Monday, February 22, 2010

Tangential Chocolate: A Chocolate Story Shamelessly Used as a Vehicle to Say Some Other Stuff

The great chocolate adventure continues. For those who don’t know what the great chocolate adventure is, let me catch you up. A little while ago—translated from “hace un rato,” which in Nica Standard Time is ten years, two years, yesterday or ten minutes ago depending entirely on the context, which may not exist (in this case two years ago)—I decided to dispel a long held, albeit erroneous, belief of mine concerning the making of chocolate. I believed that the mysteries and apparent difficulty surrounding chocolate production were nothing more than carefully contrived lies intended to keep chocolate expensive and maintain the general ignorance of the bovine public (a theory which, despite my recent discoveries, still holds true in some respects, none of which said respects involve cattle). This quest—I say “quest” because the journey from I-don’t-have-chocolate-ness to I-made-chocolate-ness consumed much of the scant economic resources I had and nearly all of my considerable mental concentration—lead me to Guillermo, the chocolate man. Guillermo, the self-professed poet, scholar, doctor (without title)…(and practicing), chocolate maker and jokes teller, entered my life as a novelty. He managed to further confound my notion that making chocolate should be easy, gratifying, and memorable. Don Guillermo Castillo told me some great jokes that I didn’t get and all about the secret world of chocolate making, with such specific phrasing as “it’s quite difficult,” “very complicated,” “super delicate,” “you have to test and classify each bean,” or “guaro killed my father so now I’m going to finish it all,” (though I think that last one may have been the punch line to a joke about a man who was asked to explain why he answered “vengeance” when asked why he drank so much, but could have been about chocolate too). He spent hours telling me nothing about chocolate. Everything was cooked, cooled, stirred or fermented for “un rato” (in this context, probably ten minutes or a day). He did bring out a plate of chocolate to bathe (this is frosting, to bathe a cake he meant) and spoons. It tasted like smoke. Anyway, to sum up Guillermo, after a year and a half of waiting for the right belt to come in he finally repaired his chocolate machine (from which he intended to extract the fruits of a secret recipe for chocolate butter, …for toast) following which he disappeared from the face of the earth. I can only hope that he is in a better, chocolaty-er place. Not heaven though. I don’t expect to find chocolate there any more than money or pornography.
I found Guillermo by shopping around for a hand mill. For those of you who live in the modern age of electrical appliances, or anywhere in the developed world, post 1950, a hand mill is a medieval torture device, about which it was discovered at some point in the past that, as a byproduct, things could be ground smaller. Here I must mention that my wife told me to take the cacao to the town mill instead, rather than purchase a hand mill for several hundred córdobas, as a test. Although I say “town mill,” this may be a bit of a misnomer. It makes it sound exclusive, like there is only one. To better understand the frequency of mills in any given neighborhood of, say, 400 humble citizens, a paltry seventy percent of whom make tortillas to sell daily, I recommend going to and searching “Starbucks,” then cross-referencing the search with a random word like, I don’t know, “Manhattan.” I was ashamed to take my cacao to the mill. I honestly don’t know why. It may have something to do with the fact that it was not corn, but could have been due to a number of other contributing factors as well (such as having receive the “bad face” for standing in front of a long line of hard-working women with several pounds of wet corn on their heads waiting for me and my hummus). The mistake of not listening to her suggestion this time would cost me dearly in the two years that followed. I should have listened. What can I say but sometimes they know. This isn’t to suggest that women know everything and should be followed blindly. To say so would be folly, and a damned lie. It is actually against my very religion (The First? Church of Women Don’t Know Everything But I Wish That They Did So I Would Know Who to Ask Stuff in La Dalia). That last part of the name of the church is what is known as an ambiguously placed modifier. Is the church in La Dalia? Or is that where you ask stuff? The membership has decided that this would be the first question for women …if they were to know everything.
Incidentally, the chocolate making experiment failed because it turns out that it is a very long, complicated process. At least to get commercial quality, smooth chocolate it is. Also, cleaning out chocolate liquor (or the chocolate paste which comes from grinding toasted cacao beans) from a hand mill is what I would liken unto cleaning petroleum jelly from a bucket of space Legos, which I can only imagine is similar to washing cold butter from a janitors key ring, which, having not had the experience, I suspect would remind me of cleaning cocoa butter out of a hand mill in Nicaragua. Processing chocolate in a hand mill is a lot of work, and it sometimes comes out kind of purple and tastes like grass. If it is not properly toasted, the resulting chocolate is extremely foul to the taste. Not just bitter, like cooking cocoa (which can’t kill you), but much worse (because you would swear that it could). Eventually I settled for making hot cocoa pellets, or ground up cacao and sugar hand pressed into a cake to be dissolved in a cup of hot water.

