FOOD: Cocoa Head (2006)

Researchers have discovered that chocolate produces some of the same reactions in the brain as marijuana. The researchers also discovered other similarities between the two but cant remember what they are.
Today Show co-host Matt Lauer

Chocolate has been called a psychoactive food, an obsession and an addiction. Its been referred to as the food of the gods and the food of the devil. The Mayans associated chocolate with fertility, while the Aztecs believed it imparted wisdom and virility. The melting point of chocolate is slightly below human body temperature, the root of its smooth-melting sensuousness. In truth, chocolate isnt really that much different from sex, which is precisely the point.

Chocolate is made from beans culled from the pods of the tropical cacao tree, which are fermented, dried, roasted and ground. The resulting residue, cacao powder, is intensely bitter. And its the substance from which Pam Eudaric Amiri draws her sustenance, if not her life force.

For me this is not about chocolate, she says sitting at a table in Chocolate Secrets, her chocolate, wine and gift shop on Oak Lawn Avenue. To me this is about total indulgence. Happiness. To me this is not a chocolate store. To me this is I want to come in the door and LIE down naked and wallow around and be totally happy.

Though there isnt any evidence of rampant nudity in her spacious shop, situated in a former Persian rug store on Oak Lawn, there is lots of chocolate. Glass cases hold truffles and various chocolates containing walnuts, macadamias and cherries; chocolates flavored with peppermint, orange and butter rum; chocolates with toffee and caramel, some of them created by chocolate manufacturers around the world to Amiris own specifications. A display case on one wall holds chocolate tasting kits and bars from French chocolatier Michel Cluizel. The bars are arranged from lightest to most intensethe most potent being a bar that is 99 percent cocoa with just 1 percent cocoa butter. The darkest chocolates, Amiri insists, pair best with wine. Red wine.

Wine is the reason Amiri ended up in this spacious and towering Oak Lawn location, a chocolate temple really. After opening Chocolate Secrets in the West Village in late 2003 as a chocolate and gift shop with a dramatic water wall, she says she discovered that because of the way her lease was structured, she wasnt allowed to serve wine. When you pair chocolate and wine and it pairs right, it lifts you out of your chair, she says. Its a little poof.

And that poof is what she craved. With the help of one-time Mansion on Turtle Creek sommelier Kent Rice, Amiri is attempting to pair a tight selection of wines with each chocolate she serves. Robust wines, such as Zinfandel, Shiraz, Argentinean Malbec or even Cabernet Sauvignon, link best with the darkest chocolates, while lighter wines, such as Merlot or Pinot Noir, dally best with milk chocolate. Chardonnay or Champagne utterly fail in their couplings as does white chocolate (made strictly from cocoa butter), which muddles wine. Though Amiri adds that Chocolate Secrets hand-dips its chocolate strawberries for plopping into a flute of bubbly, romance smoothing over any rough flavor pairings. You do it all together so that it fuses in your mouth, she says mimicking chocolate plop between her lips. Its an unexpected burst of pleasure.

Born in Saint Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Amiri is an unlikely sweets hawker. Shes a highly competitive lawyer who went on to forge a 20-year career as a corporate litigator before she dropped out to raise her three sons. She says she was addicted to the power rush generated by successful legal brawls. She was addicted to the winning. I was really wired in the wrong direction, she admits. I dictated through labor.

With Chocolate Secrets, she simply swapped addictions, although she says chocolate cravings do not necessarily stem from chocolate. Theyre stoked by the sugar.

You know theres a joke that chocolate is like an aphrodisiac, she says. But what it really does, for women in particular, is it affects the parts of your brain that trigger pleasure and relaxation. So its almost like a happy pill tranquilizer.

Amiri merchandises her happy pill tranquilizers with custom jewelry, hand-crafted gift cards, contemporary art, custom-blended coffees, French language lessons on Wednesdays and live jazz on Saturdays. I didnt open this to sell M&Ms, she says.

Still, she says, you dont need chocolate. You dont need it to breathe. You dont need it to keep your heart pumping. If you feel a chocolate urge, its probably because of some hidden stress fissure in your disposition. You dont need that chocolate. You simply need love.

Then she catches herself and reverses course. We need chocolate. We need wine. We need jewelry. We need romance, she says. I would like to go and bathe in chocolate.

Let the chocolate commerce commence. Mark Stuertz

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