While synonymous with "hearts" and "flowers" and "love" and "disappointment" and "fuck off, society, I'm single," let's be real, Valentine's Day is really just about one thing: SUGAR! Sugar doesn't care about your relationship status, it simply wants to take your taste buds out all night and show them how taste buds ought to be treated. Maybe you want to let your special person know how much you care by filling their backpack with candy (hint hint). Or maybe you don't have a sweetie, just a sweet tooth. Or maybe you're 8 years old. Whatever the case, drop that kale salad, you wet blanket—we're going on a fantastic drugstore journey to find out what's happening with candy this season!
We'll begin with the biggest outrage in Valentine's Day history: the great loss of the Sweethearts conversation hearts (as we knew them). In 2010, I was confused, and then disgusted, to find that while Sweethearts kept their packaging similar, they'd unexpectedly "updated" the 109-year-old recipe and changed the flavors, i.e., dipped them in something similar to aspartame-flavored hairspray, even adding blue-fucking-raspberry to the mix. That winter, I wrote to Necco many times about their poor judgment, and to see if there were any warehouses full of the old candies that someone could theoretically purchase (I was in a real state). They never responded.
Forcing myself to live in the present, I've found some other options this year, the first being the widely available Brach's Heartlines Tiny Conversation Hearts. A clear attempt to take the place of the original hearts, these hearts are softer and thicker, and the flavors miss more than they hit. Yellow is faint banana, pink is whatever pink tastes like, green, I think, is green apple (what's with the sudden lime hate in the candy world? Someone put a hit out on grape, for crying out loud!), orange is by far the best, purple is the aforementioned flavor I will not name again, and white is nothing. I wish they said things like "TEXT ME," but Brach's messages are much more basic: "YES," "XOXO," "FIRST KISS," "LOL" (okay, that one is cool). Next, we have the elusive Mayfair Candies Small Conversation Hearts. These are the real deal, but I spotted them once and only once, hanging vertically in the no-man's grocery-store zone where chip clips and squirt guns go to die. The minute I saw them, I knew in my heart of conversation hearts they would have the taste and texture I'd been missing. I bought a bag, and [beautiful harp noise] they really are they same! Exactly the same! I'm wondering if maybe Necco let this Mayfair company resell their old stock (they don't go bad, right?) or just allowed the recipe to become public because they do not completely hate me, and you, and love, and Cupid himself.
Onward to other things heart-shaped! We have this year, as we do most every year, an assortment of Russell Stover hearts lining your drugstore shelves. Stover usually ranks in my book as the "Wet n Wild" of chocolate, but Easter and Valentine's Day are when they up their chocolate game from "waxy but passable" to "I think this is real chocolate." I started with a Peanut Butter Heart: a little messy out of the gate, but not bad—less cloyingly saccharine than, say, Reese's high-fructose paste with its hints of Jiff. In fact, I might go as far as to say, "I think this is real peanut butter!" The Coconut and Almonds Heart is smaller than the PB Heart and has actual chunks of almonds chilling with coconut goo—think Almond Joy, but chunkier. Have you bought almonds recently? They cost $59 per ounce. These hearts were three for $1. I don't know what I'm trying to tell you, but I know it isn't healthy. Last came the intriguing Dark Chocolate Red Velvet Truffle Heart—a somewhat gritty lump of red-velvet-batter-flavored red clay. Was it good? Shhhh. Yes. Recommended as a private Valentine's gift to oneself, to be eaten in the shower with the door locked.
Well, well, well, Hershey's has stepped into the marshmallow-heart game with a "King Size" Marshmallow Heart. I was skeptical, since Peeps and Stover have already politely cornered that market, and Hershey's marching in with "King Size" as the only size seemed presumptuous and, well, rude (with all that serious dark-brown packaging? We're trying to have fun over here), but fine... it's pretty good. The extremely dense marshmallow is soft and gooey with the correct ratio of chocolate, but I don't think you could or should eat this fucker in one sitting, unless you eat it with your sweetie Lady and the Tramp–style (only recommended if said sweetie is someone you've been with for more than three years and who shared a hotel room with you that one time you got food poisoning). Elsewhere in 'mallow land, we have Vanilla Crème Peeps, which are white hearts dotted with little red flecks for extra love. My only concern is that making a marshmallow "vanilla flavored" is actually just making it more marshmallow flavored, which seems like the opposite of a problem, but these are like being hit over the head with a marshmallow-flavored marshmallow pillow stuffed with marshmallow. It seems nice at first, and then you have the worst headache.
