Just Desserts

Dorothy Marcic

Published in American Writers’ Review

When I was as many years old as a half dozen eggs, I had hair the color of lemon drops and I used to fantasize about swimming in vats of smooth milk chocolate, floating in heavenly ecstasy. As I became an older and a more educated globe trotter, my hair and my taste for chocolate went shades darker. Chocolate in bars or almost-black cake—my favorite ever is made at Café Latte in St. Paul, even a little more scrumptious than the famous Sacher Torte in Vienna—all divine. I only like dark chocolate, the bitterer the betterer, preferably the kind that breaks off like peanut brittle and surely does not melt in your mouth.  I love it not because of the health benefits, which include flavonoids to reduce blood pressure and anti-oxidants, which fight free radicals and protect the body from aging. No, it is the taste. Milk chocolate ought to be forbidden, unless you happen to be under nine years old and have blinking lights in your neon-green sneaker soles.

The best chocolate bars in the world arguably come from Ecuador, a tiny, semi-democratic country that follows the esteemed Latin American tradition of changing presidents more often than you change your water filter, and which has three distinct regions: rainforest, the low-lying coastal area, and the mountains. Far off the coast is the Galapagos Islands, owned by Ecuador, as if one piece of land could own another.

My daughter, Solange, works in Quito as an agricultural economist for the Organization for American States and has a competent, hard-working and interpersonally comfortable boss, Miguel.  He is completely unlike any stereotype of the macho, swaggering Latin male, and his character is more aptly described by his middle name: Angel. He is from Venezuela.  Directors are not allowed from the same country. No one told me this, but from my previous experiences of living and working in Latin America, I assume this is to prevent corruption and nepotism, which would otherwise easily ooze into the system, like melted ice cream dripping down a cone. We are at dinner with Miguel and he starts to tell me about the dark candy.

Chocolate from Ecuador, he says, is unique. It carries a floral scent, and each of the seven cacao-growing provinces has its own particular perfume. Cacao is grown in both mountains and coastal regions, and it takes up to five years of gentle nurturing for a cacao bean to bear fruit, including the necessary vigilance to keep insects and fungi at bay—not to mention other pests that attack during the several months of storage before manufacturing. Though cacao trees grow to sixty feet tall, they are trimmed to twenty so that workers can cut the pods off twice a year with their machetes. Pods are then placed on banana leaves in large wooden boxes to ferment for several days, so that they lose their bitter taste.  Scented “Arriba” beans come from the coastal regions. Only five percent of the world’s cacao beans have a bouquet and Ecuador supplies 63 percent of that market. During the manufacturing process, the floral scents are usually eliminated, through the addition of vanilla and extra vegetable fat, or the even more severe process of adding alkaline to reduce the acidity—a process called “Dutching” the chocolate, named after Dutch chocolate maker Coenraad Johannes van Houten, who developed this method in 1828.  Roasted beans are ground into chocolate liquor and then conched with metal grinders, sometimes for days, until the particles are so small the tongue cannot detect them, which gives it a smooth quality. The smaller diameters, going to 10 microns (or ten times one millionth of a meter) correspond with the finest chocolates. Dark chocolate is made by using a larger percentage of the chocolate liquor in the recipe.  Generally, 55 percent is considered the minimum. Unlike milk chocolate, the dark varieties have little or no dairy products added. My favorites are both Ecuadorian: Caoni Arriba 77 percent transports me to where the eagles fly.  And when I really am serious about dark, I buy Plantations 90 percent; but such intensity is not for the intermittent chocoholic.

There are two companies that maintain the perfumes, Miguel says, and tells me their names. I wonder why do the other firms take out the odors? Is it to homogenize the taste, in a similar way that world civilization is becoming homogenized through the cultural imperialism of Hollywood, McDonald’s and Cap’n Crunch? Is it so as not to offend the palettes of Hershey and Mars aficionados, who make up 21 percent of chocolate buyers in the world? Is it because the US accounts for one-fifth of chocolate sales on the planet? Tiny Switzerland, not renowned for the darkest of the candies, actually consumes more chocolate per capita than anywhere else: over 22 pounds a year, which in two years would equal a densely stuffed piece of luggage accompanying you to Zürich. Miguel says floral chocolate has a jasmine flavor and a nutty aftertaste.

