Sunday, March 30, 2008

Chocolate Homecoming: Guatemala, (St. Louis,) Pittsburgh, New York

I spent the last week in my old stomping ground of Guatemala. I missed just about every deadline imaginable, but I took the time to prowl around some local cacao trees, thinking about where I've been before and where I might go now.

Of course, the Guatemalan Maya were the people who brought chocolate into the world, grinding fermented and roasted beans in much the same way all the major chocolate companies do now, and then mixing the resulting paste with water and various thickeners and spices. These days, though, not too much Guatemalan cacao makes it to the international market. The small-scale products in my old hometown of Antigua took up most of my attention: Tony from the Tostaduria Antigua is doing some strange stuff with local cacao beans and cinnamon, and Greg and Nikol from the Bagel Barn, who were good enough to put me up at their house, carry hand-molded products from the Artesanal Chocolate Diego collective and drinking chocolate packaged at the Finca Azotea.

On my way back from Guatemala, I was headed to the annual College English Association conference, to speak on a panel called "Bringing it Home: The Travel Writer Returns to the Motherland." In my paper, titled "What Part of Your Trip Are You On Now?" I wrote that

[M]y expectation is that my arrival in St. Louis will be a kind of homecoming. There are a physical, practical ways in which St. Louis is "close to home": unlike in Canada and Guatemala, I can throw my passport in the trash bin here without compromising my ability to return to the place where I live. But, of course, I am speaking primarily in theoretical terms. The concept of home has to do with community as well as with physical location. The traveler is a hybrid character whose home is a theoretical space. Home is Antigua and DeiĆ , hybrid places that are neither inside nor outside, but havens for eccentrics, adventurous eaters, and travel writers. Those travel writers, we travel writers, use language to render images of those places with precision and complexity. If the language is convincing enough, then the writer and his reader can occupy the same space. The travel writer creates his home by describing it to other people. His language serves to make images of that place more and more precise. If language transforms the foreign into the familiar for the reader, then the writer has succeeded in expanding his community.

But the FAA had other ideas, and they grounded my connecting plane (A McDonnell-Douglas aircraft) and a couple hundred others in Atlanta. Still, I came back to Pittsburgh to find a package of ginger fudge from New York, sent by Painter Girl Chocolates' Monica Passin, waiting in my mailbox, with a note that read "Happy Spring! Love Monica." A nice homecoming after all.

(Cacao tree photograph by Earl De Berge.)


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