Love. It is always one of the first answers shouted out when I ask my students to list our cultural associations with chocolate. What does chocolate mean to us, what does it represent? Love, they say. Then they say other things: Easter bunnies, PMS, comforting indulgence food. The list is long, but love is always on it. Why is this so?
There is nothing inherent in chocolate to make it a good representative of this emotion. Love is often illogical, we can come up with no good reason for why it exists. It's just there, like it or not, whether the object of our love is a hero of epic proportions or someone that our friends dread hanging out with. The one who makes people shake their heads and say, "Why? WHY? It makes no sense."
Chocolate is nothing like that. Chocolate is not illogical at all. It is the result of a very definite, mechanized process, each step of which has been deliberated by masterful engineers. Cocoa beans, which bear no resemblance at all to the final product, are run through machines, each carefully designed to take something bitter and turn it sweet. To make a delightful thing out of what, naturally, we would be inclined as a species to turn away from in disgust.
And yet having just written that, it occurs to me that maybe chocolate and love really aren't that dissimilar. There is no rational basis for love, and there may not even be a lived experience to sustain it - sometimes it just exists in the heart, even though nothing about everyday life is present to support the feeling.
It's as if the heart, or perhaps the soul, takes something that naturally just is - heck, it might even be abhorrent, wayward, uncommitted, insecure - and transforms it into something beautiful. Something to believe in. Something that the eye of the lover alone can behold with wonder, with gratitude, contentment and desire. Rationality is suspended, self-preservation set aside. The loved object becomes one of beauty even if the subject is worn down by sustaining that belief.
But the machines that make chocolate out of cocoa are not like a soul. They are the issue of the rational mind, the observing engineer, the scientific chemist or the cunning businessman. The roaster and mills, the refiners and conches and molding machines - these all perform a similarly wondrous feat of taking something bitter and turning it sweet, but their relationship with the final product is one of cold rationality, not warmth of feeling.
None of my students, I am sure, are thinking of this transformation when they are answering my questions about the social life of chocolate. The majority of them, I am sure, have no idea that chocolate even starts out as a bean, much less a bitter one. And yet the cultural commitment to the chocolate-love metaphor is strong. It is almost impossible today in the US to find someone who does not admit to the emotional command of presenting a piece of chocolate to someone you love, or whose love you crave. Even if they hate chocolate themselves (and there are a few who do), they will recognize the symbol.
So maybe on some basic level, the part of our being that is the house of primitive instincts - and maybe these are purely species-preservational instincts - there is some alliance between chocolate and love. Some affinity for the power involved in the process of both.
For if we think of chocolate and love as processes, rather than as endpoints or nouns with a fixed and eternal existence, we can open ourselves up to the view that each is a path, a journey, a sojourn from hell to heaven, from cold to warmth, from bitterness to passion. No other food that I know of undergoes this kind of transformation, just as no other human emotion that I feel can render the plain, the uncompelling, or even the undeserving into a treasure, that can take the chafing grain of sand and turn it into a pearl.
Maybe, in our souls, we see chocolate for what it is - the magical and mind-boggling transformation of acid-seed into culinary perfection - and we realize that somewhere inside, we are wired to do the same for people, for good or for ill. And we imagine that by presenting the one that we love with a piece of chocolate, we are saying to them all that must be left unsaid: that they are imperfect and untrue, but that our hearts have worked the magic of making them flawless. Of making them loved.