In former times, when women were courted (at least in books) with gifts, flowers, poems, and perfume, giving a box of ornately wrapped chocolate for Valentine’s Day was not only appropriate, but expected. Presenting a red velvet box tied with a glossy ribbon that contained fancy chocolates was a socially acceptable way of showing interest in the other, female, sex. Moreover, the price of chocolate varied sufficiently, so that brands and sizes were within most people’s budgets.
But this gifting of chocolate was, and seems still to be, unilateral. Is it because women are not supposed to give Valentine gifts to men to express their interest in a relationship? Is it because it is unmanly (whatever that means) to like chocolate, and thus giving a gift of chocolate raises the possibility of a diminished manhood? Is it because cultural norms dictate that giving a six-pack of beer, tickets to a sporting event, or a chain saw are more acceptable gifts? Obviously, the traditional red ribbon wrapped box of chocolates might look out of place on a workbench, in the garage, or on the seat of a pickup truck. And the dainty flower-shaped, decorated chocolates that come in a sampler box are too small, and too “precious” to appeal to someone who wants a brick-size chunk of chocolate to bit into. Before a woman can even consider giving chocolate to a man for Valentine’s Day, its size and packing have to look suitable for a man cave (maybe a chocolate chain saw?).
Giving Valentine chocolate to women (other than those in an older generation such as mothers, grandmothers and aunts) poses its own set of problems. Indeed, it can be quite tricky. If the recipient is thin, then the gift might be interpreted as a hint that the giver would like some soft curves over the bones and buff muscles. If the recipient is not thin, a can of metaphorical chocolate worms is opened: “Does he like me fat? “ “Does he assume that I will never lose weight?” “Do I look like someone who sits on a couch and eats bonbons?” “Doesn’t he know I am thinking of going on a diet?” “If he knew me better, he would know that I am addicted to chocolate and avoid it entirely.”
The problems do not end with the presentation of the gift. Is the box opened when it is received and chocolate offered to the giver? Does the recipient have to eat a piece of chocolate upon opening the box? Does the giver check to see how long the chocolate stays in the box? Too long a time and obviously the chocolate was not liked. Too short a time? The recipient must be a glutton. If the box contains a sampling of chocolate pieces with different fillings, what does the recipient do with the chocolates whose insides are not appealing? Finally, Valentine chocolate is hard to re-gift. That red cloth covered box won’t do for Easter, and saving it for Christmas to give to a fellow worker is tricky. You have to take the chocolates out, and put them in a box with reindeer on the cover and hope they haven’t turned, by next December, a grayish color.
Centuries ago, chocolate was seen as an aphrodisiac… although double blind, placebo-controlled studies to see its effect on love relationships are still waiting confirmation. Chocolate comes from the cocoa bean, which is surrounded by a fibrous husk. The husk is broken and removed from the bean. Then the beans, called cocoa nibs, are ground up into cocoa liquor. (No, it is not the same as chocolate liqueur that forms the basis of several delicious and fattening drinks.) The liquor contains a caffeine-like substance, threobromine, which has similar stimulant effects as caffeine. Dark chocolate has more cocoa liquor than typical chocolate, and thus more of this stimulant-like substance. However, it is hard to see how caffeine or this first cousin has any effect on a relationship except to prevent sleepiness if the other person is boring.
The cocoa nibs also contain about 54% cocoa butter which may be similar in texture to peanut butter when ground. Trace amounts of mineral zinc or copper are found in the cocoa bean, along with phenethylamine or PEA. This substance can be made from an amino acid with the similar sounding name of phenylalanine, and results from microbial fermentation in the bean. Phenylalanine and PEA may have amphetamine-like functions, thus possibly stimulating the chocolate eater to say yes to another date. But the amount that actually reaches the brain is as vanishingly small as the amount of chocolate left in the box by a chocoholic.
The magic in chocolate comes in processing these ingredients with sugar, lecithin, an emulsifier made from soy, and vanilla or other flavorings into the final product. Chocolate is considered a unique food, and to many there is no other food that can meet its immensely pleasing taste and texture. Indeed, so satisfying is chocolate that some might be tempted to exchange a mate for an eternity’s supply of this heavenly food. Years ago in a visit to Zurich’s finest chocolate store, my husband and I each consumed a just made chocolate truffle of such exquisite texture and taste that I thought I saw the pearly gates.
So perhaps the answer to whether men should get chocolate for Valentine’s day is this: Yes!
(as long as women get some too…)