WickedEye's Quotient

10/28/2014 at 18:36

Theobroma cacao (Greek “food of the gods” + Nahuatl “bean/berry”), Take 2

In honor of National Chocolate Day, I give you a (substantially rewritten) essay on the "food of the gods," originally from 2007.

Ah, chocolate. (Onomatopoeically rendered, that should read: Aaaaaahhhh,chooooocoolaaate…)

But moaning in pleasure doesn’t come close to conveying the gratification of this ecstatically wonderful confection.

Cocoa, the essence of chocolate, is named from the Spanish cacao, which in turn came from the Nahuatl (Uto-Aztecan) cacaua, root form of cacahuatl, “bean of the cocoa-tree.” The confection we call chocolate is a combination of solids from the seeds of the tropical cacao tree, Theobroma cacao, with sugar, cacao fat, and other additions. It’s been made, in some form, since at least 1100 BC.

From the time of its earliest making, it was associated with the goddess Xochiqetzal, bringer of fertility; it came to the Western world through the offices of Cortés, who brought the cocoa bean back to Spain. Thanks to the industrious Spanish monks—and the Duke of Savoy, Emanuele Filiberto, who brought cocoa beans back to Turin, Italy in 1559—cocoa-based confections were a luxury item to European nobility by the end of the 17th century. By the end of the 18th century, the Turinese confettiere Doret perfected the modern method of producing the solid candy we now think of as chocolate.

Its base, cacao, is as unique chemically as chocolate is historically, containing theobromine, a potent stimulant, as well as flavonoids and antioxidants. Humans also absorb a family of chemicals known as anandamides (named from the Sanskrit for “joy”), endogenous cannabinoids which—with chocolate’s tryptophan, phenethylamine, and ethanolamine content—give rise to mild neurosynaptic stimulation…and the legends of chocolate’s aphrodisiac qualities.

Making good chocolate is a long, intricate, and cash-intensive process whose subtlety and complexity resembles that of winemaking—with the added step of confection-making after the growth, fermentation, roasting, and grinding processes. The most expensive cacao varietals are the Criollos grown in Central America and the Caribbean. Beans sell for an average of $20.00 a pound raw and peeled, and the added costs of chocolate production bring the cost of a well-crafted 3-ounce single-origin Criollo bar to between $12-$22. The two best Criollo bars produced, the Château d’Yquems of chocolate, are the Chuao and Porcelana bars by Domori and Amedei: 70% cocoa bars that steal the breath and leave the skin prickling in delight at the sensual, velvety heaven they produce on the tongue.

The rougher, spicier bliss of the blunt and artless Forastero, the bean from which most of the world’s chocolate is made, has its appeal as well. As a chocolate gourmet who’s explored Southeast Europe on a budget, and its chocolate in small pieces, I’ve stumbled across some melting Forastero raptures on the way. One that stands out is Lindt’s Edelbitter Mousse Sauerkirsch-Chili 70% Cacaogehalt.

Lindt, whose founder invented the conching process that gives modern chocolate its smooth texture, is the finest mass-producer of chocolates in the world. Its exquisite 85% bar gives even the ‘grand-cru’ producers a run for their money; and its Mousse Sauerkirsch-Chili is a triumph of both confiserie and chocolatiering. Hearkening back to the very beginning of xocolatl (in which cacao was blended with chili and drunk), 70% cocoa solids encase a 70% mousse, which in turn envelops sour cherry extract, which enwraps a small core of chili extract. The distinct beginning, middle, and end notes deliquesce across the tastebuds; first the round, dark cacao, the barest trace of bittersweet coffee underpinning it, melting imperceptibly into the sourness of the cherry, finishing creamy on the tongue as the spice of the chili warms through the fruit until your tongue is left tingling and sated.

Ah, chocolate.

Read that last onomatopoeically. Better yet, read the words of Baron Justus von Liebig, a 19th- century German chemist who wrote that “Chocolate is a perfect food, as wholesome as it is delicious, a beneficent restorer of exhausted power…the best friend of those engaged in literary pursuits.”

I’m helpless but to agree. Voraciously.

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10/24/2014 at 20:44

The Unexpected Journey (or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb)

Peter Jackson’s first “Hobbit” film, “An Unexpected Journey,” was a terrible letdown.

I’ve been reading Tolkien since I was 9 years old (and rereading him every decade since). I’m still in awe of Jackson, Walsh and Boyens’ monumental, staggeringly beautiful “Lord of the Rings” films. But that very first Tolkien book, when I was 9, was The Hobbit—a very different tale, in style and content, than his epic The Lord of the Rings.

