From The Issue: One For The Tongue By Max Blagg
I sit at my messy desk, spearing squares of Japanese chocolate with a toothpick, while Howlin’ Wolf growls through a bluesy recitation. “It could be a spoonful of coffee / could be a spoonful of tea / but a little spoon of your precious love / is good enough for me.”
But only three squares of Royce’s Ghana Bitter is not enough for me. I need more. I will finish off that fancy box, then sing a song of chocolate before the sugar kicks in. I wanted to sing a hymn of praise to cacao, but while studying its various incarnations I began to realise it was not merely a sensual oral delight. There were darker aspects. Fade in to the adolescent boy sitting with his mum on the well-worn couch in the front room of a council house in deepest Notts. Mum carefully doles out squares of Cadbury Dairy Milk as we gaze at the newly acquired television set. Ready Steady Go! is in full swing, but me mam doesn’t care. She’d watch anything on this new device.
The chocolate dissolves slowly on my innocent tongue, fusing adolescent desire with delicious sweetness, as I study the contours of Cathy McGowan’s shoulders, the sinuous lines of her legs, absorb the idiotic remarks issuing from her shapely gob. Oh I would gladly share my chocolate with Cathy, watch the fragments pass her lovely lips, her hot saliva quickly melting them down. (Twenty years later when a drunken blonde insists on dripping hot Toblerone on my nipples, I find myself thinking of me mam!)
McGowan is introducing the Rolling Stones. There’s Mick with his billowing lips, Brian’s glowing mop of blond hair, the envy of any salon. My dad regularly denounces the Stones as a pack of nancy boys, but the Daily Mirror claims that Brian has already knocked up several local beauties, probably after plying them with chocolate and flowers, as young men do when they wish to take advantage of innocent young girls. Saint Valentine’s day is a good place to begin the hunt. On that day of love these offerings are dispensed in fancy boxes to those gullible girls who, despite the efforts of their feminist sisters, still fall for this charming ploy.
Like so many other things that we stole from indigenous peoples (gold, ivory, slaves), the first chocolate was originally intended only for those who could afford it, not the riffraff milling about outside the castle walls. The buccaneer and mass murderer Cortes shipped it back to his native Spain and its popularity as a beverage later spread through Europe. In England it was withheld from the peasant class on the grounds that it would make them workshy and inclined to “carnal conversation” that could lead to mating, followed by general torpor and inactivity. But it might have improved their vocabulary. Examples of carnal conversation among the poor: “Get this in yer, woman!” or more recently, “Fancy a shag?”
I was recently in a diner on Broome Street, New York, scribbling this rather cynical observation, when the waitress suddenly loomed up with the coffee pot, her hair falling across one bright eye. The image triggered a rusty Proustian recall of another girl in Belsize Park, north London, a hundred years ago, looming up from rumpled sheets, asking me what the time was. “If you gotta go, it’s all right…” That memory faded and the lookalike waitress 40 years my junior asked what I was scribbling. “I’m working on a story about chocolate,” I say. “Oh,” she says, “I’m a nutritionist,” and then proceeds to lay out the many benefits of cacao.
My eggs grow cold as I lean in and learn about avonoids, which increase the blood flow, the abundant presence of magnesium, which is good to have on hand when the red-rag rage is imminent, and a special ingredient called phenylethylamine, which can induce mild euphoria and excitation, especially during the preliminaries, as Iggy Pop once called them, to sexual excitation. It’s almost as good as alcohol and does not have the unpleasant secondary effects of that substance – hangover, guilt, lack of judgment. Since I don’t drink, it’s phenyl for me. I gave her a generous tip corresponding to the number of words she had provided for my dissertation.
