Getting gifts makes me miserable.
I’ve convinced myself my aversion to the present has its roots in the past. Specifically, following my Bar Mitzvah, at which I received a half-dozen wristwatches, I had far too much time on my hands. Bar Mitzvah lessons no longer needed, I wound up spending my newly-freed Friday afternoons at the Brooklyn Public Library. And, if memory serves, it was one windy, fall day that I literally stumbled over Proust and my life changed.
Marcel Proust was notorious for manipulating his friends through gift-giving. And I’m sure it was during the hours I filled turning the pages of À la recherche du temps perdu that I became acutely aware of the malevolent intentions of gift-givers. Undeniably, their sole purpose is to control the lives of the recipients of their largesse. Thus, if somebody gives me a sweater or a book as a gift, it’s my gut reaction they’re telling me what to wear and what to read. A pair of slippers clearly means they want me to walk in their shoes. A necktie with an Edward Munch print—could it be more obvious? They want me screaming for their love. Yes, evil gift-givers are conspiring to transform me from who I am to who they want me to be.
When I was a Berkeley tenant activist in the 1970s and 1980s, I was regularly the target of landlord curses and frequently found death threats left on my answering machine. If, instead, the landlords had showered me with gifts they would have quickly driven me out of town.
These days my gift-receiving phobia isn’t much of a problem. Mainly, because I hardly ever get any. Actually, there’s only a single individual who persists in plying me with presumed tokens of her affection, mon significant amour, La C. Over the years, she’s learned edible gifts are least likely to drive me up the wall. Perhaps, it’s that my gift paranoia is outweighed by my free food mania. And when it comes to edible gifts, nothing beats chocolate.
If there’s a member of your crowd tormented by an affliction similar to mine, let me suggest a few chocolate delicacies to consider for holiday gift-giving.
I’ve always envied people with short last names. And, on occasion, have contemplated bidding hasta la vista to the latter part of my own polysyllabic patronym. Lately, however, Big Namen have acquired a distinct cachet and I’m less discontented with my lengthy appellation. By cachet, I’m thinking not so much of our Governator but of Berkeley’s very own world class chocolatier, John Scharffenberger.
Scharffenberger and partner Robert Steinberg moved their doubly eponymous Scharffen Berger Chocolate business to Berkeley a couple of years ago and their pure dark chocolate rivals that fabricated by the creme de la creme of continental chocolatiers.
Scharffen Berger chocolate bars come in various sizes and blends and are widely available locally, from the Elmwood Pharmacy (at Russell & College, where I get my fix) to the company’s factory store (914 Heinz Ave.).
Here’s an idea. Buy an assortment of premium European chocolate bars and include them in a gift basket along with Scharffen Berger selections. This thought in mind, I consulted my Personal Chocolate Trainer (PCT) to put together a list of such imports: Bernard Castelain, Valrhona and Michel Cluizel (France), Slitti and Venchi (Italy), Lindt, Rapunzel and Toblerone (Switzerland), Callebaut and Cote d’Or (Belgium), Droste (Holland), Valor (Spain), Hachez (Germany), Green & Black (U.K., but chocolate made in Italy). Of this illustrious lot, my PCT reserves her highest accolades for Cote d’Or, which she claims is not just palate-pleasing but a powerful antidepressant (she should know, as in her spare time she’s a shrink).
Guess which is healthier for you: red wine, green tea or hot chocolate?
Yup, it’s hot chocolate.
Researchers at Cornell University recently compared the three beverages and determined hot chocolate had almost twice the antioxidant concentration of red wine and two to three times the concentration of green tea. Antioxidants, as every Berkeley citizen has undoubtedly heard, help fight heart disease and cancer as well as slow aging by exterminating pesky free radicals.
Three organic, hot chocolate brands that caught my eye while browsing shop shelves are Dagoba, Lake Champlain and Ah!Laska. All use Fair Trade cocoa and Ah!Laska donates a percentage of the company’s profits to Alaska wildlife organizations.
Another excellent choice is Ibarra’s traditional Mexican hot chocolate product. Ibarra’s cinnamon-laden chocolate discs are packaged in a pretty, hexagonal, red and yellow box, so you can save on gift-wrap.
I’d be disloyal if I didn’t pay homage to the pride of Brooklyn, Fox’s U-bet chocolate syrup. Famous as the indispensable chocolate egg cream ingredient, the legendary syrup is also terrific for concocting yummy hot chocolate.
In addition, a number of chocolate bar manufacturers sell hot chocolate mixes. These include Scharffen Berger, Droste, Valrhona, Green & Black and San Francisco’s popular Ghiardelli. However, according to my PCT, the planet’s preeminent hot chocolate is served at Chez Angelina Rumpelmayer in Paris—where Proust himself plotted his conquests. (The nearest supplier of authentic Angelina’s hot chocolate mix I could find was the Café Society in Napa; 1000 Main St., (707)256-3232.)
Decades ago I had a girlfriend who had a passion for chocolate-covered halvah bars—or, more precisely, she had a passion for the chocolate on chocolate-covered halvah bars. She’d methodically pick the chocolate off the bar, joyfully ingest it, then dump the halvah into the trash. I never understood why consuming chocolate in this unique fashion gave my former girlfriend such satisfaction. But, I suppose, there are lots of things about my girlfriends I’ve never understood.
Anyway, it seems the yen for stuff covered with chocolate is universal, from chocolate-covered matzohs to chocolate-covered crickets. And cruising local markets, I spotted an embarrassment of chocolate-covered riches, including: raisins, cranberries, cherries, strawberries, almonds, peanuts, pistachios, pecans, ginger, espresso beans, pretzels, malt balls and licorice.
And let’s not forget the vast cookie, cracker, biscuit and biscotti categories, with even madeleines available chocolate-dipped. But I’ll limit myself to noting a single personal addiction here: McVitie’s Chocolate-covered Digestive Crackers. Imported from England, the crumbly karma of these British Browncoats never fails to flash me back to the American Revolution. No, not the one in 1770s, the one in the 1960s when I discovered McVitie’s while in a transcendent state. (I rediscovered them when they were La C.’s holiday gift last year.) But, beware, only McVitie’s Plain Chocolate (not milk) Digestives are worth the pounds.
There are, of course, multitudes of other chocolate wonders for sale. You’ve got truffles, puddings (Kozy Shack deserves kudos), brownies, ice cream and gelato, fudge, confections, spreads (e.g., Nutella), sauces, liqueurs, cigars and kisses, to list a few. Plus, there’s your basic cut pieces of bulk chocolate (I’m told the Coffee Market on Gilman Street is a neighborhood shop with decent bulk prices) and, not to mention, edible chocolate products intended to enhance creative erotic practices (e.g., check Good Vibrations on San Pablo Avenue.)
So, use a little imagination and it should be easy to find a chocolate treat that won’t trigger a tantrum in your gift-phobic recipient. And, with luck, you might elicit a glimmer of gratitude.
Final tips: To a chocolate snob, which I’m rapidly becoming, milk chocolate is tres uncool. As for white chocolate, my PCT says it’s fine if you enjoy the taste of suntan lotion. In case you don’t catch my drift, dark chocolate is de rigueur!