Sunday, June 27, 2010

928. Chocolate

The other week a friend referred to chocolate as "the Great Unifier," with which I heartily agree. I would love to get the leaders of the Middle East in a room together and feed them some Ben and Jerry's; since I doubt this will happen, I guess we're stuck with diplomacy. In my own life, there is no other dessert option when feeding groups of people. (Since my invited guests generally like one another, I haven't been able to test its peace-making qualities.)

I came close to leading a life bereft of this ambrosia, however. I was allergic to chocolate as a young child. A single M&M would cause my entire body to break out in hives, followed by forced slathering-on of Calamine lotion or a soak in an Epsom salts-filled tub until I turned into a prune. It wasn't fun, but did insure that I wouldn't scratch myself to death. My mother and I fought a constant battle of wills over chocolate, a precocious stand-in for the cute but dangerous motorcycle-riding boyfriend. I knew it was bad for me, but just couldn't keep away. My mother gave up the battle after awhile, just sighed and slathered on the Calamine whenever I came home from school covered in welts. She felt my pain, even though she didn't have a sweet tooth; growing up in the bakery business with unlimited access to cake and cookies cured her of that craving. But she remembered what it felt like, and knew that I would never retreat. And she wanted more than anything else to see me smile.

So she spent countless hours in search of a loophole. To keep up with the Catholic Joneses, I'd get an Easter basket every year (sometimes smack in the middle of Passover, filled with leaven-fee sugar). My father didn't mind; if all other American kids merited egg-shaped candies, then I did as well. The search for a non-allergenic, non-chocolate bunny would begin early each spring, my mother scouring stores all over Queens and keeping me abreast of her progress. If they could send a man to the moon, then this Holy Grail of confectionery must exist somewhere.

And one year I unwrapped the basket and there it was, a red ribbon around its cellophaned neck: Peter Cottontail, big, hollow and white. I was a little afraid to tear off a chunk, but my mother was optimistic. White chocolate tastes different, she observed. So maybe you can eat this. I was bursting with anticipation; never in my life had I felt so hopeful. I swallowed a paw, and then another. Ten minutes passed--nothing. My skin remained as pale as the summer sky over Jones Beach. We were in ecstasy over our sneaky and brilliant scientific breakthrough.

Then, suddenly, big red hills and valleys began to erupt up and down my arms and legs. My mother shook her head and drew the bath water, as close to crying as I'd ever seen her. We spoke no more of white chocolate, and I finally began to ask for vanilla at birthday parties. Making my mother sad was even worse than itching.

But addiction never really goes away, and at some point in my eighth year the pull became too strong. I traded a plum for a chocolate chip cookie at lunch one day, and took a bite. I waited for the inevitable, all through recess and later that afternoon at Hebrew School. And I was fine. I casually mentioned this to my mother when I got back home, and she pretended to casually acknowledge the change. We were both afraid to get excited, in case the effect was temporary. But it lasted--it seems I had grown out of the allergy--and after that my mother never even suggested any other flavor. Cake and cookies were still carefully measured, but when they did appear were always Double Fudge Chunk or Devil's Food or whatever else marketers decided to call Death by Chocolate before Ben and Jerry's patented the name.

I still will not consider any other flavor when it comes to desserts of the non-fruit variety. What does this have to do with Judaism and the usual subjects of this blog? Maybe just a reminder that food is not religion, and a fervent wish that people everywhere could limit their disdaining to kinds of candy.

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