Friday, May 28, 2021

Zak's Chocolate: Dominican Oko Caribe

Slowly but surely I have been making my way through Zak's Chocolate's dark chocolate bars. Today we have their Dominican Oko Caribe 70%. It came wrapped in one of my favorite of their paper colors, which is of course the green and gold. Surely that is a good sign. The tasting notes of "natural malty cocoa flavor and notes of blueberries" certainly are appealing, as well. While blueberries might not be my favorite thing in the world (though I do at least eat them now), blueberry notes are different and generally quite nice.

The aroma of this chocolate beneath its golden wrapper is on the sweeter side--that is, it is soft and gentle. It's what I describe as silvery. Following with that tone, the chocolate begins with a semisweet taste. A certain tang develops then that, while a definite flavor, on my own I couldn't name. While not fruity (which I generally take to mean citrusy), it does recall fruits. So a comparison of berries, specifically blueberries, makes sense. The tangy flavor rounds out as you pass the halfway point of the melting. From there, a fudge flavor develops and the tang gives way to classic chocolate. It's an interesting duality as far as a tangy element one moment and simple chocolate another. 

For comparison, the stages of the flavors were slightly different when I tried the chocolate again on another day but only about twenty or thirty minutes earlier in the day (I always try to aim for close to 11 AM but of course there tends to be variation). This time I found the first touch of the chocolate to be slightly bitter, which was a contrast to the gentleness I'd described before. That quickly gave way, though. But I found some of the cocoa flavors came before the tang--and this time I definitely wanted to describe the tang as banana-like. It felt softer and less tangy than before. The fudge flavor still came in to finish off the chocolate, leaving a warm and flavorful mouthfeel after it had melted. This time I had some of the tang left as part of the mouthfeel. 

Even with the variation, the gist of the chocolate remained the same. Classic cocoa notes along with a fruity or berry flavor to add interest and pizazz. It makes for a nice compromise between preferences for simple flavor profiles and more complicated flavor notes. You get a touch of both here, which I find quite unique. And both aspects of the chocolate are entirely lovely. This chocolate is neither bitter nor sweet, and the texture of course is well-done as usual with Zak's. So this is another of their dark chocolates that I would suggest appeals to a wide variety of palates and preferences. 

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Aslan Revisited

I've been mentioning that I'm trying to work through more of the books that I own but have not yet read. First I brought it down to under a hundred; now I'm trying for under ninety. It's hard because I don't want to completely stop buying new books, either. I just can't let them build up so much anymore, so now I have to prioritize new books (and not buy anymore new books if I haven't finished the ones I've just bought) and yet also make my way through the old ones. 

Sometimes that means I look for the quick reads. I thought that Thomas Williams's The Heart of the Chronicles of Narnia: Knowing God Here by Finding Him There would be quick. When I picked it up, though, I was a little embarrassed to see that it was published in 2005 and I probably bought it in 2005 (or maybe 2006) as well. So that means I've had this book for over 15 years without reading it. Oops. 

When I was fourteen, I loved the symbolism or "applicability" of Narnia. But reading a non-fiction book like this may have seemed more intimidating than reading articles online or even reading all the entries in Paul F. Ford's Companion to Narnia. Maybe that's why I didn't read it at the time? And then later, it seemed like I already new all the symbolism. Aslan is a Christ type, Eustace has his baptism scene, The Last Battle mirrors the book of Revelation, etc. I knew background on C.S. Lewis, as well. So what was the point in a book that so clearly was designed by publishers to capitalize on the monetary opportunities brought up by Disney and Walden Media's 2005 Narnia movie? 

The thing is, though, Thomas Williams did a great job with this book. If you haven't thought about all the applicability in Narnia, then this is a quick and easy way to revisit the stories with that perspective. But even if you have, the revisiting is still worth it. Maybe you get a reminder of a certain scene you hadn't considered--or you even take things to a deeper level. Because the symbolism, if that's what we agree to call it, can be pretty easy. Obviously Aslan is like Jesus. The Magician's Nephew obviously describes creation and the fall. Obviously Turkish delight is sin and temptation. But there is more to it. 

There is also the exploration of the spiritual journey. Narnia contains examples of morality: sin but also redemption, failure but also repentance, faith in action, and consequences for our failure. This book delves into all of this and provides that direct application to our own lives. That is, we'll hear about the example in Narnia, the equivalent in the Bible, and what that means toward us today. You could really easily make a Bible study out of this book. It's about Narnia but it's also about growing our own Christian walk.

Thomas Williams takes not just Narnia but also other writings of Lewis. He references his other fiction and non-fiction. I've read most of that, which is helpful. But you don't have to have read any of it. Each idea that he references he also explains. So this book is also a nice overview of C.S. Lewis's ideas in general. Again, it may not necessarily have completely new ideas--but it doesn't need to have them. Just as Lewis is known for presenting deep concepts in simple form, Thomas Williams takes the whole of what C.S. Lewis aimed to do with his writing and interprets it with simplicity. 

