Day 639: Giving Myself A Break Of Sorts

originally published September 30, 2013

I used to think I’d reach a point in my adult life when I’d no longer be drawn to candy. I had a notorious childhood sweet tooth and an addiction to mint imperials that in retrospect should have been handled with weekly meetings. But I assumed that one day I’d acquire a maturity in my tastes, a tolerance for Brussels sprouts and a willingness to forego the supermarket’s sugary confections and end my meals with something more adult, like sponge cake.

Alas, that day never came. I suppose my desire for candied fizzies or sour-coated jellies has abated somewhat but it never went away. And when a chocolate bar mood strikes me upside my brain’s tongue, I’ll happily indulge if the means and opportunity present themselves. I will go to my grave as a lover of candy and I’m okay with that.

In that spirit, I have elected to devote this week’s articles to my appreciation of sugary treats. I’ll try to cover as many tastes as my fingers can find, so long as they have a story worth telling. And I can think of no better place to start than that most exquisite quartet of chocolate-cloaked crave-piquers, the almighty Kit Kat.

A Kit-Kat was a seventeenth-century mutton pie which was served at meetings of the Kit-Kat Club in London. These were meetings of Whig politicians and artists who were looking to push their constitutional monarchist agenda. They named their club after the delicious offerings of Christopher Catling; ‘Kit’ was often a nickname for guys named Christopher, and it was clearly his devotion to cutesiness that dropped that name onto the mutton pies he was shilling.

Why the Rowntree company decided to grab that name and trademark it in 1911 I have no idea. They didn’t even have a product to go along with it. In the 20’s they used the name to market boxes of chocolate, but that tapered out in the 30’s when their Dairy Box and Black Magic selections became big sellers. The Kit Kat name was put back on the shelf until a product worthy of its alliterative snappiness could be created.

Four conjoined sets of three skinny wafers enrobed in chocolate. That was the concept. Rowntree launched their ‘Rowntree’s Chocolate Crisp’ bar on August 29, 1935, the same day Belgium’s Queen Astrid was killed in a car accident in Switzerland. Coincidence? Of course.

The name Kit Kat elbowed the less snazzy name off the bar in 1937, and the bar became a huge success in London and Southern England. Of course changing a fresh and popular brand at the peak of its public adoration is never a good idea, but World War II intervened and forced a switch to dark chocolate. The Brits needed to conserve their milk supplies. They also temporarily switched to a blue wrapper, because I guess the nation was running short of red.

In the 1940’s, once milk chocolate had been welcomed back to the bar and the red label once again strapped its crinkly foil, the treat began to make its way to the Commonwealth nations, including Canada, Australia and South Africa. In 1958 they began using the “Have a break” marketing concept, which has stuck with the brand in some variation ever since. It didn’t show up on American shelves until Hershey signed a license to distribute them in 1970. Even when Nestle bought Rowntree in 1988, the licensing deal stayed in place, allowing Hershey to keep moving the product so long as they themselves didn’t get swallowed up in some corporate buyout. Given that Kit Kat is one of Hershey’s biggest earners, that clause has already scared away at least one interested buyer.

The sales of Kit Kat took a hit when some crafty competitors began sticking their shoulders into the market, leading the company on a push to come up with a myriad of new flavors as ‘limited editions’, going with the tried and tested strategy of promoting scarceness as a way to urge consumers to cram their hands in their pockets in search of change at the vending machine. There has been a ludicrous menu of Kit Kat flavors, though few have stuck around as permanent fixtures in the candy display. We’ll probably always have Kit Kat Chunky (or Big Kat in the US), which is a single finger measuring the width of 2.5 regular Kit Kat fingers, but with some hefty girth and extra calories.

As the perpetual pushers of the world’s weirdness, the Japanese have been the most creative when it comes to developing new tastes for the Kit Kat. I’ve seen white and dark chocolate, orange, peanut butter, caramel… all standard candy bar components that can logically swoop in and jazz up a standard chocolate-and-wafer snack. But Japan has seen more than 200 variations on the Kit Kat formula since 2000. This includes the one pictured above – buttered potato.

Japan has chowed down on a veritable fruit basket of Kit Kattery, including strawberry, pear, Shinshu apple, kiwi and pickled plum. But how equipped would your taste buds be for Kit Kat that resembles cucumber, iced tea, wasabi, bubblegum, soy sauce, beets, sweet potato, grilled corn, ginger ale or apple vinegar? Oddly enough, I’d bet any of those flavors would sell in this part of the world, simply because some people will slap money on the table to try anything strange, just to be the first among their friends to do so. I hope Nestle doesn’t take this dare because I fear I might be one of those people.

In 2009 the company announced that all future Kit Kat bars would be made with Fairtrade chocolate. This bit of good karma was not sent back by the universe in 2010 though, when Greenpeace tried to organize a boycott of the brand because they used palm oil in the recipe, which they claimed resulted in the destruction of Indonesian orangutan habitats. Rather than simply ignore the boycott  (which probably wouldn’t have dented sales too badly), Nestle announced a partnership with The Forest Trust to find a way to ensure their palm oil sourcing left no ecological footprint.

So they’re good people and they make one of the most popular candy bars in the world. Is there any reason not to be eating a Kit Kat right now? Given my present state (somewhat hungover) and the fact that I’ll be writing about delicious candy all week, I’d say no. Time to make a trip to the store.

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