Miraculously, his English is worse than my Spanish, and we stumble through broken sentences and mis-conjugated verbs, until Solange feels compassion for our struggles and periodically translates—flawlessly.  At least it sounds to me like it must be perfect.

This is close to what I hoped for when I took my three young daughters, ages 6-10 to live in Czechoslovakia for four years. They were still recovering from their father’s death, which is such a primal loss at that age, I am not sure you ever really completely heal, no matter how many hot fudge sundaes are consumed. I was a single mother and a Fulbright Scholar, and we lived in Prague 6, on some rolling hills, a few blocks from a wonderful swimming pool inside the Hotel Praha, formerly the elite destination for visiting communist bureaucrats, and where we had fun finding the places all the hidden microphones and peepholes had been placed. My favorite chocolates were called “Fidorky,” and they were a dark-chocolate candy-covered wafer.  In a country where you could barely find dental floss or aluminum foil, I always marveled at the forty or so varieties of wafer cookie, chocolate or otherwise, and I made it my job to taste each cookie and determine the very best one, which I painstakingly determined was Čokoládové Oplatky Kolonáda. Scrumptious.  Because I had privileges at the US Embassy, we could shop at the commissary, and a popular gift for Czechs, or Americans, were the hard-to-get Oreo cookies, with their dark chocolate biscuits.

People often thought I was demented for living abroad.  Why are you taking your children to another continent, they’d criticize more than ask, away from their home, their school, their friends and the rest of their families? I’d just look back and calmly say: I want them to be world citizens. I want them to see other peoples and cultures not as a threat, not as inferior, not as different, not as something to be dominated over, but rather as an adventure in learning, in connecting, in serving. All during child-rearing years I was subjected to this type of judgments.  What? You breastfeed your kids after age two?  And they sleep in the same bed as you?  They’re going to be so dependent, they’ll never leave your side. I knew they were wrong, but had no data set of statistics on my side, merely my La Leche membership card and wisdom from mothers who valued attachment parenting more than their own freedom. I cooked meals from international cookbooks and ground my own wheat berries into flour, from which I made dense whole-grain breads.

Three years ago, I heard more negativity when my daughters were each living on a different continent.  Solange was in Ecuador, close to her boyfriend–now husband–whom she had met on a youth service project in South Africa, which has a vast array of fresh seafood, but whose Mother Hubbard grocery stores in the Black townships were a testament to the ravages of wealth and poverty extremes in that country.  Roxanne, the oldest, was working in Israel, the home of the death-by-chocolate chain Max Brenner, which moved into Greenwich Village in 2006 and is more crowded than an overstuffed gumball machine.  While her sisters were in foreign lands, my youngest, Elizabeth, was on a junior-year-abroad in Brazil (whose Guava Preserves are among the most scrumptious jams one can apply to morning toast), studying Afro-Latin music.  What kind of mother are you, they’d say, that your daughters want to be so far away from you? But they had a point.  When I wanted them to be World Citizens, I didn’t exactly think through the consequences, that they’d want to be gallivanting all over the planet. Now, though, two of them have gravitated to New York City, near me and I feel like I am in heaven. Roxanne came and worked in the national office of Teach for America and Elizabeth teaches math at a high school in the Bronx. They have come back to the United States with a healthy appreciation for other places in the world—and for the abundance of ethnic restaurants in the city, much moreso than I was at their ages.

When I was in grade school and still loved milk chocolate, we used to do those “duck and cover” drills, practicing for the seemingly inevitable nuclear attack.  Soviets were evil people, we were taught.  They wanted to destroy us.  I used to quake in my bed some nights, worried I would not live very long and wondering about all the things I would miss, liking falling in love, driving a car, getting married. In college, I dated a Russian mathematics doctoral student, Vladimir Dvornychenko. He never talked about dropping bombs on anyone, and he showed not a fraction of interest in anything political, not even the anti-war or pro-black-studies student protests in Madison, which, in hindsight were pretty tame. But these incidents really shook up what we used to call “the establishment.” I don’t understand why they were so afraid of what was usually no more than a few hundred students, except that we were different from their notion of young people.  Look, I was there and the crowds weren’t that menacing.  The worst thing we did, while munching on our Mounds and Chunky candy bars, was shake our fists and shout “Hell no, we won’t go,” all of which got copiously documented by obviously surreptitious FBI photographers. Someday I am going to ask for my file under the Freedom of Information Act, and I’m sure I’ll see some over-hyped kids yelling at air.

