America's chocolate obsession
By Gretchen Giles
Montezuma may be wreaking his revenge on more than just hapless gringo tourists who end up spending their fabulous Mexican vacations squatting in el baño. The Aztec ruler--who reportedly drank up to 50 cups of hot chocolate a day, believing that the elixir contained powerful aphrodisiacal qualities--began a North American craze for chocolate that just won't go away.
Even if you don't have a vast harem of mistresses and a panoply of hungry sun gods to appease, you may have to admit to yourself that you're an addict, helplessly carrying a sweet brown monkey on your back.
Be brave, friend, because you are not alone. Estimates are that every red-blooded American man, woman, and child consumes upwards of 11 pounds of chocolate each year. Be very afraid: they are counting babies. Just what is it about the stuff? Friends who disdain it are treated with the same wordless reserve as are vegetarians at a weenie roast. Just what do they eat, then? Candy corn? Harrumph.
Expensive, difficult to attain, and grown in high, hot, wet places that wilt even the most dashing khaki ensemble, cocoa beans have long been revered as pod-encased gold. The Aztecs discovered it, the decadent French courts of yore had to devise circular felt-pimple covers to disguise its dermatological effects, the Dutch powdered it, and the British felt the need to shape it into very correct little bars. Americans?
Heck, as George Washington himself might have said: "We eat it."
Is it the caffeine? Perhaps. Regular chocolate packs a bit of a wide-awake wallop. But white chocolate, which contains very little "cocoa mass" (such an ugly term for such a beautiful thing), has no caffeine and still finds plenty of takers. Is it possible that Montezuma was right, and that chocolate screams "love-potion-number-MINE" into your adrenal system? Well, sorry, that's just the sugar, and marshmallows can do the trick just as well, although they lack a considerable je ne sais quoi. And yes, chocolate does contain that naturally induced little number phenylethylamine, an endorphin that tricks your brain into those giddy first feelings of love. But, as researchers have pointed out, so do cheese and salami.
No wonder so many people fall in love on picnics.
Medical science has let us down. There are no high-falutin' reasons why the creaky, cranky turn of the menstrual cycle sends so many women into a high bloat that is most nicely fixed with a coy dark wafer of bittersweet wonder.
If your mother is out of the room, it is our duty to remind you that a banana is much better for you and works just as well. OK, maybe not as well, because researchers report that it is your very own mind that is in control here, the mind that so enjoyed the special treats of your childhood and now associates them with the needs of adulthood. It's taste and melt and substance. Try those with a banana.
Condra Easley, chef and co-owner with her sister Deborah Morris of Santa Rosa's Renaissance Pastry--where chocolate pastries are a specialty--knows all about it. "I'm an addict," she admits with an easy grin.
But Easley's worse than a junkie. She's a pusher, hanging out in the school yard of your psyche creating cocoa-based marvels that fall upon the eyes and hips with the easy come-on of that first high. You can kick anytime, man.
Discriminating and French-trained at La Maison du Chocolat, Easley doesn't waste any calories on American chocolate. However much we may adore it, we just don't know how to make it. "American chocolates are almost like a bogus wine," she shrugs. "You pick it, you press it, and you bottle it."
Easley, who shudders comically at the Hersey treats of her childhood, has made a mastery of chocolate her trademark. She warms it gently, babies it in her hands, wraps it lovingly around lemon-poppyseed cakes, and adds nothing more to it than first-rate cream. Easley uses primarily the Callobut brand, imported from Belgium.
Gesturing to industrial-sized boxes of Callobut in her immaculate stainless kitchen, Easley says, "There's almost a love and a tenderness that goes into this chocolate. American chocolates are conched [a mixing process] for something like six hours, but you can go eight to 12 hours with European chocolates. It refines and advances the flavor."
And, she adds dramatically, "I found that a lot of American chocolates use wax."
Wax is for the bees, as discriminating palates are discovering. Easley likens our current cocoa craze to that which has happened with coffee. European blenders simply "use the best beans," she reports. "It's very similar to the coffee scene, where they buy and select beans and roast them."
No matter who wins the cocoa wars, it's the consumer who comes out ahead--all fat jokes aside. "It's quite pleasurable for us to see someone sit down and to see their eyes roll back in their head," Easley smiles wickedly. "This is a place where people want to come and be naughty."
Laughing, she adds, "We're one of the deadly sins."
Renaissance Pastry is at 525 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa.
From the Feb. 8-14, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent
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