Chocolate for all

Wishing for sweet equality on Valentine’s Day

It’s not surprising that chocolate, with its mysterious and sensual past, is given as a gift on Valentine’s Day. Casanova was reported to be a chocolate lover who benefited from the aphrodisiac quality of the cacao bean. And, if it worked for him, well, it can’t hurt the rest of us, right?

As a modern woman, I have always had a love/hate relationship with Valentine’s Day. When I was single, the holiday was a trail marker for loneliness—a stone laid along my path glistening with the cool dew of failed relationships. I’d scoff at red boxes filled with cheap bite-sized confections, overpriced floral arrangements, and all those disgustingly happy couples taking up the good seats in my favorite restaurants. I’d wonder if they knew their days were numbered.

Then I fell in love, but resisted marriage because I felt that independent women with ideas about gender-role neutrality should steer clear of an institution that, historically, bound women to duties of tending home and family rather than encouraging careers or individuality. I would take the chocolate, thank you very much, as long as my Valentine’s Day didn’t include being stuck under a matrimonial thumb.

The fact remains, though, that couples have long had to fight for matrimonial equality. Throughout history governments have often intervened in the lives of private citizens, deciding who is, and who is not allowed to marry, a practice that, sadly, persists today.

St. Valentine fought for equality. The priest was jailed and eventually martyred (beaten and beheaded) for aiding and overseeing illegal marriages of Christians under persecution from Roman Emperor Claudius. According to one legend, St. Valentine sent a note to his jailor’s daughter on the eve of his death signed, “From your Valentine,” which possibly spawned the tradition of sending love notes to the object of one’s affection on the day celebrating the saint’s martyrdom.

Today, it is estimated that 48 million pounds of chocolate are sold in the week prior to Valentine’s Day. Most of it is of low quality, mechanically produced from inferior beans grown by underpaid workers for high yield and pest-resistant genetics rather than complexity of flavor. Cocoa butter is often cut with cheap vegetable oil, and candy fillings are often made from a high-fructose corn syrup base.

Like wine, cacao carries nuanced flavors, and takes on local characteristics or terroir. Real chocolate—just cocoa butter, cocoa liquor, sugar, and sometimes vanilla (plus milk for milk chocolate)—made from responsibly sourced, quality beans does still exist, however. Several varieties—many fair trade—are available in Chico, and can be found at places like S&S Produce and Chico Natural Foods.

If you want something truly special, I recommend taking a short drive up to Paradise to visit Coco Amatrice (6345 Skyway). Clarice, the owner, keeps her love of fine chocolate on display with an artistic array of truffles, treats, and even European sipping cocoa. The seduction is completely worth the drive.

Since I’ve decided seduction is never a bad thing, and I’ve come to terms with marriage as a way loving couples choose to codify the lives they build together, my heart toward Valentine’s Day has softened like the Grinch’s on Christmas.

Now, rather than seeing a box of truffles as a way to bribe women into servitude, I see them as little symbols of the kind of quiet subversion Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat, Pray, Love) talks about in her book Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage. She says, “I will park myself … in this place of quiet subversion, in full remembrance of all the other stubbornly loving couples across time who also endured … in order to get what they ultimately wanted: a little bit of privacy in which to practice love.”

This Valentine’s Day in particular, I’ll eat chocolate in honor of equality, and in honor of President Obama’s inaugural speech, where he stated, “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law—for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.” That’s something, single or not, we can all lift our bonbons to. Happy V-day.