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Passion for chocolate: How this cook’s story of reinvention is in the spotlight

Barbara Caveda shares how she was inspired to cook, how she turned it into a career and how home cooks can best work with chocolate

Barbara Caveda admits she was in a daze at the recent opening of “Reinvention Portraits” at the Dayton Art Institute.

“Seeing my picture in a museum is just too much for me. It’s still marinating in my brain,” said Caveda, who was photographed with her three children sitting on the front porch in their East Dayton neighborhood. “I don’t believe it yet.”

Earlier that evening — wearing a crisp white apron with “Barbara’s Chocolates” embroidered across the front— Caveda passed out chocolate treats to invited guests. The new exhibit, which opened last Sunday, is a Dayton Art Institute collaboration with the Dayton Visual Arts Center and WYSO in Yellow Springs.

The photographs and videos on display spring from the radio station’s community documentary project designed to focus on Dayton folks — like Caveda — who have re-invented themselves in the face of tough economic times. Leading the project were filmmakers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert; DVAC’s Eva Buttacavoli served as curator of the Dayton Art Institute exhibit.

It was chocolate that led to Barbara Caveda’s participation in the radio and online project.

“I was over at Angie’s Firehouse Tavern in Belmont selling my chocolates when I saw the WYSO team — cameras and microphones,” Caveda recalled. “I was interested in what they were doing, so I approached them.”

As a result of that conversation, Caveda became one of the project’s stars.

“Barbara is one of the most determined, hardworking people I have ever met,” Reichert said. “She was a delight to work with and her chocolates are the BOMB! She works so hard; she experiments with flavors and colors. All of this she does for her three kids.”

We talked with Barbra Caveda about her life and her love of chocolate and asked her to share some of her best tips for working with chocolate with cooks across the region.

Q: When did you first learn to cook and make candy?

A: My parents came to New York in 1957. My parents divorced when I was three. My mother worked in a factory and had a lot of medical issues, and she became very ill with lung issues when I was 10. She was in and out of the the hospital a lot, and I was home alone and would make myself sandwiches and TV dinners.

When my mother came out of the hospital, I would take care of her and cook for her. My mother would pull a chair up to the stove and give me directions on how to cook.

Q: What about the sweets?

A: The only time I remember my mother smiling was when I baked for her — that was how we bonded. I would buy Betty Crocker cake mixes and make all kinds of cakes.

We were very poor. If I had a dime, I would get chocolate. I would try to melt chocolate on the stove — I would burn it but I loved it. I would go to the library and get books on candies and chocolates, and that’s how I learned. I would start flavoring it and doing molds. I remember making my mother a cake with little teddy bears on top of it. I loved seeing that smile on my mother’s face.

Q: How did you end up in Dayton, and how did you start your chocolate business?

A: I met the love of my life when I was 17. He died of an aneurysm at 29. After that, I wanted to take my son and get out of New York. I took my mother to Florida, where she was in a nursing home, and I started looking at places for my son and I to live. I wanted the Midwest. I pictured farms and thought it would be a natural and healthy place for my son and myself.

In New York, I was paying $1,400 for rent. In Miami, it was $850. The computer said rents in the Midwest were $400 or $500, so I closed my eyes and put my finger on a state, and it was Ohio. The plane fare to Dayton was inexpensive from Miami, so I came here on Oct. 13, 2006. I still have those plane tickets.

Q: How did you support yourself here?

A: I had different jobs. I took care of older people. Children and Family Services helped us, and I had food stamps. I’m proud to say I don’t need food stamps anymore. I also now have a significant other and his two children.

I had always wanted to do chocolate as a profession, so I started making candy and got a cottage food license in 2011. I used to work for oral surgeons in New York, so hygiene and sanitation are very important to me. I started testing the waters by going door-to-door to our neighbors with my son. Everyone loved the chocolates.

Q: What kinds of candy do you sell? Where do you get the recipes?

A: I don’t use additives, waxes. I temper my own chocolate. I started at first with bon-bons. I do little secrets to my candy and make lots of varieties. I sell Red Velvets, cinnamon roll chocolates covered in white chocolate, Himalayan sea salt turtles.

I’m always dreaming about chocolate… I’ve invented my own peanut butter.

Q: Where do you sell your candy?

A: I had the crazy idea of going to beauty shops, to bars and taverns. The people have been so nice at places like Tinks in Kettering, Leftie’s and Angie’s in Belmont, the Phone Booth in Kettering, the Shroyer Inn Bar in Dayton.

And now I’m at the Farmer’s Market in Centerville on Thursdays and bring brittle and toffees, too. I make ginger mesquite honey macadamia nut toffee and pistachio brittle and old-fashioned peanut brittle.

Q: What do you love about making candy? Chocolate?

A: This keeps me sane; it’s my passion and my life. As soon as I wake up in the morning, I start writing on a clipboard. I ask myself: what flavors can I combine that will wow people? I’m always experimenting. I made a toffee with blueberries and toasted almonds.

Q: How is the business going?

A: I give samples, and people like them and buy them. Sometimes it’s bittersweet and I have a hard day, but I stand up and keep going. And my 14-year-old son makes me not want to give up.

Q: What about the “Reinvention” project?

A: It’s so beautiful. It makes me feel like I’m going to leave a legacy.

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