To those of us fluent in high fructose corn syrup, the Valentine’s Day season never feels like much of a season at all. The candy aisles are dutifully decked out in that confounding combination of pink and red as soon as December 26 rolls around, but a phalanx of Cadbury eggs, plastic baskets, and plush bunnies are always hovering just behind, awaiting their (likely more profitable) advance onto shelves. Confectioners seem to give Valentine’s Day a purely perfunctory acknowledgment, presenting the bare minimum of what people expect: heart-shaped this, sentimental that. All in all, it feels like the industry’s asleep at the wheel.
I don’t just want tiny classroom-giveaway-sized versions of the candy I already eat (literally) every day. I want innovation! Distinction! And the year 2019 needs it more than ever, what with Necco’s acquisition-related candy heart shortage; these tiny hearts, like candy corn, have always been a divisive but dependable seasonal staple. So, the question becomes: Which Valentine’s Day candies feel (and taste) specific to Valentine’s Day, and are they delicious?
Follow me, if you will, on my journey through the halls of CVS.
February 14 follows quickly on the heels of December 25, in retail terms. This means that a lot of supposed “Valentine’s Day” offerings are in fact displays of excess Christmas inventory. Hot Cocoa Kisses and Ghirardelli Peppermint Bark both sound great, but I won’t be fooled by their generic wintry wiles. Moving on.
Now, Necco might be in a bind this year, but plenty of other brands have stepped up to fill the chalky-conversation-heart void. Brach’s in particular is very excited to be holding the torch, so let’s investigate its interpretation of a classic.
As you can see, the messages, which the company explains are lasered onto the surface of each heart rather than stamped (as in Necco’s process), are… almost nonexistent. Why are there so many blank ones? Why are the words so faint?? Why didn’t they choose a placement that doesn’t require word-splitting on every heart??? Does that yellow one literally just say “eh”? And on the rare heart with legible text, that text is highly digitized-looking; I’m just not too jazzed about eating something that looks like my calculator display. Flavor-wise, I’d say they’re a step up from Necco, with some fruity notes and a less dusty, crumbly structure. But your sweethearts all deserve better than a defective declaration that they’re “AWE- SOME.”
Perhaps Sour Patch Kids will provide a better interpretation? I was surprised to find that their version was not gummy (gummi?) in any way, but rather a thin, hard candy, SweeTarts-esque in both presentation and flavor.
They’ve certainly found a better hack for getting the messages onto the hearts—why use fancy lasers when you can make the words part of the mold itself?—but this method limits the variety of messages that can be produced. As for the ones that they’ve chosen to produce…..well, I guess I’d forgotten that Sour Patch Kids are the bad boys of the schoolyard. This cheeky, bratty set of anti-Valentine’s messages is the counterpoint no one asked for. (Not to be the sugar scold, but does it really behoove grade-school kids to learn about “friend-zoning”?) They might have been better off limiting themselves to the ones that say “TOTES,” though not a single TOTES heart was included in my box. (Plenty of “BRUH,” though!)
Necco, I eagerly await your return to the candy-heart space.
As a candy company that’s comfortably inhabited its niche for 98 years, Russell Stover understands how to be a special-occasion confectioner. And biting into these delightful little pucks was a good reminder of what the company does best. With a thin, dark chocolate exterior that yields almost immediately to a moist, pillowy creme center, Russell Stover hearts are akin to a lighter Pearson’s Bun Bar, richly satisfying and the perfect size to feel like a substantial dessert. I didn’t really detect a lot of coconut or strawberry (more just the candy-sweet suggestion of each), but for 90 cents, I don’t expect to get a nuanced flavor profile—just something that feels like it was made special for Valentine’s Day.
That brings me to my next selection, which I want to preface by saying I did not commit a murder.
The Perfect Man
You all know this classic gag-gift-cum-Galentine’s-treat. He’s sweet and rich! Like chocolate! But also like a person! Talk about the ideal man! I wasn’t expecting too much from this product (can a tiny slab of solid milk chocolate from some company called Treat Street be anything revelatory?), but I was expecting to find a total chocolate hunk inside. I was not expecting this:
It would seem that all the trapezius toning in the world could not save The Perfect Man from a clean guillotine slice, presumably sustained in transit to CVS or the trunk of my car. But, being the wonderful guy he is, he doesn’t seem to mind all that much, and neither do I. His head made for the perfect sample bite. (The verdict: it’s chocolate, all right.)
Dove Bourbon Vanilla Dark Chocolate
This might actually be available year-round; there’s no branding that specifies it as February-specific. But I include it here because not only was it part of a flashy Valentine’s display and isn’t something I’ve seen on shelves before, but also, this offering seems to hit at the heart of the holiday: an indulgent, romantic set of flavors suitable to share with your significant other. Dove has always been a bit self-important as chocolatiers go, but this particular bar is a fitting approach to the sexier side of this holiday. Plus, I’m always curious to see how candy companies interpret boozy flavors. I bite in.
You know what flavor this candy bar is? Dark chocolate.
And it is indeed a “silky smooth” and delicious dark chocolate—the best Dove has to offer—but despite the zebra stripes promising rivulets of vanilla and bourbon, my most attentive taste buds find none. This would probably benefit from being a creme-filled product, with a soft vanilla bourbon center within each breakaway square of the chocolate bar. As it is, it differs from a run-of-the-mill Dove bar in name only. Yet another missed opportunity to create a memorable, annually anticipated, Cupid-adjacent product.
Jelly Belly Sour Smoochi Lips
Jelly Belly has never been my favorite, but I really appreciate these Sour Smoochi Lips. This is clearly not Christmas overstock or a generic repackaging; this is a bona fide Valentine’s Day product release, with enough novelty to guarantee at least a few gag purchases. The sour powder on the outside is the most appealing aspect, with a nice, acidic kick that’s not too sour for more timid palates. Biting into these was a bit of a surprise, though: Their extreme density is that of a jelly bean, but with 300 percent of a jelly bean’s surface area to work through. I found myself chewing in slow motion, like a cow to cud, each piece sitting like a rock in my stomach once swallowed. Still, although these could stand to be half their current size, I give them an A for effort. (As of this writing, Jelly Belly hasn’t yet featured this product on its Instagram page. Why the lack of enthusiasm?)
Heart-shaped samplers have ruled this holiday for far too long. We need an overhaul of Valentine’s Day candy that brings highbrow flavors to lowbrow brands. Cherry cordial Ring Pops, perhaps? Mille-feuille Twix bars? Champagne-flavored Twizzlers? Anything’s better than watching the industry go through the motions each year to provide us what they assume we’ll accept with minimal complaint. In other words, anything’s better than this:
Sigh. Let’s see some real February innovation in 2020.