The Chocolate Connoisseur
● By Steven Hoffman
Estelle Tracy of Kennett Square is a food blogger whose admirers number well into the thousands, but when she first arrived in the United States in 2003, she did not know how to cook.
There is nothing truly alarming about that admission, except for the fact that Tracy spent the better part of her youth in France, generally known in culinary circles as the country of the food mastery, the self-professed center orb for all matters gustatory. The reason had less to do with her not enjoying cooking, and more to do with the fact that the family kitchen tended to be the private sanctuary of her mother. So when she arrived in the United States 13 years ago to begin her career in the chemical industry, Tracy began to experiment in the kitchen of her one-bedroom apartment in King of Prussia -- and it was like unleashing a pent-up passion.
Tracy took culinary journeys around the internet, scooping up recipes she would try out on her friends from the office, at small dinner parties. Soon after she was married in Sept. 2003, she left the company while she waited to receive news of her work permit for a few months, and used that time to discover the world of food. She perused local grocery stores; she studied cooking shows on television; and flipped through food magazines, especially the now-defunct Gourmet. Soon, her world became the kitchen she always wanted for herself.
"The more I began to cook, the more confident I became," Tracy said. "All I needed were a few recipes and the right sources, in order to get my confidence to the next level."
While she was engaging in her new-found passion, Tracy began to read food blogs on the internet, which her husband described to her as "a diary on the internet." Soon, she started one of her own, including on it basic American recipes she had begun to make, writing in the French language and targeting it to French ex-patriots who were living in the United States and learning how to cook using American ingredients.
"My mission statement has always been to feature the best American food on this blog," Tracy said. "In general, I had stereotypes and cliches about coming to the United States, that of associating American food with greasy, 'ballpark' food. It was hard to judge if I had changed anyone's mind about American food or whether I was just preaching to the choir, but I realized that there are many French people who are drawn to certain types of American food, that really doesn't have any relative of it in France. Generally, as the blog emerged, that French people are drawn to American food and recipes that are generally associated with happiness and joyful emotions, like cookies, pies and pancakes."
Submission by submission, recipe by recipe and idea by idea, Tracy's blog began drawing the interest not only from readers, but from French magazines and radio stations, where she was often a guest. In 2006, she published the 12-page "Food Survival Guide" for French-born people who were struggling to adjust to the learning curve of American grocery stores and subsequently, American-based ingredients and their application to recipes.
"I saw all kinds of mistakes being made," she said. "My French friends would look to buy soup and end up buying broth, and then end up buying yeast, thinking it was baking powder. My hope was to give people a grasp on these ingredients."
This past April, Tracy followed up her 12-page book with an e-book, and then had the book converted into printed form last July. Once the book was printed, Tracy was anxious to pursue her latest project, and while promoting her book, she came across the on-line comments of a French ex-patriot who wrote that American chocolate is terrible and a cheap imitation of the finer chocolates found throughout Europe.
"I was sick of people saying those things and coming to those false conclusions," she said. "I was inspired by my friend in Canada who ran a 50K for her 50th birthday, and was looking for something to do for her 51st birthday. I recommended that she should have some fun and eat 51 chocolates. I thought that was an awesome idea."
Tracy turned 37 last October, so to commemorate, she committed last May to the challenge of researching, tasting and writing about 37 different kinds of American-made chocolate -- not mass-produced, but hand-made by food artisans. Every time she went back to the grocery store, she found out more and more about the true art about making chocolate, and soon, words got out about Tracy's blog, and by October -- her 37th birthday -- she had begun correspondence with several chocolate makers across the United States.
"People are now becoming so aware of natural and organic foods, but when it comes to chocolate, there was a lack of education because many still look at it as candy," she said.
Her research led to her blog 37chocolates.com, which began last month, with the mission to educate her readers about her journey, by introducing them to chocolate makers.
"What really interests me is how the small maker infuses his or her personality into what they make," she said. "Craft chocolate tends to be three to four times the cost of a normal candy bar at the grocery store, but what you get is a piece of the soul of the maker. I want to share their stories with my readers, to serve as a guide for those who wish to explore the world of chocolate, in order that I may accompany them along the way."
To learn more about Estelle Tracy, visit her blog at 37chocolates.com, or visit her Facebook page at "37 chocolates."