Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Remembering the Midwest: Minneapolis Chocolate in Spring

I ended the last missive from my shifting geographical location with a cryptic message and a dodgy photograph suggesting that, to be whole people, to be fully integrated members of civil society, we must read essays. What, I know I am provoking you to ask, is an essay? And what does it have to do with chocolate? For one thing, the essay is a form that far too easily collapses into a set of rhetorical questions. What else?

I started graduate school in “creative nonfiction” three years ago teaching “essays” to freshman in composition classes and reading and writing “essays” in creative writing workshops, stridently professing that this thing, this essay, was so inherently different in character from those deadening, restrictive “five paragraph themes” that traumatized me from the first to the last day of high school. Essays, so I said, aspired to intellectual innovation. Essays, truly understood, were art. But what does that really mean? What is an essay? It is true that the essay, the thought experiment, as it was imagined by Montaigne in the sixteenth century, is as different from the scripted student writing that bears its name today as is the meaning of the phrase “coger el coche” in Spain from that in Guatemala. But the plot-driven nonfiction pieces (which resemble short stories except that they pledge a certain journalistic accuracy and are generally more boring) that are passed around as “essays” in a great many graduate workshops don’t fit the classical definition either. Montaigne’s essays weren’t “proofs” in the high-school sense, nor were they “stories” in MFA-program sense. The Montaignian essay shares a lot with the contemporaneous Shakespearean soliloquy: intricately linked motifs and patterns of language help to illuminate and complicate a question or problem, but there is no “narrative arc” to speak of. Over history, several writers have set out to revive Montaigne’s project, with greater or lesser insight into what the project actually was—Patrick Madden I think is among the most current and most responsible of them. Socrates is sometimes invoked as a proto-essayist. Spalding Gray may have been the most significant inheritor of the genre in the 20th century. The Romantic writers were particularly fond of the form and it’s “familiar” tone. Before either of the World Wars, György Lukács put forth a fiercely compelling and confusing definition of the essay as cultural criticism that behaves, formally, like art; in Edward Said’s eloquent summation, written after the World Wars, “Lukács said that by virtue of its form the essay allows, and indeed is, the coincidence of inchoate soul with exigent form.” John D’Agata is the 21st century’s formalist essayist and has offered his own definitions of the word “essay” that are too beautifully succinct to summarize. As a student of the essay, I was first inspired by the intimacy and immediacy of the essay voice, then frustrated with what increasingly revealed themselves to be generic figures of speech and figures of thought that stood in for honesty and spontaneity on the page, then in awe of the way the form inherently acknowledges its own constructedness, the illusion of truth sustained and dismantled at once. Just after my last semester of graduate school, I described the essay at the Rhetoric Society of America conference in Minneapolis as “a process of thought recreated for an audience and arranged rhetorically.”

The weekend in 2010 that I was in Minneapolis, Memorial Day weekend, I had to make up my mind about whether I would go back to New York and accept a very decent job teaching college freshman formally experimental essays, albeit following formulaic syllabi, or whether I would voluntarily place myself in peculiar political, linguistic, and financial circumstances to teach creative writing to some of the brightest students in China. Both options offered tremendous opportunities, but neither one was what I had expected and neither one had anything at all in common with the other. This was less a career decision than a neurological experiment tracking the human being’s ability to comprehend contradiction. To up the Woody Allen quotient of the experience, I was also awaiting news about whether I had a brain tumor (I do not: I have Joan Didion-esque migraines and a sinus anomaly that goes unnoticed except on days like today when every factory in Guangzhou is chugging at full speed and I’ve been hit with a hideous Hunanese flu). I had so recently turned in my thesis that I probably showed up with stray editing-pen marks on my face. My conference panel on “Rhetoric and Poetics” was no doubt assembled by the spirits or the ancestors as the farcical celebration of my pending professional commitment to the academy: Where, precisely, did the Virginia Woolf panelist’s accent originate? And who was the man from Alaska in the gray flannel suit?

