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Saturday, June 4, 2016

Books & Chocolate: Part 1

This is a piece that I wrote for my Food Writing class in college (yes, I took a food writing class; it was wonderful and a lot of work). I brought together two of my interests, books and chocolate of course, in pairings that explained the different types of things I enjoy out of each--distinct from statements of "better" or "worse." I've decided to post it in portions, starting with the introduction and the first pairing. Other than breaking it up into pieces, I'm not planning on editing anything further from how I left it four years ago.

Is dark chocolate better than milk chocolate? "Is Virginia Woolf a better writer than George Eliot?" "What's the best chocolate?" "Who's your favorite author?"

Because of the interests I profess, I get questions of this nature often, responding to simply say that there is no answer. As long as I enjoy a book or chocolate, that is enough for me. Yet critics, myself included, constantly analyze and categorize. What I object to is making generalizations based on a single trait of deeming one product better than another even if both are enjoyable. For I find that all experiences, whether a single and isolated moment or one filled with vast depth, come together to make a balanced whole. Not all my chocolates need to be poetic, nor all my books immortally literary. For when, practicing my own criticism, I sub-divide both books and chocolate according to my enjoyment of them, I find that the categories overlap. There are some authors and chocolatiers who helped me better understand their fields; others I may look on simply with nostalgia, while still others I regard as exceedingly well balanced and well formed. Through the exploration of pairings like this, based on a common element that I receive from both the book and the chocolate, discoveries emerge and I begin to realize what exactly pleases me and my particular perspective.

Not everyone responds to the same elements of an object because no one has had exactly the same experiences. When I whisk by the shelves of Ghirardelli chocolate at World Market, I remember when the name of the company conjured not an image of card boxes, but of the bulk chunks of chocolate from Trader Joe's my family would buy when I was in elementary school. Ghirardelli was probably the most high-end chocolate I knew. The bulk pieces, much thicker than regular bars, we would break apart with a knife, sharing the slices while sitting at our tiny dining table. Years later, my mom and I discovered Ghirardelli anew, as it were, through the individually wrapped squares of Twilight Delight. I brought one to high school during my junior year almost every day, letting it sit in my bag waiting for me to tear open the packaging. Its mere name taught me to search for atmosphere: the twilight is cool and dark, like the chocolate, yet also not as intimidating as the full blackness of night. So, too, this chocolate was easy to eat, still retaining enough sweetness that it did not cross over into the realm of bitter. The reason for this mildness was its rather standard, for dark chocolate, 72% cacao content; percentages like this are, of course, the amount of product in the chocolate that actually comes from cacao beans. Naturally, percentages can say something about what a chocolate will be like, but mean nothing about its quality.

Somehow, despite my history with Ghirardelli, I constantly call into question my feelings toward the company. As the recognizable face that it is, I want to condemn it as less than artisan quality. But I can never denounce Ghirardelli: I still enjoy their plain bars. When I consider the books of Charles Dickens, I come to a similar controversy. There are parts of his writing that feel sometimes transparent: in Great Expectations, for instance, Pip suddenly spends a long time going to the theatre for no more apparent reason than that Dickens thought it might be an entertaining scene. When I look back on that book, it is the beginning and the ending that seem most important, though the middle is filled with words piled onto more words. Yet I probably need not complain: the beginning and ending, after all, are such that they never fade from memory. Miss Havisham, the abandoned bride and bitter old woman introduced early in the story, is alone worth the reading. The presence of Estella, who Miss Havisham helped to break Pip's heart, at the novel's conclusion creates a pleasant and lasting image. Dickens may be as familiar as Ghirardelli, but both can still deliver something.

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