Probably the most "legit" of drugstore heart-shaped choco boxes is the Seattle Chocolates Pink Bubbly box I found at Bartell, which comes with extremely Seattle words worked into the paisley front design: "Woman Owned," "Non GMO," "Hand Packed with Love," "Kosher," "All Natural," and "Gluten Free." Inside, each oblong "dark chocolate truffle with raspberry and bubbles" snaps slightly when you bite into it; the light-pink insides (the raspberry flavor is exactly what I want it to taste like—more complicated than strawberry, more interesting than cherry) have tiny champagne-colored sparkles that subtly pop in your mouth like grown-up Pop Rocks. The third-to-last ingredient is "popping candy," which appears to be some fantastic magic that combines cane sugar with carbon dioxide. I approve of this woman-owned witchery.
Oooh! Speaking of good raspberry, the funky middle-aged secretary in me loves Hershey's Hugs, so I was delighted to find special Valentine's Raspberry Hugs all around town. They're dressed in lavender-light-pink foil; inside, they're trimmed with sophisticated maroon swirls across their white coats. I find the addition of raspberry flavoring to the regular Hugs' white chocolate and regular chocolate to be exactly sweet enough, which means most everyone else's teeth will dissolve upon biting into one of these.
Nerds have come out for the big day in the form of Nerds in Disguise, Mystery Flavor. I'm a sucker for a "mystery flavor" (the suspense!), but if you're giving these to your valentine, beware: No one looks good tossing sugar smithereens into their mouth, and you can count on at least 22 percent of them ending up in your lap or on the floor. Nerds in Disguise come in the form of a box filled with many tiny boxes. The actual candy is light pink (I ate five boxes to confirm they're all the same), and the flavor is similar to pink lemonade with no lemon. I'm going to guess it's also raspberry (the official berry of Valentine's Day, I suppose), a hint of which you can really only taste right when they hit your tongue, before your mouth is blinded by the bright and vaguely tart flavor all Nerds have. (Bonus: comes with tiny little pop-up valentines you can then slip the Nerds boxes into or, let's be real, throw straight in the recycling bin.)
Straying from the raspberry stampede are M&M's Cherry, which are inexplicably bigger than normal M&Ms in a vaguely alarming way, like when you see quarter-sized blueberries in the grocery store pretending not to be monsters of genetic mutation. They come in red and dark red, and taste just like cherry cordials, which is best described as sleazy cherry with a hint of liquor or wine or leather or the '70s or a Las Vegas hot tub (my esteemed colleague Mike Nipper said they reminded him of smoking, which somehow made sense). Recommended if you consider snakeskin cowboy boots and a clip-on bouffant to be the epitome of classy.
On the wilder side, I picked up a package of Hello Kitty Pink Hot Chocolate, which stated: "Just add water and watch it magically turn pink." Gulp. I was significantly less impressed when the contents came out of the package white. Here I was expecting some miracle of brown turning pink right there in my cup. Instead, the white power turns a light Hello Kitty pink and tastes like sweetened hot powdered milk. Maaaaybe you could close your eyes and say it's white chocolate, but you definitely can't say it's chocolate chocolate. In the same juvenile-onset-diabetes area, I came across the KISSY Lip Pops lollipop. Obviously, I had to pick one up, because it is basically a watermelon-flavored pacifier with pink plastic lips on the outside and ha-ha-ha-ha-haaaaaa SUGAR! Isn't Valentine's Day the best?
Answer: No, the day AFTER Valentine's Day is the best, because that's when all this stuff can be yours at deeply discounted prices.