Recently, my wife made a batch of hot cocoa pellets that turned out better than mine (which I had abandoned about a year ago following the third consecutive batch of purple grass-tasting muck). She had followed her own advice and taken the cacao beans to the town mill (not the one that lets the pig from the street clean up the rinsing corn-water, but the clean one whose owner often lets me pay her in peanut butter). When the batch of good hot chocolate ran out, it came time for me to try the mill (the owner of which I now owe chocolate). The results were impressive. So much so that I couldn’t bear to use the cacao for hot chocolate, but instead began creating all sorts of chocolate flavors from chili, to rosemary, to cloves, to cardamom and anise. (Fortunately I stopped just short of goat hair ginger bites. …Have you tried them? Then who are you to judge me?) From here, who knows? I made a box of assorted chocolates for my wife to tell her that she was right (this time) and let me say that life is not like a box of chocolates because unless you are as stupid does, you generally know what you’re going to get, or you can at least find someone who does. (Hint: the dark chocolate nut clusters are the really bumpy dark ones). However, life is a little like a box of homemade chocolates for a Valentines Day present: kinda pretty, a little bitter, and you might get some love for the effort. The purpose of this story is not to tell you how to make chocolate (or love). That would be pointless because it is just too hard and complicated and you would never figure it out (though you can buy some from me if you want…chocolate). No. The point is that if your wife says take it to the mill—I don’t care what it is, in the name of all things soft and sweet and spicy, in the name of all things that melt in your mouth, in the name of all things that carry endorphins and help your heart when you get old, in the name of regrets about wasting two years of your life sipping hot cocoa water instead of enjoying the indescribable gratification of dissolving a bar of semi-sweet, chili-laden chocolate made from the beans with your own two hands—just take it to the mill.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Misión Completa

Before and After pics that you WON´T BELIEVE!

Well, it has been an absolutley CRAZY couple of weeks trying to get the project done and ready for a party, but the Casa Materna project that you all donated to is officially finished. So officially that we had the ribbon cutting ceremony that was hilariously Nicaraguan... will explain. First though, I want to say how beautiful it is there in the Casa Materna. Looking at these before and after pics, I realized that I have already forgotten how absolutley ugly it was there before. Its hard for us North American´s to believe that they would have lived with it that way for so long, but for them it was perfectly normal. I would say they just didn´t know what they were missing.Wednesday we baked in our oven for the first time and baked ALL day! I was frustrated at first because all the midwives had to come from their communities and they NEVER arrive on time.. and of course they were quite late, but they DID eventually come and when they did we had a riotously good time baking up a storm. We baked for 7 hours in our little oven which worked like a charm! I am in love with it and wish I had had one when I first got to site. We baked breads that had fruits and vegetables to help teach them methods for improving nutrition. Don´t laugh at me because when I tell you what breads we baked.. you will question their nutritional value, but trust me, anything you can do to help increase variety in the diet here especialy with fruits and veg, is an improvement. We made double batches of banana bread, carrot cake, pumpkin bread and just for fun, cinnomon rolls. They LOVED THEM!!!! I had purchased cakes as refreshement for the party and we ended up not even touching them because had baked so much.

So on to the ¨inaguración¨as they call it here, as I said it was VERY nicaraguan and I cannot go into all the details here on the blog or it would take forever. I wrote a short story in a book Im writing called ¨The Birth of Eva¨ and it was like 4 pages long. Lets just suffice it to say that we started 2 hours late, and after we had started the guy from mayors office decided we should sing the national anthem and should do a ribbon cutting, oohh, also that our speakers were not big enough. He said we had to send someone up to the radio station to get the disc with the song. We waited around another 2o minutes or so in which time, a kid brought bigger speakers (we already had big ones) and then later the guy from the radio station came and had the song only on his memory, so we ended up singing it without music after waiting for 20 mins. Ahh these are the things I will not miss. But if you can stay calm, they are decidedly amusing.This is a cute little girl that came to dance for us. It looks pretty exciting in this picture but the dance was just her stepping back and forth back and forth for the whole song. It was cute anyway and I will say that she and her family were the only ones that arrived on time. Here´s the last minute ribbon cutting ceremony, I was honored to do the honors.Kory and Doña Alicia serving up the gaseosa.

Well, here is the donor list I painted on the wall there. All those who donated are on it and will be there forever. Thanks again for your help in making this dream come true for them and for me. I could not have done it without you guys.