto it the memory of café au lait. Grownups have mastered this acquired taste for the ersatz, but children have no ability to strike the same bargain. They taste not the similarities between the foods they are eating and the foods they really want to eat, only the thwarted desire for what is forbidden. No matter how much time passes, those objects of childhood dread are difficult to see anew. Poor carob. I may never know how good you taste.