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Life without chocolate, a sour state of affairs

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Nobody should have to get along in this world without chocolate. The Marquise de Sevigne knew that. She is remembered today solely, if at all, for her description of chocolate in a letter to her daughter in 1677.

"If you are not feeling well, if you have not slept, chocolate will revive you. But you have no chocolate! I think of that again and again. My dear, how will you ever manage?"

How she managed, we'll never know, but it's an alarming thought. I shudder to imagine my daughter being without chocolate. She's a big girl now and lives 1,200 miles away, but I still send her chocolates on Valentine's Day.

The Marquise was talking about chocolate as a drink, of course. Nobody apparently thought of eating chocolate until the first chocolate bar was created in 1831 in America. Chocolate has an impressive history. The explorer Hernan Cortez tasted it in Mexico as the guest of Montezuma in 1519 and took it back to Spain. The Aztecs believed chocolate had been brought to their ancestors by the god Quetzalcoatl from the Garden of Life.

Montezuma's drink was a thick brew made from ground cacao beans, red chile peppers and vanilla. Legend says he downed 50 golden gobletsful every day for its godlike attributes of wisdom, energy and enhanced sexuality. The Aztec ruler's drink was bitter, so the royal Spanish cooks added cinnamon, sugar or honey to the cacao bean powder, and whipped it with hot milk or water. It quickly became the rage in Europe and the Americas.

Chocolate's power to calm us down and perk us up simultaneously, not to mention make us more loving, probably influenced the course of history many times. Thomas Jefferson reportedly adored it. Who knows? Hot cocoa may well have been the drink of choice during the long debates that led to the drafting of the Declaration of Independence.

George Bernard Shaw said he'd rather carry chocolate than cartridges into battle. He didn't say whether he would feed it to the enemy or eat it himself. Willy Wonka's celluloid chocolate factory charmed a generation of children that also had its behavior blissfully modified with M&Ms in kindergarten.

So why then does eating chocolate invoke paroxysms of guilt in us these days? Why do we burden chocolate desserts with descriptions like devil's delight, double decadence, and sinful pleasure? There's even a cookbook called "Death by Chocolate."

With all the whoop and holler about too much fat in the diet, chocolate somehow ended up being the ultimate bad guy. However, the experts say we should give chocolate a much-deserved pardon. Here are some facts:

The fat in chocolate does not raise LDL-cholesterol, and contains antioxidants that may reduce risk for coronary heart disease. The fat content in a 1.5 ounce chocolate bar is about the same as two pats of butter. The amino acids in chocolate help raise serotonin levels in the brain, which contributes to a relaxed feeling. The caffeine in a typical chocolate bar or an 8-ounce glass of chocolate milk is about the same as that found in a cup of decaffeinated coffee. What's more, chocolate doesn't cause acne or hyperactivity in children.

Sure, if you binge on chocolate regularly, you're asking for big trouble in terms of sheer calories. But nutritionists say that two or three bars a week or a daily cup of cocoa is fine. So what's the problem? Don't cringe when your sweetie hands you that heart-shaped box. Remember Montezuma. Have a truffle and follow your bliss.

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