Chocolate is as big a part of American culture as baseball and apple pie. But its roots run much deeper.
Made from the seed of the tropical cacao tree, chocolate dates back at least 3,000 years to the ancient civilizations of Central and South America, where the cacao tree is native. The Aztec people valued the tree's cocoa beans so much, they used them as currency.
In what is now Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, in the southwestern United States, new archaeological evidence shows that people were eating chocolate here more than 1,000 years ago.
And they're still at it. Today, the average American eats almost 5 kilograms of chocolate each year.
Chocolate, the ultimate comfort food
Cheri Friedman knows how much America loves chocolate. She is co-owner of Kron Chocolatiers, a small, gourmet chocolate shop that opened 32 years ago in Washington, D.C.
Friedman believes chocolate is one of the best comfort foods there is.
"It's easy to eat. It melts in your mouth. There's a warm sensation," she says.
Friedman says she takes pride in the fact that Kron's chocolates are made with the finest ingredients, right on the premises.
She says you can really taste the difference between something that's just been poured, hot off the presses, and something that has sat on the shelf for three to six months, as some chocolates made by larger corporations tend to do.
Friedman's partner and Kron's chief chocolate-maker, Trish Schutz, says the shop is doing well, with good reason.
"Well, it's very good chocolate, and we have a large return client base that comes back and back."
Dan Melman is one of those clients. During a recent trip to the store, he raved about their cream truffles, calling them "decadent."
"I remember reading about them years ago and tried them, and I've continued to come back again and again," he says.
Chocolate stores spread nationwide
Americans' love of chocolate has helped to make it a big business in this country. Mark Sesler is senior vice president of marketing at Russell Stover Candies, one of the largest manufacturers of chocolate in the United States.
Sesler says the industry got its start in the early 1900s with small-scale chocolatiers such as Steven Whitman, and Claire and Russell Stover. They started with small stores - much like Kron - but soon expanded their business into broader markets - thanks, Sesler notes, to an important technological advance.
"It's the advent of refrigeration that has really made the availability of chocolate very prevalent throughout the United States," he explains.
He believes chocolate has secured its place as a delectable treat in the United States and a number of societies and countries.
Americans crave chocolate - almost as much as Europeans
Susan Fussell is spokeswoman for the National Confectioner's Association, a trade group that represents virtually everyone who's involved in the production and sale of candy in the United States.
Fussell says that although the United States is the largest total consumer of chocolate, it is not first in terms of per-capita consumption.
"In fact, we come in somewhere around No. 12, and that's because, of course, there are so many countries in Europe that have even more of an established culture around chocolate - if you can imagine - than we do in the United States."
And why does Fussell think chocolate is so universally popular?
"Well there's really nothing like chocolate... One of the main ingredients in chocolate is cocoa butter. And cocoa butter melts at body temperature," she says. "So when you put chocolate in your mouth, it has a mouth feel that's unlike any other food that you eat. It has that melt-in-your mouth sensation right there on your tongue, and it is very hard to approximate that with any other food."
Health benefits of dark chocolate gain recognition
But that melt-in-your-mouth sensation comes at a price. Chocolate as we know it today is made with lots of sugar and milk, both very high in calories. That's given chocolate a rather bad reputation among nutritionists.
In recent years, however, research has proved that chocolate, particularly dark chocolate, is also naturally rich in cancer-fighting antioxidants - a fact that chocolate manufacturers like Russell Stover are happily promoting.
Sesler believes that something like chocolate that creates such emotional bonds - and also actually can be good for you - is just another reason to enjoy chocolate throughout your day.
Kron's Cheri Friedman has noticed the trend toward dark chocolate. She says that in the last two years, partly due to media attention, sales of dark chocolate have picked up in her own shop.
But Friedman also has noticed something else. She says people are "really being selective" about what they put in their mouth.
The National Confectioner's Association's Susan Fussell agrees.
"We do see a trend towards more gourmet and premium chocolates, and it's interesting. We see that trend really strengthening, even in a time of economic hardship."
Americans say 'I love you' with chocolate
But no matter the preference, Fussell says when it comes to holidays, chocolate is king, especially on Valentine's Day, February 14th. That's a day when people all across the country express their love for one another with gifts, flowers, cards and - more often than not - chocolates.
"Valentine's Day itself, February 14th, is the single largest sales day during the year for sales of boxed chocolates," she says.
On a recent afternoon at Kron Chocolatiers, Margaret McCarthy, a local resident, was one of several customers shopping for Valentine's Day treats.
"I love having chocolate," she says. "It speaks to your senses more than any other kind of sweets."
While McCarthy was buying a packet of Kron's signature chocolate hearts, Elmer Mendez, a customer who works in the area, looked on approvingly.
"It's good for your soul, and it's good for your stomach and makes you feel good, and there's nothing better when you are happy or depressed. Have a pound of chocolate."