More weeks passed, distracted by the sheer horror of current events, the parade of absolute dolts, poltroons, proto-fascists and their demented supporters who have been soiling my newsfeed for the past 18 months. As my editor’s requests for copy became more strident, I turned to the bright young things in the photography class I occasionally teach (Tichy, Mikhailov, Goldin, Metinides, Weegee, Brassaï, Billingham and the like, FYI) for any pointers they might have. One student volunteered the news that maggots had been found encased in a brand of chocolate that I rather liked but now would never unwrap again, while another bright young English girl (hello, Vicki!) mentioned an artist named Helen Chadwick. I was chastened to admit I’d never heard of her. Chadwick, alas, died very young after a brief but brilliant career, and so did not achieve the notoriety enjoyed by some of the less talented (and no longer young) YBAs influenced by her work (hello, Tracey!).
One of her more notable installations was a fountain (Cacao, 1994) that poured out liquefied chocolate instead of water, and it irritated Chadwick that people saw poo where she, like my mum years before her, had employed Cadbury Dairy Milk simply as chocolate. “If I meant poo, I’d use shit,” said Chadwick bluntly in an interview. “I suspect it’s a peculiarly British thing, this fixation with the caca and pipi elements…” Indeed.
Her annoyance reminded me of a film where chocolate was used as a substitute for excrement. Salo (1975) is a truly repulsive film made by my favourite Italian filmmaker/poet, Pier Paolo Pasolini. He never got to see the finished version because he was murdered by persons unknown just before it was released. The film was banned worldwide for many years. It is a powerful critique of the pure malevolence of fascism and an eerie prediction of the sinister influence of reality television, an infection that has recently spread through much of the American populace and continues to pollute the planet.
The movie is very hard to watch, since lots of beautiful young people are assaulted and murdered in the course of the narrative. They are also made to dine on excrement, which was concocted from a mixture of fine chocolate laced with orange marmalade and other ingredients, which although harmless, caused genuine reactions of disgust when eaten by the dreamy collection of exquisitely dressed ragazzi and junior Aphrodites who make up the cast. But munching on the faux poo apparently released their endorphins the way good chocolate should, and the mood on set was always jovial and joyful, despite the harrowing plot and the horrors depicted on film. But you don’t have to watch it!
The shopping precincts of lower Manhattan bear witness to a continual search for sensual gratification in the form of high-grade sweets. Several recent additions to the neighbourhood are catering to our rapidly advancing tastes. There’s the aforementioned Royce (such a Japanese- sounding name) on Bleecker, and further east on that street there’s Li-Lac, an old established New York brand that sells a most delicious bark by the pound. Below Houston there is Vosges on Spring Street, conveniently located across from Chanel, and Kee’s, a petite but very tasty store round the corner on Thompson, whose confections are made on the premises. There are no coincidences. Kee’s is located in the same building where my close friend B used to live, long ago, before Soho had shops. Back then I was never out of breath, despite the five- floor hike up to her elegant tenement at. Her skin had the same bronze complexion and epic flavour as Kee’s 1oz crème brûlée ($2 each), so every time I buy the tiny but perfectly formed oblong, my mind, stimulated also by the erotic fragrance of the little store front, summons ebony- tinted memories that send a voluptuous shiver through these ageing timbers.
We conclude this sugary broadcast with a bar of dark Godiva, 80% cacao and laced with fragments of hazelnut. I bought it cheap at Lot-Less, the discount store on Chambers Street, but it gets the job done, revs up those “powerful emotions recollected in tranquillity”, as Willie Wordsworth had it. The old English poet supposedly kept a large supply of Lakeside chocolate on hand to feed the sugar cravings of his opium-addicted friend Sammy Coleridge, who would get the munchies something terrible after a few draughts of laudanum. And crisps had not yet been invented.
Although there seems to be no balm in our present Gilead, there is still joy in chocolate. I first noticed its specific amatory properties one winter evening 20 years ago, when I was stirring a pot of chocolate on the stove while holding my infant daughter in the crook of my free arm – as the cocoa fumes rose up, she began to swoonily kiss my face and wrap her tiny arms around my neck with such astonishing tenderness that I remember the moment as vividly as if it had happened yesterday. I wish it had.
Text Max Blagg
Illustration Stephen Doherty
Taken from Issue 58 of 10 Magazine ANGELS PLEASURE FLUID, on newsstands now…