The Hobbit is Tolkien’s come-hither. It is the lure,the bait that leads the enthralled reader on a romp along the paths of Middle-earth until she never wants to leave; and it is a brilliantly effective seduction, precisely because it is so very different from The Lord of the Rings.

Where The Lord of the Rings is a somber and epic tale of struggling races and their defiance of grim, looming fate, The Hobbit is a simple adventure story—one of the best ever written. Merrily plotted, tightly staged, it moves at a cracking pace from start to finish, sketching Middle-earth in sparkling tones touched with only the barest hint of the shadows to come.

So Jackson’s self-indulgent, lumbering, ungainly rewrite—his incorporation of huge amounts of material extraneous to the original plot, most prominently Azog the orc, who is mentioned in a single sentence in The Hobbit (and only in the appendices to The Lord of the Rings)—is appalling. Mutilating the seamless scintillation of The Hobbit’s storyline by splicing it with The Lord of the Rings’ appendices and The Silmarillion shows unparalleled arrogance and presumption.

Jackson’s vanity in rewriting chunks of Tolkien’s legendarium and storyline around his filmmaking is all the more appalling because it’s completely unnecessary: Thorin Oakenshield needs no extraneous super-orcs to render him heroic. His prowess as a warrior could have been portrayed by other, less intrusive means—an extended sequence of the dwarves facing the goblins, or the trolls, or even Smaug, for instance.

Jackson is a director, not a writer—and certainly not a writer of Tolkien’s caliber (so very few are). His egotistical disservice to both Tolkien and Middle-earth has lost him, permanently, the ‘Poet-laureate of Middle-earth’ crown won by his “Lord of the Rings.”

But he’s still a very good director. And nowhere is that so evident as in his casting, and especially in his casting of Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins. Jackson’s ham-fisted egotism has ruined the storyline of which Bilbo is the star; but he nonetheless chose his Bilbo supremely well.

Martin Freeman expresses the duality of hobbits in a way no other actor yet has—in a way even his far more distinguished counterpart, Ian Holm, fell short of. Freeman nails every insular, disgruntled nuance of the staid and respectable Bilbo’s rejection of Dwarves and their irritating foreign ways, of Baggins’ distaste and dismay for the messiness and voraciousness and uproar and plumbing-dismantling carousing they bring to Bag End.

Freeman’s Bilbo reflects perfectly, in fact, the traditional British intolerance of ‘foreign’ habits, or indeed of anything which disturbs the mannerly, ordered rhythm of everyday life.

But Freeman also gives us the very best of hobbits/the British (there is no meaningful distinction), the qualities which shone with world-illumining heroism in the War of the Ring and in World War II. Freeman inhabits, without a second’s missed inflection, Bilbo’s willingness to brave great danger in the face of danger and discomfort and the terror of the unknown—for the sake of the irritating ‘foreigners.’

And his courage is devoid of any of the traditional trappings of heroism. Bilbo Baggins shares with Samwise Gamgee a quality which might be termed ‘heroic decency.’

Bilbo is no woodsman, no warrior. Unpracticed with weapons,clumsy on rough terrain—his chief talent, even before his acquisition of the One Ring, is the ability to go unnoticed. And to Freeman’s very great credit, his Bilbo—unlike Sean Astin’s wonderfully unselfconscious Samwise—makes sure we see that Bilbo knows that he is clumsy and unpracticed.

We see Bilbo’s knowledge of his unfitness for battle, for the company of the heroes with whom he travels. We see too that his knowledge of his deficiencies increases his fear of the journey. And we see Bilbo choosing to ignore his fear—his well-justified, entirely-founded fear.

Freeman’s Bilbo goes onward in the face of terror from the simple conviction that those whose homes were taken from them have been wronged. From the profound decency of a clumsy, unfit man who nonetheless knows he is in a position to help, and will not refuse to do so despite having opportunity to turn away—and despite knowing that it may cost him everything he loves.

This is Bilbo’s heroism, and Samwise’s…and Frodo’s, and Merry’s, and Pippin’s. A hobbit’s courage is the decency of a simple man faced with overwhelming evil—a man who knows that he is at best a farmer and not a warrior, knows that he cannot possibly win against so titanic a foe, and knows that even so he will not surrender.

A hobbit’s courage is that of small, solitary Britain, naked sword in fist, crying defiance at the gigantic Nazi war machine rolling toward it.

In this, Jackson’s hobbit’s-eye-view remains immaculate.

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