Chocolate, Health & Personal Writing
Yesterday I went for a marathon walk with my friend Joanna; we used to take these 2+ hour walks from Redondo Beach to El Porto when I lived in South Bay last year. She came to Venice this time and we walked from the MDR Pier to Malibu and back. In catching up I told her about the Creative Non Fiction UCLA classes I took in Jan/Feb and the experience of telling stories of myself, of my life, and as a form of therapy! I went back and found this one; not "too personal" (no love stories on this blog) yet still "me".
It is a fitting story to share since lately I've been doing research on diet and nutrition, getting caught up with the latest happenings and dropping unwanted fat, regaining mounds of energy, and clear, glowing skin by following a Paleo (yet still Alkaline) diet.
This assignment for the Characters & Archetypes class at UCLA is based on the Trickster or Siren Archetype. It took me forever to figure out what to write about. I didn’t want to write about something too serious. I thought I'd write about chocolate as Trickster and I realized I’m the Trickster, talking myself into all kinds of shenanigans, adventures and mis-adventures.
Instead, it turned into something completely different than what I had intended. Maybe because I couldn’t figure out what I wanted from it, or how exactly to put chocolate into the context of Trickster. Surprisingly, the piece turned into a travelog / health article.
It's unaltered, no edits, not little fixes, though I am tempted.
— Trickster —
"I’m on a diet", I say. That’s one line I can’t use without eyes rolling and looks of disdain or incredulity shot at me. I’m thin, I’m fit. I work very hard at being healthy. And I am disciplined, mostly. I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease when I was 16; a chronic, incurable inflammation of the small intestine linked (though yet to be fully, clinically proven) to auto-immune problems, and several surgeries, ample cycles of medication, and general life-altering lifestyle changes, the silver lining has been forced healthy eating. I can talk about food, food processing, and food culture with naturopaths, dietitians, chefs and health experts till the cows come home.
I know what’s up. And I know all sides of the argument about chocolate. Yet, I’m a bona fide chocaholic. Cat’s out of the bag!
Sometimes I pull out the, “I can’t eat chocolate because of my chronic illness” excuse. But even that doesn’t work. I’ve got Crohn’s beat. It’s been in remission for years, though I continue to adhere to an extremely healthy diet - avoiding fried, packaged, processed foods; no dairy except yogurt, no wheat hence no cookies, cakes, etc. and trying to eat an all natural, highly alkaline based variety of foods. I believe that’s the reason why I’m so healthy. But chocolate, well, it’s my one indulgence; my irrefutable temptress. Chocolate, as pure as possible, and only rarely, is allowed but even with that said, it’s technically on the no-no list.
The magnetizing pull of sweet, creamy, thick, earthy substance gets the better of me. And I’ve told myself, “Oh, but dark chocolate is good for you, especially the 70% minimum cacao version.” Sure it is, but not when you eat the whole bar. Lindt or not, it’s still highly caloric.
I believe, however, that I have found the ultimate chocolate loophole after going to Costa Rica last year, where I visited a cacao plantation. Cacao, not to be confused with cocoa, is the purest version, the pre-version, of chocolate. It is the actual bean. And it is a super food packed with nutrients. When I was on the small plantation near Cahuita on the Caribbean side of the country, at the end of a wonderful tour through jungle groves of cacao trees interspersed with bamboo, star fruit trees and more typology of plants, flowers and trees than I could ever remember, we arrived at the cacao-making station. This was a little day trip from Cahuita’s white sands, azure waters and green jungle coast; a postcard from heaven. And luckily for me, chocolate heaven was a 15 minute drive down the single lane bumpy asphalt road.
The workstation was exactly as it had been for decades. It was the last stop after walking through the trees and seeing how the harvested cacao seeds were laid to first ferment, then dry on specially built platforms, using the natural heat of the Caribbean sun. The station, set up outside, as it had always been, was for tourists and for making pure chocolate on the spot for the visitors, and to sell to them as they left the plantation. The chocolate that is made and exported, even the fair-trade chocolate from plantations like this one, is made at a factory somewhere else.
I watched, along with an elderly French couple who had participated in the tour with me, as a middle aged, dark-skinned and plump lady with big fleshy arms, first pan heated about a pound of beans in a cast-iron skillet then ground the dried cacao beans through a large iron grinder bolted to the table, cranking the handle with all her impressive strength. The beans came out the funnel’s end as semi-moist grounds resembling a medium roast coffee.
Taste? Yes please! It was soft, bitter, grainy and delicious.
Then, the lady, who I now regarded with slight fear and a lot of respect as I glanced at my own shapely yet spindly muscled shoulders and arms, mixed two giant dry-goods-bin sized scoops of the ground cacao with condensed milk, some sugar and a good dose of butter into a large wok-sized wooden bowl, and ferociously whipped it together for several minutes. I am sure she could wrestle a jungle cat and win. As my mouth watered at the sight of the ingredients becoming a dark, ebony-colored creamy paste, I couldn’t wait to taste it, and hoped we would get the chance! I mean, what else would she do with all that chocolate?!
In the end, she rolled out the paste, which had the consistency of marzipan, into an 1/8 of an inch pancake, and used a jungle knife to cut little squares, offering them for us to taste.
I admit it. I had about 6 squares; the elderly couple each had 3. I figured if I smiled sweetly enough the big lady couldn’t say no to me; she probably thought that I was malnourished and needed to put on some weight anyways, so she fed me more of that incredibly delicious, and still warm delightful chocolate.
This chocolate tasted like nothing I had ever eaten before. It was similar to natural peanut or almond butter (not the Jif or Skippy kind) that has a very compact consistency. It melted in my mouth and a little in my hands. It was just sweet enough, nothing like the candy that our senses are bombarded with, called chocolate. Sorry Nestle.
I bought 2 pounds of ground cacao beans and 5 pounds of whole cacao beans from the plantation and, over the course of fewer months than I had originally planned for, I did eat every last grain of cacao that came home with me in my bulging carry-on, all other items were transferred to the checked luggage; my gold was staying with ME. I coveted my cacao beans like the squirrel in Pixar’s Ice Age film series. I ate a few whole beans every day and used the pure cacao in my smoothies or with almond milk for a hot cacao treat. And for those months, I didn’t touch “chocolate”. I had my cacao. I loved eating the raw beans. And I never craved the chocolate I had known before.
I never attempted to make my own chocolate from my treasure. I believe wholeheartedly that when eaten in its purest form, cacao really is a super food, and the health benefits are real. I’ve been through every diet, every miracle healing herb, plant and cure to understand what’s real and what’s marketing. And isn’t it interesting that what we consider unhealthy, at its core - its seed - is actually one of the healthiest nutritional substances we could eat? The truth is that chocolate, as we know it and as is readily available to us, is mostly unhealthy because IT has been transformed - deformed and denatured - by industrial processes.
Our bodies are tricked by chemicals, preservatives, additives and sugar, and thanks to unhealthy lifestyles and mindless eating, we crave toxic substances rather than foods or nutrients. We are tempted by marketing and all too easily led to the dark side of the food manufacturing industry’s bottom line.
For the first time in my complex 17 year struggle with food - and an openly admitted slight addiction to chocolate, I not only heeded the siren’s call, I jumped aboard and set sail on the cacao ship! Yet the experience has changed me and changed my relationship with chocolate and my understanding of the temptress of my taste buds. Now I can proudly say I’m a cacao-a-holic.