Friday, November 14, 2008

Revise and Conquer: Chocolate Heroes and Heroines

George Saunders, MacArthur Genius Award winner and a liberal-minded quick-witted model citizen of the 21st century, has written that "the best stories proceed from a mysterious truth-seeking impulse that narrative has when revised extensively; they are complex and baffling and ambiguous; they tend to make us slower to act, rather than quicker." In the optimistic (despite this semester's "narrating war and protest" theme) and frenetic freshman composition courses that I teach at the University of Pittsburgh, I obsessively quote Saunders, along with the heady and graceful poet/memoirist Patricia Hampl ("it still comes as a shock to realize that I don’t write about what I know, but in order to find out what I know"), and I present revision as the divine route to, if not salvation, at least understanding. At the beginning of the semester, I tell my students that "revision is much more than copy-editing--it is an informed return to a piece of writing, an opportunity not only to refine but to reconsider your writing." Toward the end of the semester (that is, right now), as projects get longer and questions get more complex, I emphasize that "while writers often approach revision as a way of looking back, revising can also be about looking forward."

I don't always follow my own advice. In the free-wheeling rant I posted on this blog a few weeks ago, I mentioned that I'm not writing very much right now. What I do write, I don't tend to revise. This semester, I tend to give my work a quick scan, followed by a long sigh, and then I send it off to where it needs to go (this website, a professor's mailbox, an editor's inbox), hoping I won't have to look at it again any time too soon. But what would have happened if I had reread and revised my post about "Barthes and the Chocolate Man"? I might have found that my philosophical bafflement over Roland Barthes was actually the key to a provocatively original analysis (anyone similarly hoping to turn frustration into epiphany may want to consult the heartening textbook for introductory classes much like the one I'm teaching The Elements (and Pleasures) of Difficulty, by Mariolina Rizzi Salvatori and Patricia Donahue). I also might have concluded--perhaps more importantly, in this context--that my comment that "while food industry insiders find chocolate to be the greatest thing going, I'm finding the conversation to be a bit banal" was incomplete, worthy of more elaboration. I could have said, instead, that the oversaturated market makes the search for transcendent experiences in chocolate more challenging.

But there are, of course, transcendent experiences to be had. That is, there are still heroes and heroines in the chocolate world. Last weekend, I made my annual trip to the Annual New York Chocolate Show, where I discovered a chocolate-outfitted Wonder Woman, a new(ish) California chocolatier named Christopher Michael (and Food & Wine magazine reports on yet another one: Eclipse Chocolat), and several old friends and allies, including Jeff Shepherd of Lillie Belle Farms, who told me that my purchase of his new "Red Velvet Almonds" would go toward his daughter's college education.

And I've gotten--in addition to bogus chocolate tablets imprinted with PR slogans--some terrific chocolate samples in the mail in the past couple months. Alan McClure of Patric Chocolate sent me his latest 67% and 70% mircobatch Madagascar bars--the stuff is currently more expensive than Valrhona and it's not (yet) as good as Valrhona, but Alan is dedicated enough to get there. The utterly unpretentious staff at Michel Cluizel's US outpost sent me the company's new 85% and 99% "ganaches" (or ganache-filled bon bons), packed tightly into a handy little box that's no bigger than a pocket reference book--the ganache itself was a bit too dry and grainy for my tongue, but the little box is an absolutely delightful marketing feat.

Looking back is useful, helpful, necessary. So is looking forward. Sometimes, you can take your work, rearrange it, make it work better. And sometimes, you have to break the whole structure apart. One of the most vindicating moments of the last month was when a bunch of guys (mostly roboticists and nuclear power plant engineers) whom I invited over to play poker took it upon themselves to forcibly demolish the Axe chocolate tablet.


Blogger TasteTV said...

Hi Emily, Christopher Michael broke a lot of new ground at the October 5th Los Angeles Luxury Chocolate Salon ((, and actually won awards for Most Artistic Designs and Most Delicious Ingredient Combinations.

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