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  • Writer's pictureHaute Culture

Corona-oblivious: How I survived a gourmet chocolate festival in the early days of COVID-19

Updated: Mar 9, 2020

Now and then, my sprees into culture yield particularly rich payoff – literally. I happily anticipated my day attending the Fine Chocolate Industry Association’s Elevate 2020. The trade show in San Francisco, geared to fine chocolate makers and chocolatiers, cacao growers, retailers, and chefs, was right up my alley as both an interrogator about the future of food and a contributing writer for Art Culinaire Magazine. Let the seminars and sampling begin..

It felt lucky that the event hadn’t been postponed. Coronavirus dominated headlines. Work travel had been suspended for a friend of mine in tech. My AC publisher’s wine conference in Washington State cancelled, and the co-publisher flying back from a Portland photo shoot recounted a disconcerting number of passengers wearing masks. This week, a hospital in my town quarantined 30 medical personnel who’d been exposed to a confirmed COVID-19 patient.

And just south of SF, a Princess cruise ship held 3,500 people in floating limbo, awaiting test results from airdropped kits. The tally so far in the U.S.: 15 deaths.

Still, the net-net expert advice at this point was “wash your hands and don’t touch your face.” Common sense. I reasoned that, if venturing where people congregate, a conference for chocolate professionals might be among the smarter choices given the food industry’s sanitation and safety fundamentals.

Past the registration desk, as I adjusted my lanyard ID badge, reps for dozens of chocolate companies began to prep tables for the exclusive walkabout tasting event later that evening, followed by a weekend festival that included the general public. Esoteric, artfully-labeled bars crafted from Lithuania to Brazil to Vietnam, and designating cacao origin and percentage, adorned tablecloths. Also arrayed in orderly fashion, generously-filled bowls of chocolate morsels invited side-by-side taste comparisons.

I had a half-hour before the first seminar, so lust and a skipped breakfast led me toward the nearest chocolate purveyor’s table. A fellow attendee beat me to it. He snatched a chocolate oval from one of the brimming bowls and popped it into his mouth.

As I watched him nod approval and go for seconds, my fight-or-flight response kicked in. The copious chocolate samples bore no wrappers. With the event still in prep mode, tongs and attendants with vinyl gloves were M.I.A. What would normally be nirvana, a self-serve chocolate buffet, sparked mild alarm. Toggling between feeling silly and smart in my virus paranoia, I veered toward other chocolate options. Unfortunately, passing table after table, only lavish plein air bowls of chocolates-in-the-nude dared. I opted out.

Focus, focus, focus on the seminars – on the purpose of attending, not the perk. Indeed, the first panel discussion, about how chocolate’s goodness might be expressed to consumers and clients, captivated. The second presentation, about sensory storytelling, derailed me.

The moderator, aiming to instruct his audience how to engage the senses to create emotionally resonant stories, led a guided meditation of sorts. We must become mindful of chocolate’s range of sensory cues, he suggested, to activate our brain’s oxytocin, the same chemical linked with empathy, stress reduction, and sexual desire. Treat chocolate as a muse.

His assistant unwrapped lovely packages of artisan chocolate bars, breaking them into small shards and heaping them into a bowl. I couldn’t help but notice she did this glove-free, which felt palpably odd for a food event even without a highly transmissible disease outbreak ensuing worldwide. The fully-loaded bowl of fine chocolates was then sent into the audience for us to hand off, person-to-person, row by row by row. Take one, pass the rest. No tongs, no gloves, just breaking bread, so to speak, with about 80 strangers. This played out in silence for a few minutes.

It felt similar to being the only person on a plane during turbulence glancing around for reassuring cues while everyone else looked unfazed, kept calm, carried on, oblivious. My creeping horror felt validated when a person in the back of the room – finally – asked for tongs.

To be clear, of course I use a paper towel on public restroom door handles. But I’ve never purchased hand sanitizer, I flip through magazines at the hair salon, and wiping off an apple on my shirt generally seems fine.

At this point, the meditation began. “Put the chocolate in the palm of your hand.” A fellow attendee sitting next to me plucked the chocolate off his hairy thigh showing through the shreds in his jeans – with the same fingers he’d been using to tap notes into his phone. He set the morsel gingerly in his open hand. Hmm. I gripped my chocolate with a napkin.

“Break the chocolate in half right next to your ear. Notice the snap. Now bring the piece right under your nose to smell it.” Wait. What? Everyone else in unison moved the chocolate between orifices, under the moderator’s spell. “Now rub it between your thumb and forefinger. Let it melt, let it warm.” I tried not to imagine fingers massaging contaminants into the chocolate. A man behind me coughed roughly and cleared his throat extensively. “Now bring your fingers to your nose again. Breathe in deep.” Someone giggled. The coughing ensued again. “Now taste the chocolate.” Um. No. People licked their fingers. They called out adjectives to describe the flavor: whiskey, tropical fruit, caramel, cedar. I contemplated the risk of nibbling. Just a tiny corner… Just do it. There.

But when the next bowl offering made the rounds, a white chocolate chunk this time, I skipped it. “You don’t know what you’re missing,” the guy next to me said earnestly. Exactly.

Germ hyper-consciousness during an epidemic creates tensions about human touch – already willingly restricted through our pervasive digital lives. Are ATM machines, airport ticketing kiosks, and grocery store self-check-outs safer than IRL transactions if everyone touches the same buttons and screens? Experiential and sharing economies thrive as pushback to our digital isolation. But can a virus kill that momentum? Will we forgo renting e-scooters left on sidewalks, or borrowing magnifying glasses at a butterfly conservatory? Will patrons second-guess the promise of an epic selfie in the Museum of Ice Cream’s vat of sprinkles? Is SXSW just as compelling as an e-conference? Is it reassuring or confusing as a retail customer to receive an email touting a store’s disinfecting best-practices while simultaneously being asked to use hand sanitizer stations and social distancing of 3 feet?

COVID-19’s impact remains fluid and undoubtedly vigilance is prudent. But if we reach a stage of routine adoption of pandemic coping strategies such as avoidance, I suspect that the value of real human contact and tactile sensory rewards will only magnify through scarcity. We may face choices between pleasure and fear, as demonstrated by conference enthusiasts swayed by the optimism that springs from chocolate. For now, blame the power of oxytocin to reduce inhibitions and drive desires to bond. But I suspect that equation may change rapidly.

Postscript: So far, no virus symptoms as I head into Day 3 of the chocolate extravaganza. Notably, the festival’s procedures visibly transformed, apparently with the guidance of the City of San Francisco which inspected the venue and standardized regulations. Gloved vendors dispensed all chocolates with tongs, dropping pieces into palms without coming into contact with them. Some seminars cancelled because classroom seating was deemed too dense. The next frontier seems to be etiquette around social connections. Already people are foregoing handshakes and experimenting with zero-contact greetings. Look for wider personal space zones and new eating rituals. At least in the short-term, safety first.

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