June 14, 2011

Reflections of a Chocoholic.

It starts with an indescribable force.

It’s as if an alarm has suddenly gone off inside of me; red lights flashing, bells ringing, hazard flags waving violently in all directions. Not exactly a panic, but close to it. There is no doubt about it. The message has been delivered loud and clear. That devouring, overwhelmingly intense, squeezing sense of urgency that demands I find and ingest some chocolate. And fast! There is no time to waste.

Then, like a scavenging animal in the wilderness, hair flying and skirt tails flapping, a wild woman (no doubt) is unleashed onto my kitchen, where cupboards fly open and drawers are thoroughly searched. No corners are left unexplored. I no longer own an intellect at this point. I operate purely on some powerful primal instinct that must come from my root chakra, from some unconscious level that has programmed me with a peculiar survival mechanism that screams for chocolate now! After all, I might die without it. Right?

I used to think that maybe my mother had eaten way too many chocolates when I was in her womb, which would account for my obvious life-long addiction. Well, maybe it hasn’t exactly been life long. Maybe it started when I was a teenager, and shifting hormones played games with my bodily chemistry, causing the chocolate cravings to appear just before menstruation. That’s when they say most of us girls go for the chocolate.

Supposedly serotonin levels drop, once a month, followed by the oppressively loud chocolate alarm. But wouldn’t an Italian pasta dish take care of that?  Like some comforting carbs? Nope! This alarm specifically calls for chocolate. (You know what I mean, right?) What is it then about the utterly irresistible chocolate craving that makes it so unique? What superpower does chocolate hold to effortlessly wake up the lunatic in us and send her out in stormy weather to find her chocolate?

I thought that perhaps exploring the relationship humans have had with chocolate over the ages might clue me in a bit as to why my own relationship with chocolate has been such a passionate one. Have I inherited a lively ‘chocolate gene’ perhaps that traces all the way to antiquity? Here I give you a peek into the ancient Americas, in which agrarian cultures spun fantastic tales around crops and their mystical origins, giving the cocoa bean more value than they did gold.

Imagine if you would, that instead of using coins, bills, and plastic, we are carrying around cocoa beans in our wallets! The cocoa beans were so treasured that they became the original currency of the Americas. Because wealth was measured, by the number of raw cocoa beans one owned, chocolate consumption quickly became a status symbol. So the rulers of Mesopotamia luxuriated in bitter, frothy chocolate drinks that had a definite zing to them. This is how humanity’s love affair with chocolate began! Did I mention the drinks had chili powder in them?

Flash forward to sixteenth century Spain where the chili power was replaced with sugar and we find them serving it in church to members of court. This is no thanks to Hernan Cortez, who was obviously very selective as to which of the natives’ ‘evils’ to introduce to good Catholics, and which ones to leave behind. I, for one, am happy Cortez chose to import chocolate over human sacrifice, as wicked as chocolate may be.

I think Cortez was hoping to also import some of those mystical qualities Aztec royalty were certain came from consuming chocolate. After all, the Spanish conquistador took note of the fact that the Aztec emperor’s court drank 2,000 pitchers of chocolate each day! And look at all the gold they have, he must have thought. Even good Catholics are bound to succumb to that kind of lure. And then there was the “super food” healing quality in the Aztec’s chocolate. So of course chocolates’ exotic popularity would become explosive, as Europeans were introduced to the little brown beans as a means to health, wealth and magic.

The ultimate act of magic, of course, came later when the Swiss added dairy to chocolate. Yum! That’s when chocolate worship officially went global. Today, if you consider yourself an average American, it is estimated that you eat approximately eleven pounds of chocolate per year. The Swiss eat twice that amount! My Irish, maternal ancestors eat 20 pounds of chocolate a year per person. Why am I mentioning all this? Because I happen to make up the perfect biological mix to produce a chocoholic: Spanish, stir in Mexican Indian and add the chocolate loving Irish, and you have yours truly. A truly dangerous combination!

I think we may all be a little biologically programmed to taste magic in chocolate, considering that one out of every 100 people in the world, at any given moment, are eating chocolate. What kind of magic are we expecting? Scientists all over the world have been asking this question, as they break up chocolate’s lure into little chemical components: three hundred of them. Most worthy of mention perhaps are phenylethylamine (PEA), which can simulate a sensation of being in love. And then there is the lipid anandamine, from the Sanskrit word ananda, or bliss, hinting at the increased production of dopamine that occurs when we eat chocolate, giving us that natural high feeling. The magical euphoric effect of chocolate is further compounded by its well-known function as an aphrodisiac.