I think Governor Warren P. Knowles sent in 1200 National Guard troops with open bayonets in 1969 because he was scared of these students who seemed so different from what he knew. Everyone got shook up two years earlier when these same students protested Dow Chemical, which made napalm and later on developed Chocolate Delight (a mousse-type topical product to reduce facial wrinkles), but it was mostly the police that got out of control then. In Madison in 1969, it actually got worse after the National Guard showed up. Students started trashing windows and building fires in the streets.  On my way to class, I had to walk past those inert rifles with the gleaming knives, but I discovered you get used to living in a war-like zone. I took to stuffing in my jeans’ pocket a plastic baggie filled with a vinegar-soaked handkerchief, so I could breathe lest I be thwarted by tear-gas throwing policemen. This unexpectantly happened the day I left the University of Wisconsin campus cinema after eating a piece of their famously delectable custard-over-chocolate Fudge Bottom Pie, a valued tradition since 1947, and developed by master chef Carson Gulley, the only person of color who has a UW building named after him. Following that mouth-watering treat, I then saw the classic 1933 King Kong, the story about a large ape who scares people because he is so different, and then exited the main entrance. As twelve police officers with giant billy clubs were running after any student in sight and one seemed intent on me, I raced to my bike, got on it, and pedaled so fast I felt like an egg-beater on speed. Not far away, another cop had sprayed some tear gas and I tried to outpace the gas cloud spreading in every direction.  I quickly touched my pocket to make sure the hanky was there—also noticing the remnant of a Nestle Crunch bar–and I almost flew down Langdon Street towards my apartment on Gilman.

Maybe the soldiers needed their chocolate fix, as was a tradition in the US Army, which began its chocolate ration bar D in 1937 and K in World War II (when 3 billion were produced and distributed to GI’s around the world) and won the Hershey Company an Army-Navy Award for its high quality and necessary features: only four ounces, high food value for energy, ability to take high temperatures, and not tasting so great that the soldiers would eat them unless in an emergency. It’s cousin, the Tropical Bar, continued through Korea and Vietnam, and its even higher-temperature-resistant relative, The Desert Bar, was issued during the Gulf War.  If only the National Guard in Madison had been given their bars, they might not have been so edgy.  Maybe they would have become more like Air force Lt. Gail Halvorsen, whose response to the building of the Berlin Wall in 1948—the Cuban Missile Crisis of its day—was for many days to drop chocolate bars tied to handkerchief parachutes for children waiting eagerly below, children now behind the so-called Iron Curtain.

Vladimir had lived behind that same curtain and he kept far away from hostile armed situations in Madison, and I now realize he probably had seen too many frightening—and frightened–policemen back home. But he did have a craving for Babe Ruth candy bars, which some gorgeous American woman in bell-bottoms had smuggled as contraband into the country and shared with him on the Potemkin Stairs in Odessa, Ukraine, without any careening baby buggies in sight. I am sure a KGB file exists of that confectionary exchange. Soviets did have their own chocolates, manufactured from Cuban cacao beans in the Rossiya Factory on the Volga River, but the high-quality candies were saved for the members of the Politburo and top-ranking officers.  The unwashed masses were left with gritty confections that tasted more like Dollar-Store vanilla and sugar than chocolate.

Vladimir was much more concerned with candy named after the greatest baseball player than he was about any kind of Soviet domination. He must have known Ancient Mayans were smart mathematicians, but probably did not realize they figured out how to turn cacao beans into something scrumptious.   In 900 B.C., when the Ancient Mayans were discovering the delights of chocolate, King David was capturing Jerusalem and the Greeks were coming out of their own dark age.  This was 400 years before democracy in Greece and 500 years before Alexander the Great.  Most of what is now Europe was populated with barbarians, while the Mayans had an advanced civilization and a sophisticated mathematical system that gave the world the concept of zero, something Vladimir would appreciate.  And they even had enough time to invent hot chocolate.  Maybe it was from dating Vladimir that I started to understand the importance of getting to know people from faraway places.  It is much easier to hate–and be afraid of–people you have never met, people who are then more object than human. People who only seem different.

So when Solange, Miguel and I shared a chocolate dessert in Quito and spoke together, two of us in broken tongues, and my beautiful and self-confident daughter in two seamless languages, I knew my experiment in international living had been successful.