Chocolate: A Confession


On Food, Our Daily Correspondent


A still from Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, 2005.

Even at my loneliest and most cynical, I have always liked Valentine’s Day. The commercialized romance bothers me not a whit—I like watching couples being romantic, or awkward, or goofy. But this I will say: for those of us who don’t love chocolate, the onset of February is, well, disheartening.

Nowadays, scientists like to point to the fact that eating chocolate somehow mimics the physiological characteristics of female arousal, but one doubts that science is behind the ubiquity of the heart-shaped variety box. After all, the whole connection between chocolate and courtship goes back to the nineteenth century. I’m no historian, but I’d imagine it’s more a “sweets for the sweet” bit of marketing that struck an immediate chord.

If we are going to talk about amateur modern chocolate historians, Roald Dahl cannot be ignored. As anyone familiar with his oeuvre knows, the man loved chocolate. But the full extent of his feelings cannot be understood until one has read the manifesto “Chocolate,” in his highly idiosyncratic Roald Dahl’s Cookbook. Talking of what he terms the “Chocolate Revolution” of 1930–37, Dahl declares,

The dates themselves should be taught in school to every child. Never mind about 1066 William the Conqueror, 1087 William the Second. Such things are not going to affect one’s life. But 1932 the Mars Bar and 1936 Maltesers, and 1937 the Kit Kat—these dates are milestones in history and should be seared into the mind of every child in the country. If I were a headmaster I would get rid of the history teacher and get a chocolate teacher instead and my pupils would study a subject that affected all of them.

(Not that one imagines he went in much for Valentine’s Day.)

I appreciate chocolate’s usefulness as a widely accepted currency, a sort of edible euro. I can crank out a creditable brownie when needed, and I find that one of those enormous chocolate bars from Ghirardelli or Jacques Torres is an inelegant but effective solution to the question of what, if anything, to give a man on Valentine’s Day. For some years now, I have enjoyed sending my friends, on the slightest pretext, the excellent chocolate-covered caramels made by the nuns of the Mississippi Abbey (confusingly located in Dubuque, Iowa). Because what’s more romantic than a box of chocolates accompanied by lots of pictures of merry, confectionery Trappistines? Nothing, is the answer.

I like the occasional bite of chocolate. But—not that you asked—given the choice, I’m just much more liable to opt for lemon, or toffee, or apple. Death by chocolate sounds awful. I don’t like to think of my desserts as “sinful” or “naughty” or otherwise morally compromised. And in my experience, servers are eighty-five percent more inclined to be conspiratorial and knowing and cheekily present an unsolicited extra fork when there’s chocolate in the equation.

In my lowest moments, I admit, my lack of passion for cocoa makes me feel less of a woman. In these moments, the world seems to divide between sensual Nigella Lawson types, rolling around on fur rugs and moaning in ecstasy about chocolate, and the rest of us: disapproving spinsters standing primly in the corner, sucking on lemons.

And yet, if a bunch of contemplative sisters can reconcile their vocation with the production of the stuff, who am I to talk about a metaphorical, chocolatey, virgin/whore complex? The abbey’s Web site even has a special Valentine’s Day gifts page, listing red boxes of truffles and caramels, Swiss Mints, “Fudgy Chocolate Sauce,” and … “Heart of Jesus” cards. Really, what could be less sinful than that?