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Appetites and Afterthoughts

An ode to chocolate on St. Valentine’s Day

Photo: Anna Pustynnikova

Well, soon it will be Valentine’s Day, or St. Valentine’s Day as it appears on liturgical calendars. And I will be out buying a two-pound box of See’s chocolates for Joan, my main squeeze. A little chocolate keeps peace in the household.

MY CHOCOLATE CONUNDRUM

There was a time when I confused chocolate with cocaine or, more specifically, cacao with coca. But let’s get this straight right up front. Chocolate is not a derivative of cocaine. Chocolate comes from the cacao plant, cocaine from the coca plant. Chocolate, if it has any medicinal benefits, makes you amorous and happy — hence Valentine’s Day. Cocaine makes you numb, dumb, and happy.

MY CONFUSION IN CUZCO

I got the two confused in Peru many years ago when I was in Cuzco on my way to Machu Picchu. Cuzco, the ancient Inca capital, lies high in the Andes at 11,152 feet above sea level. Most visitors suffer from altitude sickness within an hour or two of arrival — can’t get enough oxygen. When I was there I got it bad, and that ain’t good. I sent down word from my hotel room for some chocolate and dutifully someone brought me a few chocolate bars.

COCA NOT CACAO DOES THE JOB

It was several hours later — me gasping for breath and with the world’s worst headache — that someone put two and two together and came up with the difference between cacao and coca. And in a few minutes a laughing hotel staffer brought this stupid gringo a bunch of coca leaves, and with hand-mouth signals told me to chew them. I chewed them and grooved. No more gasping for breath. No more headache to end all headaches.

THE CHOCOLATE APHRODISIAC

But back to chocolate: Did you know it is considered an aphrodisiac? Hence, it’s ideal for this romantic holiday. I suppose See’s, Godiva, Nestle, and Ghirardelli count on this. Other so-called aphrodisiacs to consider if you are planning a romantic dinner for your sweetie: oysters (you might want to consider French Kisses — a handsome, briny, bivalve from New Brunswick), avocados, figs, and artichokes. So you might want to build a meal around some oysters on the half shell, followed by an artichoke and avocado salad, and ending with that important chocolate. For dessert you could consider hashish fudge — and maybe a glass or two of champagne. That should do the trick.

A SHORT HISTORY OF CHOCOLATE

Chocolate has an interesting history. It dates to 1900 B.C. in Mesoamerica. A beverage made of fermented cacao was important to the Aztecs. It was bitter, and even in those days was believed to have aphrodisiac powers. Later, in Europe, sugar was added and chocolate came into the mainstream. It never left.

A SHORT HISTORY OF VALENTINE’S DAY

Each year on Feb. 14, we — and many other parts of the world — celebrate St. Valentine’s day by exchanging gifts (usually chocolate), inane cards with inane messages, and hugs and kisses. The hugs and kisses are the best part of the holiday. In the early days of Christianity there were several saints who bore the name Valentine. The name became associated with love — physical love — and not just hugs and kisses. And we are the beneficiary.

HASHISH FUDGE

If I dropped a bomb on you with the above mention of hashish fudge, let me clarify. In 1954, Alice B. Toklas, companion to Gertrude Stein, the lost generation literary lion (or lioness, if you prefer), wrote a cookbook. Toklas was not known for her moderation. She once prepared a dinner for Picasso that included a whole sea bass slathered with mayonnaise. But the recipe that will stop you in your tracks if you read her cookbook to plan your Valentine’s Day dinner is for the hashish fudge. She calls it “the food of paradise” and says, “Euphoria and brilliant storms of laughter; ecstatic reveries and extensions of one’s personality on several simultaneous planes are to be complacently expected.”

THE ALICE B. TOKLAS RECIPE

Here’s the Alice B. Toklas recipe you’ve been waiting for. Please accept it as my Valentine’s Day gift to you, dear reader.

“Take one teaspoon black peppercorns, one whole nutmeg, four average sticks of cinnamon, one teaspoon coriander. These should be pulverized in a mortar. About a handful each of stoned dates, dried figs, shelled almonds, and peanuts: Chop these and mix them together. A bunch of cannabis sativa can be pulverized. This along with the spices should be dusted over the mixed fruit and nuts, kneaded together. About a cup of sugar dissolved in a big pat of butter. Rolled into a cake and cut into pieces or made into balls about the size of a walnut. It should be eaten with care. Two pieces are quite sufficient.”

THE FOOD OF PARADISE

Alice was born in San Francisco in 1877 on O’Farrell Street, a block away from what is now called Alice B. Toklas Place, an alley off Van Ness. In addition to being a hometown girl, she was a Parisian voluptuary with a way with words as well as with epicurean dining experiences. In the Alice B. Toklas Cook Book she ends her recipe for this deceptive chocolate fudge by stating: “This is Charles Baudelaire’s food of paradise. … It might provide entertaining refreshment for a Ladies’ Bridge Club or a chapter meeting of the DAR. In Morocco it is thought to be good for warding off the common cold in winter weather and is, indeed, more effective if taken with large quantities of hot mint tea.”

 

 

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