Disclosure: This post is sponsored by American Heritage Chocolate but all opinions expressed here are my own.
Recently I had the opportunity to join a press trip focusing on American Heritage Historic Chocolate products. It was a fun weekend full of my favorite things – food and history! Our first stop for the weekend was at Cracker Barrel in Lebanon, TN. Lebanon was the home to the very first Cracker Barrel store. Now the chain boasts over 600 stores across America. And all of those stores are selling American Heritage Chocolate for a limited time. (More on the chocolate later!)
After a fantastic meal, we traveled to Cracker Barrel's corporate headquarters to tour the decor warehouse. If you are a collector of any sort of antiques, this warehouse would be your Disneyworld. There are over 130,000 pieces and all of them are categorized according to type. There are rows of farm tools, cast iron cookware, vintage photographs and advertisements, large metal signs and so much more. My mother is an avid Coca Cola collector and if she had visited this warehouse, I'm afraid she would have never left! In addition to hundreds (thousands?) of large metal signs, the warehouse has a canvas Coke banner that dates to 1895. It's one of only 2 in existence. The warehouse also includes a staging area. Each new store is decorated completely at the warehouse. Then the decor is shipped to the new store location with a complete diagram of how the items are to be placed on the walls. Question: Every Cracker Barrel store includes 3 items. Any idea what they are? Find the answer at the end! While some decor items are standard in all the stores, Cracker Barrel also tries to place unique items that represent the city each store is in. Unfortunately, the decor warehouse is no longer open to the public but the next time you are in a Cracker Barrel, just know that those pieces all over the walls are not just a random decoration!
Our next stop was The Hermitage, home of the 7th President, Andrew Jackson. My first visit to The Hermitage was in 1980. It was a 2nd grade field trip. I remember it vividly because we had to dress in Jacksonian outfits (this was cosplay before that term even existed!) and my mother was frantic. “What did people even wear in the 1700's?”, she wailed. Somehow she figured it out and I headed for the home of the 7th president wearing a dress and bonnet that my teacher deemed chronologically appropriate. Years later, my own children got the opportunity to be junior docents at The Hermitage. (I got off easy for these trips. The Hermitage supplied the costumes!)
This particular visit to The Hermitage was unique. It's pretty rare for Andrew Jackson to be the subject of ‘Breaking News' but the week of our visit, he certainly was. The US Treasury had just announced that Jackson would be replaced on the front of the $20 bill by Harriet Tubman. And the controversy made me think about what visiting the Hermitage means for any of us. I think The Hermitage is not about Andrew Jackson the Man. It's not about whether you like him or agree with his decisions. Visiting The Hermitage is a way to honor the Presidency of the United States and those who have held that office, regardless of politics or personalities. I'm so proud to have such a lovely, important historical place right here in my hometown. I think it's vital to teach our children history as it happened and not as we wish it would have. The Hermitage does not shy away from Jackson's weaknesses but they certainly celebrate the strength and legacy of ‘Old Hickory'. And don't think of The Hermitage as just a place for school field trips. They host special events throughout the year including a Fall Festival, Holiday tours, Vintage Baseball and more.
Our evening began with a Ghost Tour of the Hermitage. Our guide was extremely knowledgeable and passionate about his subject. I visit historic homes everywhere I go and the interest of the tour guide is always the thing that makes or breaks the experience. By the time our tour was finished, I wanted to know more about Andrew Jackson (and honestly, I thought I already knew plenty!) After the ghost tour, we made the short walk to the event center located in the back of the Hermitage property. The Hermitage has become one of Nashville's most popular wedding venues. (I have 6 daughters – trust me when I tell you this place is on our list.)
Upon arrival, we were ushered into a room set up for biscuit making. MaryAnn Byrd is the Taylor Swift of biscuit making. She not only wrote the book and produced an Emmy winning series about them, she created her own flour and she teaches classes. Born and raised in Tennessee, I've eaten my weight in biscuits a few times over. I'm not proud of that but I'm not ashamed either. Biscuits are as individual as their makers and as MaryAnn put it, “People generally like whatever kind they were raised on.” With her guidance, we all made biscuits of different sizes and using slightly different ingredients. I learned a few secrets from her and, if I ever eat carbs again, I will definitely put those to use.
Our biscuit making adventure was followed by a catered dinner. The meal was VERY Southern (grits anyone?!?) and MaryAnn baked our biscuits to accompany our meal. Saving the best for last, our hosts served us 2 different deserts made with American Heritage Chocolate, a creme brulee and a chocolate shortbread studded with pecans. The creme brulee was really delicious and unexpected. I would never have imagined chocolate in that dish. And the shortbread? Mercy, I almost licked my plate. Luckily, my mama raised me better.
Day two began bright and early at The Hermitage. The weather was spectacular. It was one of those rare days of actual Spring that we get in Tennessee. Warm but not hot and very little humidity. Much of the actual tour of The Hermitage is outdoors so having wonderful weather added a lot of enjoyment to the day.
Before we toured the property, we were treated to a chocolate demonstration by David Borghesani, the Chocolate History Research Manager at Mars Chocolate North America. Can you even believe that Mars corporation has a Chocolate History Research manager? Well they do and he's forgotten more about chocolate than most of us will ever know. Our presentation included information about how chocolate gets from a plant to a candy bar and information on how chocolate has evolved historically.
Cocoa must grow in the rain forest. The beans ferment on banana leaves on jungle floor for about a week. Then the beans are dried on bamboo mats and they must be covered to reduce moisture for shipping. There are 30 to 45 beans in one chocolate pod. That's equal to one bag of M&M's! The chocolate beans arrive at the manufacturer and get roasted before being ground and melted and mixed into candy as we recognize it.
Americans didn't eat chocolate in bars until the late 1800's. For 300 years prior, chocolate was only a drink. Chocolate became a very popular drink after the Boston Tea party. It wasn't very patriotic to drink tea at that time so Americans turned to a warm cup of chocolate instead. Liquid chocolate was a great source of energy for Colonial Americans. It was substantial enough to act as a meal and sustain them through a morning's worth of hard work.
After the demonstration, we got to the best part. The chocolate tasting! David first had us smell and taste Dove dark and milk chocolates. The American Heritage Chocolate is similar to a dark chocolate but it's pretty interesting. It has some unique spices that give it an exotic sort of taste. The drinking chocolate they produce is not like anything you've probably had before. It's thicker than traditional hot chocolate as we know it and I could definitely see how a mug full of this concoction could replace a meal. I tried some at home later with half chocolate and half whole milk. It was so good I almost cried. Then I hid my container in a high cabinet as I began to envision all the chocolate drinks this product could create. Chocolate martini? Iced Mocha? One of the other writers on the tour even mentioned a chocolate gravy. I'm looking forward to experimenting with all these ideas! Plus their website has over 60 additional recipes.
American Heritage Chocolate is made from a recipe that dates back to the 1750's and uses only ingredients that were available at that time. This chocolate is usually only sold online or at living history sites and profits made from their sale benefit the education missions of these sites. For a limited time, you can buy American Heritage Chocolate Bites at Cracker Barrel! Your kids will get a kick out of this funny looking chocolate and you can use the opportunity to teach them a bit about science and history at the same time!
Did you guess the three items that are in every Cracker Barrel? They are a shotgun, a deer head and a stop light. Try to find them on your next visit or make a game of it with the kids!