Hoping to preserve their virginity, the Aztecs prohibited the most beautiful of their young women from ingesting chocolate, which kept them suitable for sacrificing unto the gods. On the other side of the world were the sexually excitable Greeks, who found chocolate consumption so supportive of their erotic orgion rituals, that they called it a “food of the gods”, or theobromine, for surely no human could experience such a fantastic libido independently of divine chocolate!

Ancient India has similar stories that connect gods to divine, feel-good beverages. The intoxicating honey-based soma drink takes the cake, followed by Brahma’s drink, which is made entirely of raw cacao. The botanical name we indentify the cocoa tree with today, cacao theobroma, pays tribute to the chocolate indulgences of this Hindu god, in the axiom broma. Legend says that it was the tantrics of India who first exported the cocoa bean from the Americas, long before the Europeans were introduced to it. Today, in order to keep supplies up with demand, chocolate is enthusiastically cultivated around the equator. And add to this fact, the ruthlessness of the contemporary chocolate industry and you basically end up with modern slavery, and a lot of toxins. I wish I were exaggerating here, but sadly I am not.

Now, picture a conscientious chocoholic, storming out of her driveway in the middle of the night, after a fruitless search for chocolate in her own home, driving not only through rain and wind, but also traveling the extra several miles to reach a market that offers her a selection of raw, organic, fair trade chocolates at affordable prices. Yes, that’s what I inevitably became after learning about the cocoa farms in Ivory Coast, which exploit at least 15,000 children to supply American’s thirteen-billion-dollar-a-year chocolate demand.

As an artist, my heightened sensitivity and active imagination does not tolerate supporting the mistreatment of West African children (as young as eight) who suffer routine beatings, insufficient meals, and separation from their families, just to satisfy my chocolate “addiction” Incidentally, it has been scientifically proven that chocolate is not to be classified as clinically addictive after all. I know, it clearly feels like chocolate is addictive. But technically, it’s not. So, what’s my excuse? Without even having to engage the deforestation-to-produce-commercial-chocolate argument, I have none. I have no excuse for purchasing chocolate from ordinary chocolatiers. But that’s just me. Or, maybe not?

In the last few years more and more consumers are satisfying their chocolate cravings in, shall we say, more traditional ways. Returning to the wisdom of our cocoa-bean-worshiping ancestors, we are cutting out the toxic ingredients and unethical manufacturers, and thus making the consuming of chocolate more of a conscientious, ‘spiritual’ experience, and less of an impulsive one. Suddenly, the ways in which we are relating to chocolate are changing. We are beginning to reaffirm its potential role in increasing the quality of our lives. This is reflected in all the new places trade-free, raw chocolate is popping up, from spas to yoga classes!

Apparently, when coupled with yoga-asanas, raw, organic chocolate purifying and revitalizing antioxidant agents aid in restoring balance and health. Here, my mind conjures up images of yogis in the Himalayas who are sustained by roots and herbs, and –dare I say- cacao beans? So when chocolate becomes one of our main strengthening foods, just as it was for ancient peoples, and when we connect with the amazing ways in which nature designed chocolate to nourish our bodies, we begin to feel the long-term effects the Incas, and Mayas, and Greeks did. Since cocoa beans were what made them feel so good the ancients were convinced the cocoa tree had been a gifted to us from the gods. And who am I to say that it wasn’t?

For us chocoholics, reintroducing chocolate in a yoga context, gradually transforms the kind of dynamic we have with chocolate. What does a “yoga context” consist of exactly? To me it means just becoming more aware. As our awareness of everything increases, which includes the fueling of our chocolate cravings, the craving itself stops being the first thing we crave when we are feeling broken hearted, down or defeated. This is where I feel the real magic happens.

Today, I notice that I most crave chocolate when my healthy lifestyle begins to slide, and my body wants to compensate for the imbalance with chocolate.  Not with sugar, not with dairy, not with pasta, but, specifically, with that super food of the ancients that calls my name, most seductively. Listening to my body’s calls for chocolate, I give it what it wants, in the purest form I can find, with a ritualistic ingesting that would make my ancestors proud. Mmmmmm. Chocolate! And the delicious saga continues.

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