Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Carob (But Was Afraid to Ask) from Jonathan Kauffman, author of Hippie Food

Hippie Food: How Back-to-the-Landers, Longhairs, and Revolutionaries Changed the Way We Eat by San Francisco Chronicle food writer, Jonathan Kauffman is a social history of the health food movement tracing its roots back to the 1800s and circling back through the 1960s to present day. This narrative history traces the colorful origins of once-unconventional foods like sprouts, brown rice, and tofu, and the diverse fringe movements, charismatic gurus, and 1960s counterculture that brought them to the mainstream, creating a distinctly American cuisine. It’s the perfect read for any health nut who wants to know more about their chosen lifestyle.

“Care for a carob pod? I’m undulated with an overabundant sur­plus,” the Los Angeles Times’s one-named humorist, Abercrom­bie, wrote in 1945. “If you know any carob pod fanciers who prize them things please infer them to me. Or have ’em send me a self-addressed piano crate and they can have the whole kaboodle.”

Carob, the ersatz chocolate with the waxy, insipid taste that traumatized so many children in the 1970s (ahem), wasn’t yet carob in 1945. In Los Angeles, carob was an altogether different kind of nuisance.

Ceratonia siliqua trees are indigenous to the Mediterranean, and have long been cultivated north and south of the sea for their six-inch, lumpy brown pods. High in carbohydrates and sugars, the pods could be fed to camels or boiled down into a thick syrup that, much like sorghum, is used as a sweetener. Rumors that John the Baptist had lived on carob pods during his desert exile gave the pods their alternate name, St. John’s bread.

In the 1910s, government agriculturalists planted test plots of carob around Southern California, as well as arid regions of Ne­vada, Arizona, Washington, and New Mexico. “The day may come when the deserts will be extensive forests of carob trees,” Santa Barbara horticultural commissioner C. W. Beers told the Los Ange­les Times. Forecasting a boom, in the 1920s, a few entrepreneurs in the Los Angeles area set up factories for refining carob pods into sugar. None of their efforts succeeded, and for most Southern Californians, carob was just another ornamental tree spewing its pods over sidewalks and lawns.

Around the same time, however, Southern Californian health-food faddists cottoned to carob’s unique flavor. Chocolate, as well as coffee and sugar, had fallen out of favor with the faddists because it was overly stimulating. In 1932, the Los Angeles Times’s health col­umn, “The Care of the Body,” advised the health-conscious mother to con her children’s sweet tooth with “scores and scores of whole­some confections made of figs, nuts, prunes, honey, dates, raisins, and carob meal.”36 By the 1950s, one article called carob “the choc­olate tree,” mentioning that soda fountains were already stretching the cocoa powder in their chocolate malteds with carob.37

It’s not clear how the counterculture grew convinced that carob was healthier than chocolate. Most likely, they were repeating the nutritional wisdom that health-food-store clerks passed along, but man, did this generation ever take to carob.

“Carob satisfies your desire for a deep chocolatey taste without filling you with insatiable greed as does chocolate,” wrote Wings of Life author Julie Jordan in 1976 in the headnotes to her recipe for whole-wheat Carob-Date Bread (“delicious with butter or cream cheese and honey”).38

By the late 1970s, shoppers could find carob chips, carob milk, and carob bars in food co-ops, but no one could best the whole-grain bakeries of the time when it came to creative uses for carob. One whole-grain baking book included several dozen recipes: Carob Chip Bars with Sunflower Seeds, Carob Halvah, Carob and Peanut Butter Tofu Bars, Carob Coconut Brownies.39

Not everyone bought the message. “I found that [carob] took a while to get used to,” confessed Maureen Goldsmith in 1972’s The Organic Yenta, “and I must admit I do sneak out for chocolate every once in a while.”

Hippie Food by Jonathan Kauffman is available now wherever books are sold. Follow the author on Twitter @jonkauffman and at Facebook.com/Jonathankauffmanwriter.

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