My host in Minneapolis was my friend Leila’s mom, Kathy, a demographer at the university. Leila and her mother have no particular allegiance to sleep and they can accomplish an astonishing amount in any given 24-hour period. After returning from work and before packing for her trip to New York to visit Leila and her sister Soraya and handing over the keys to me, Kathy completed and printed out a survey of sixteen local academics, two men and fourteen women, who gave anonymous comments about their favorite chocolate in the Twin Cities. They suggested more locations than I could check out on foot and wrote with a more responsible commitment to detail than I probably would have exercised on my own. So, with Memorial Day of 2011 in view, I reproduce a selection of the survey results here with tremendous gratitude to Kathy and her friends:

    • BT McElrath is based here and can be purchased in stores like Lunds. Really good, unusual chocolate truffles and candies. "The salty dog" chocolate bar is not to be missed.
    • Perhaps BT McElrath: He used to be the pastry chef (I think) of the bakery when it started back in the warehouse district and I recall Peter saying that Bryan was using the equipment to try out some chocolate making. He later left to pursue the chocolate business. When I see his chocolates I am so glad he made it and has become known for it.
    • Surdyks or Lunds/Byerlys- the highest end chocolate in the Twin cities
    • I think the best chocolate truffles in town are made by - gasp! - The Wedge Co-op on Lyndale. they are amazing. They also make what I think is the best chocolate cookie in town - the Black Angus.
    • And Rustica Bakery has a fantastic bittersweet chocolate cookie.
    • I've got to put in a "second" for whoever mentioned the Bittersweet chocolate cookie from Rustica. They are amazing. My husband and I always buy a bunch when we have people coming into town, and then we say, "You HAVE TO try this cookie! Isn't it the best cookie you've ever had?"
    • Big old house and chocolate chocolate chocolate... Rogue Chocolatier. New - just chocolate that they make themselves.
    • Rogue: I think it is available at Kopplin's Coffee in St. Paul's Highland Park, at Kitchen Window in Uptown Minneapolis, and in Surdyk's Cheese Shop in northeast Minneapolis.
    • If you're talking chocolate cake, I love the one (Can't remember the name of it and they have a few varieties) at Cafe Latte in St. Paul. There's also "Cupcake" and another good cupcake place near Trotter's cafe in St. Paul (can't remember the name of that one).
    • If the writer really wants a local slant, besides Regina's (someone else identified it too)--she should buy a few Nut Goodies. Pearson's is so local you can't get it in Chicago--I don't know even if they distribute in Wisconsin. I grew up with them as the "luxury"--they were ten cents when Hershey's was a nickel. They stopped making Nut Goodies for a few years when I was in my 20s, then started up again. Nut Goodie has become a travel talisman for me, ever since I threw one into my bag for my first trip to Africa and found myself eating it at midnight in a hotel in Harare when they seemed to have lost my laundry. I now carry one on every trip, two for Europe, three for other continents. My personal travel de-stresser; I never eat them at home. Too sweet and very ordinary, but very comforting.
    • There are also some fabulous hand made ice cream places that have great chocolate options, especially Izzy's and the Pumphouse Creamery. Both use organic, local ingredients and environmentally friendly production practices.
    • I would also recommend checking out the Sweet Bakeshop. Local, organic butter, eggs, etc. Highly acclaimed.
    • The chocolate ganache cupcakes at the Franklin Street Bakery are a favorite of ours.

    In May of 2010, I began to compose this blog post while walking in Minneapolis along that vein of American culture, the Mississippi River. Whatever precise adjectives, rhythms of explanation, and thematic resonances I arrived at were too fragile to survive nearly a year of rattling around in my head (displaced by another Midwestern journey, at least). But the combined curiosity about and hunger for the bloom of spring, the taste of unknown local sweets, and the possibilities of the future returned to me today as I followed the new Pearl River promenade to the Guangzhou Bridge across to Ersha Island, thinking in words that explained my state of mind, even to me.

    I put things off but rarely forget them. In my essayists’ mind, I make connections between disparate occurrences, drawing past and present, or present and future, together suddenly, finishing an old abandoned project only to distract me from a new impending deadline (I know, Mr. Feng! You need me to record last semester’s grades on those inscrutable forms! Coming right up, Mr. Feng! Many apologies, Mr. Feng!). Guangzhou has the river but it doesn’t yet have post-industrial blue skies or farmer’s markets in refashioned factories. I’d have to return to Minneapolis to find those, and to have Nepalese dumplings in front of art exhibits, to sample shortbread cookies made with American heirloom ingredients and Scottish family recipes, to talk to raw-chocolate quacks and breakfast-cereal artisans. Today, I posted my pictures from last spring in Minneapolis, and from my more recent travels here in Asia, on the Chocolate in Context Facebook page. It occurred to me to do this today because I was thinking about my own writing in preparation for a talk that I’m going to give to students in the Pitt Map study-abroad program in Beijing next week. I was thinking too about how long it’s been since I’ve updated this blog. I wrote this post a bit out of obligation to the Pitt students who are expecting to meet a writer, a fellow blogger, but also as a way of figuring something out—that the blog, today, more than so many other things published under that flag, is the essay. Blogs are where we are intimate and eccentric, where we ramble on, make loose connections, and enjoy the boundlessness of the form.

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