So I ended up enjoying this book so much more than I'd been expecting. I certainly wasn't expecting that I'd feel like blogging about it. But it reawakened my interest in Narnia. I remembered not just why I loved those stories, but also what I respond to and what excites me. I like pondering visuals and concepts both that remind me of God's presence, his existence, his creation. Narnia reminds us that we're all searching and grasping and constantly getting reminded of something that we can't quite explain--and that's us seeking God because as his creation we crave him more than anything else and nothing else will satisfy. So even though this book is no longer new, I would still highly recommend if you have a strong or even just a mild interest in Narnia. 

Monday, May 24, 2021

Isn't Cruella Cruel?

I like Disney, yes, we all know that, right? One of the many reasons why I like Disney is that it has plenty of good versus evil--and I do love a good versus evil story. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, much of Fantasia, Sleeping Beauty--it's all great good versus evil content. Light and dark. Symbolism. It's great. But as our society moves away from absolute good and absolute evil, our fiction has become increasingly interested in exploring the bad traits of the "good" characters and the motives of the "bad" characters. So naturally Disney is joining in.

I expect I will go see Cruella and I did enjoy the first trailer I saw, but the more trailers and promotional content I see for this movie the less I like it and the less I even want to watch it. Granted, my concern over Raya and the Last Dragon from the trailer ended up being completely unfounded after seeing the movie. So perhaps there will be a similar situation here. But even if that ends up being the case, I think it's worth discussing my concern.

The impression we get from the promotional material is that this movie will show Cruella's side of the story. We will see her beginning and get to understand that she was trying to stand up in the face of a world that was cruel to her--we will empathize with her and we will cheer her on as she spits in the faces of those who wanted to hold her back. We will learn to love her evil and see it as good instead of evil.


Why can't villains remain villains? Sure, if we want to have fun putting on a long coat and using a paintbrush as a cigarette-holder and saying "darling" and acting like our favorite character Cruella, go ahead. It's all part of the fun of fiction. We understand that she's the villain and that she's also a fun character. We like to watch her eyes turn red as she chases the puppies and wrecks her car. But we know we don't want to replicate her actions or view her as a model for actual behavior.

But when we start making so many stories in which the villains are the protagonists, it confuses our sense of what is right and what is wrong. It makes it all relative and not absolute. We watch the original, animated 101 Dalmatians and we see traits of good and bad wrapped up in a silly story about a woman who loves fur coats a little too much. We see the joys of love and family in Anita/Roger and Pongo/Perdita/puppies. We see that loving companionship makes a home a joy rather than material successes: Roger and Anita love their little home together, even though Cruella ridicules it and belittles Roger for providing it for Anita and mocks Anita for being content with Roger. But we see that Cruella has no love except for her lust for her coats because she has no love in her heart. That is why she can so easily trample on the joys Roger and Anita have with their puppies. That is why she is perfectly willing to harm innocent creatures to satisfy her own desires. 

The only reason that we should want to empathize with Cruella and learn her backstory and motives would be so that we don't let the same thing happen to us. If the world spits on us, we gain nothing by spitting back. If we think the world has been cruel to us, then why should we take on that cruelty as our identity? Then instead of being hurt, we will only hurt ourselves.

Let's not make cruelty cool. Let's get back to imitating virtues instead. 

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Three Times Three

May has seemed to become my time of year to visit Boyce Thompson Arboretum as last week marked my third annual trip over. I take great delight in that place: there is something so unique and heartfelt about its beauty. And now that it is a familiar place, I know, too, the best way to plan a visit.

Start in the morning and go on the sunny trails first. That is, bear to the left for the Sonoran Desert Exhibit, Chihuahuan Desert, South American Deserts, Boojum Cove and the other little trails that lead up to the Picket Post House. Then I like to take the turn over to the High Trail. This time coming back down, I visited the new trails in the Wallace Desert Garden, then with the completed loop came to the picnic area to break for lunch. 

Now in the warmer part of the day and freshly fed, I went with leisure to the shady trails. I made my way first back up to the Clevenger House just past the bridge where I'd made the turn up to the High Trail before. This house and the surrounding Wing Memorial Herb Garden is one of my favorite areas. They had the door to the house open this time; I don't believe I'd been inside before. And a quick visit to the nearby Pistachio Grove is nice; when else do you get to see pistachios growing on a tree? 

This done, I retraced my steps to go enjoy the Palm Grove and Pine Loop and Eucalyptus Forest and then ended up somewhere around the Australian Deserts to finish off my day.

I do enjoy a bit of quiet exploration and wandering and resting. Boyce Thompson is the perfect place to let your imagination run free and to enjoy a bit of the Southwestern outdoors in a way that feels both wild and enclosed (that is, a park/garden versus a remote trail). And though May is the only time I've gone, it's a great time to go because it isn't unbearably hot yet and yet it's warm enough that you will hardly see anyone while you're there. So you get to enjoy the solitude of the place--or the company of whoever you bring with you.


Friday, May 7, 2021

Alter Eco: Salt & Malt

Normally I associate malt with cheap, milk chocolate candy or milkshakes. So when I saw Alter Eco's Salt & Malt Dark Chocolate (that is, dark chocolate not milk), naturally I brought it home with me immediately. I'm not sure whether or not it's a new flavor from them; it was just new to me. (Checking out their website to see if they had it labeled as a new product, I did see their new Hazelnut and Almond Butter Bombs--I will certainly be hoping my store gets the hazelnut ones soon. Please and thank you.)

