On Maundy Thursday, Jesus washed the Apostles’ feet . This Maundy Thursday, I went for a pedicure. As the esthetician rubbed rosemary oil into my toes, I finished Joanne Harris’ “Chocolat.” The irony of reading this story about Vianne Rocher, a single mother, who moves to a small French village and opens a chocolaterie on Shrove Tuesday–a day marking the beginning of Lent–a season of self-denial, was not lost on me. Especially with Easter only three days away.
In Harris’ novel, Vianne, scandalizes the local priest, Francis Reynaud. She’s a single mother. An attractive one at that. She does not attend church and she believes “There’s a kind of sorcery in all cooking.” Worst of all, her sinful chocolates tempt his flock to over-indulge.
In Reynaud’s eyes, Vianne is a witch to be run out of town. Which is why one Sunday, he declares war on her. The members of his congregation are forced to choose. Church or chocolate? With her Festival scheduled the same day as his Easter sermon, who’s to win?
Reynaud thinks he can. After all, he has the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. But what he lacks is charm, intuition, and warmth–all of which Vianne has in spades. He also overlooks that she has a holy trinity too. White, Milk, and Dark.
“Perhaps this is what Reynaud senses in my little shop; a throwback to times when the world was a wilder, wilder place. Before Christ–before Adonis was born in Bethlehem or Osiris sacrificed at Easter–the cocoa bean was revered. Magical properties were attributed to it. Its brew was sipped on the steps of sacrificial temples; its ecstasies were fierce and terrible. Is this what he fears? Corruption by pleasure, the subtle transubstantiation of the flesh into a vessel for debauch?”
Vianne’s success with the townspeople in spite of Lent, drives Reynaud crazy. He delivers messages demonizing pleasure. He insists people give up luxuries as penance. Luxuries like chocolate. He makes them ashamed of their desires. Which is funny. Because in the end, even Reynaud can’t resist the pagan temptation of bittersweet Mayan creaminess. Especially when it’s bunny shaped and filled with toasted nuts.
The dark chocolate side wins.
If there is anything to be learned from Chocolat it is this: Embrace your desire. Sometimes self-indulgence can save you. But if it can’t, maybe a chocolate Jesus can.