Don Chingon de Cacahuates has gold teeth.
The inside of the room is pink, and he sits on a sofa that is big and shaped like a set of pink lips. His legs are crossed.
Did you know that the Spanish word “cacahuate” means “peanut” and is derived from the Nahuatl word “cacahuatl” - cocoa bean – and that the word “ca” in Nahuatl means “ to be?” A “cacahuata” is a slang word for “junky” or “one (likelier a woman) who pops pills.” One can drink chocolate from a cup made from the calabash, which is derived from the Spanish word for skull.
I remember how my mom worked at a chocolate shop while she was pregnant with me, the first time in her life she was allowed to gain weight without judgment. She ate enormous pizzas that she ordered from the pizza place downstairs at the mall. She filched roughly a pound of chocolate a day, her chubby fingers plucking pink bonbons from their papery nests.
The bonbon is a European invention, as is the smooth version of chocolate that requires conching. The conching process is somewhat alchemical, but its primary purpose is to make chocolate smooth, not gritty. Among chocolate connoisseurs and those who judge chocolates at things like competitions for best chocolate, gritty chocolate is looked down upon. Conching must be done by machines.
In Oaxaca, which is very close to the equator, there are many Theobroma
Cacao trees. The chocolate ones buys at the market is gritty. A short, fat woman with black hair makes that chocolate with a machine. She turns a crank, which is attached to two large wheels that smash all the ingredients: the cacao, sugar, cinnamon, maybe other things. You can bite into granules of sugar like sand. There is cinnamon bark in the chocolate. When you smash a cacao bean hard enough (hard enough to give yourself a callous), fat comes out. This is cacao butter. When you smash the bean hard enough the bean crumbles and then turns into little nibs and then the nibs turn into paste, and you have almost made chocolate when the oil in the paste begins to catch the sun or the light. The paste shines with the oil inside it. The fat alone can hold a block of chocolate together, but most people in the world who live near Theobroma Cacao trees do not eat blocks or bars of chocolate. Nor do they eat truffles. They might smash up the beans a little and put what’s left into water. The water has kaleidoscopic swirls in it – that’s the fat again, catching the sun.
Don Chingon interrupts my weird internal cataloguing with the sound of him sucking his golden teeth.
Don Chingon reaches up, pulls a dark green pod from the tree, cracks the thick husk on the pointy edge of the mirrored table his feet are on. I’m looking at the reflection of the bottoms of his feet, dirt snaked into the cracks.
I have seen the inside of a cacao pod before. Have you? Inside there is white pulp. Fruit that is fluffy and floral. They look like polyps, like wet vinyl kernels of corn, slick. And inside each one is a big brown bitter seed. You take the fruit and put it in your mouth. You suck the fruit, which is more like a membrane that protects the seed. Someone told me once that monkeys open up cacao pods, suck the fruit and then spit out the seed so another tree will grow. Plants are very intelligent, an ethnobotanist I met in Oaxaca once said. Plants are manipulative. If you bite down, you will taste the bitterness. This is the chocolate. This is the heart.
When you make chocolate, you let the fruit ferment the bean. It rots around the seed, and this gives it a special flavor. If you buy an $8 bar of chocolate at a fancy store in Berkeley, you can taste the fermentation. You can taste the fruit.
Did you know milk chocolate has no milk in it? Just sugar.
Inside Don Chingon’s pod there is nothing like what I have just described. Inside the pod he has just pulled from his Theobroma Cacao tree is a small stick of bright pink lipstick that smells like pineapple. He puts that on. And then pulls another pod, cracks it open. Inside there’s a tiny bottle of nail polish. He paints his nails, offers to paint mine. I say yes. Once he’s painted his nails and my nails and we’ve blown on them until they are dry. He reaches up and grabs another pod. Inside there’s a little box with another little box inside with another little box inside, and inside that little box there’s a piece of paper folded up about 10,00 times, and written on it is this story – the once I’ve been telling you. He reads it, slowly, while sucking his teeth and rubbing his glossy, pineapple scented lips together. Then he pulls two more pods and inside each of those is a mimosa – one for me and one for him.
He looks at me, brown eyes, pink lips that catch the light. “I want to tell you a story. It will take 23 years to tell, mijita. Are you ready?”
Don Chingon doesn’t say that. He would never warn someone about what’s going to happen. He’s intelligent. He’s manipulative. But he begins his 23-year long story that I don’t know will last 23 years. And I will tell you what he told me in his little pink room.