The card box folds out to the usual info about biodiversity for the ecosystem and stability for the cocoa farmers. All good and well. The cocoa industry certainly has its wrongs to right, but it's great how there are companies taking the initiative to not just make not just make "fair trade" chocolate but to make a product that enhances the environment for the land and the people both. Funny how those two go hand in hand, isn't it? 

Inside its silver wrapper, the chocolate far is smooth on the front with a bumpy underside. That I wasn't expecting. The look is similar to crisped rice showing beneath the surface. Like I said, when it comes to malt and chocolate, normally I expect candies like Whoppers. I can't think of having ever had malt within a chocolate bar format before, though the difference in form didn't occur to me until I opened the seal (I had just been thinking of the dark chocolate). So if you don't have individual pieces of malt candy covered in chocolate, then I suppose it follows that you would make smaller malty pieces to stick inside of a chocolate bar. 

The aroma has an enticing, fudge quality. The flavor, then, is somewhere between semisweet and bittersweet. At 70% cocoa, the chocolate is mild with just a touch of sweetness and a dash of nuance; it's a solid 70% pleaser. Its flavor comes with a pale crunch from the malt crisps and a touch of salt. The malt doesn't really add strongly to the taste; perhaps this is why it's helpful to have the added flavor of the salt to tease the palate. 

Yet I'm not complaining. The texture of the malt crisps (or crumbs as the ingredients list calls them--they're basically made of flour, malt, and sugar, but that's just a summary) is quite unique. It isn't quite a crispy or crunchy texture. Not at all like crisped rice. The closest comparison might be to Crispy M&Ms--but that's difficult to say because of course the candy shell of M&Ms makes it difficult to zero in on the crispy texture (besides the fact that I don't come across Crispy M&Ms at all often). Anyway. The crunch is very light and delicate, especially because it is in such small pieces as compared with the size of malt balls. 

I would have expected something like this to be made with milk chocolate rather than dark. Even that tang from the salt is a reminder not to be too serious and can even put in mind salted peanuts or something like that--something that, again, has more of an association with candy. But again I'm not complaining: it all works so well with the dark chocolate. It's rarer than one might think to come across a good, casual dark chocolate that has both sweetness and nuance while still not being too sweet. While I do enjoy milk chocolate, as well, it's nice to have the option for a good dark chocolate, as well. And of course besides flavor preferences, if anyone prefers or needs to avoid milk, then this is also a good alternative. Primarily, though, it's just a good bar of chocolate. It's unique and yet so smooth and seamless. 

Monday, May 3, 2021

Community = Capability?

Too often today it is difficult to find community, no? Whether it is because you move often (which can even be as infrequently as say every ten years) or because you are living in a bigger city, it's hard to build up that sense of community. Think Little House on the Prairie here (I love thinking Little House on the Prairie). Families and singles and widows/widowers, young and old and in-between, rich and poor and in-between, educated and not and in-between, the doctor and the teacher and the reverend and the storekeeper and the blacksmith. Community. Someone to turn to whatever it is you need, whether it's a broken ankle or a broken heart. 

We are not designed to be self-capable. We are designed for community, to help and be helped. 

I've felt what it's like to not have community. And I've seen what community can do. When we gather together in brotherly love, good things happen. 

I was watching Unplanned this weekend, and there was one particular reaction to the movie I wanted to share. (If you haven't heard of it, the movie is based on the true story of a woman who was a clinic director for Planned Parenthood until one day she saw something that unraveled all of her justifications and made her quit.) The movie shows women stuck in an unexpected situation and grasping for help. Most of them feel like they don't have any options but one, and they feel this way because they feel incapable. They feel incapable of having and/or raising a child. (And I get that; without even being in any of their circumstances, I also don't feel capable as of now, though perhaps someday that might change.)

Incapable. Did you get that? It's especially ironic when today's message in society is "you are strong and capable." Just not capable of anything having to do with responsibility, eh? Life throws us a lot of things that make us feel incapable, whether it's a baby or cancer or a certain job or a relationship. For some of us, maybe it's even stepping out and talking to people that makes us feel incapable. But do you know what? It's community that helps make us capable. (Which is why even if I get social anxiety, I'm still working on community building: it's incredibly important and rewarding.)

Pioneer Living History Museum

Community, at its best and purest, is meant to provide a friend to talk to when you're broken, a mentor to give advice when you need it, and people to help you with practical/physical needs. And you know what else is really cool? Church is a great foundation for community. Think Little House on the Prairie again. The town has its moments and its conflicts, but everyone gathers together in the little white church and makes amends and comes back to their care for one another. God designed the church as the place for us to gather in devotion to him and also as the focal point for our communities. When we live in love towards him and one another and follow his ways, good things happen. And when we find ourselves in unexpected situations, whatever those may be, we find people to walk through it with us and we find that good things still come out of our fears and our difficulties. Amazing.

So you are not incapable. Maybe you can't do it alone, but whatever it is we can face it together.