The Sweetest Game in Town

updated 12/13/1982 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/13/1982 01:00AM

Chocolate. Would it taste as sweet by any other name? The very word hints darkly of romance, of exotic, forbidden pleasures. Lovers share it, sybarites indulge in it, and just about everyone eats as much of it as he or she can lay hands on. This year Americans will consume some 2 billion pounds of chocolate, enough to slather a nine-pound layer on every man, woman and child in the republic.

Instead of confessing their turpitude, many chocoholics now are unabashedly celebrating their craving. Last October 9,000 of them thronged into San Francisco's Galleria design center, where they took part in dipping, sculpting and scarfing chocolate ad infinitum and ad nauseam. More recently 450 people anted up $79 each to attend a Chocolate Lovers Weekend at the Hyatt Regency Woodfield, outside Chicago. Arriving from as far away as California, they munched on alarming creations such as chocolate-chip croissants and chocolate chili. The festivities ended with a chocolate recipe contest. First prize was the winner's weight in Ambrosia chocolate, made in Milwaukee. (The lucky lady was Charlotte Finley of Hinsdale, Ill., who tipped the scales at 124 pounds, four more than she weighed when the weekend began.)

Many of the country's toniest department stores now boast tasteful boutiques for addicted patrons—the one in New York's Bergdorf Goodman is downstairs from where they used to sell girdles. Bill Blass is marketing "designer chocolates" that go for up to $24 a box in gourmet outlets. Even master chefs are entering the fray. France's Michel Guérard, originator of the low-cal cuisine minceur, has introduced a line of definitely nondietetic delectables which he has fittingly dubbed cuisine grosseur. Price: $18 for 14 ounces.

What all this finger licking adds up to is not only bulging waistlines but a $3.5 billion-a-year U.S. industry. The economy may be depressed, but chocolate sales, especially those of luxury chocolates, are soaring. Why? Bruce Lister, director of regulatory affairs and nutrition for Nestlé, thinks it may be a case of people choosing quality over quantity. "With the recession, people don't have as much money to go out," he reasons, "so they tend to treat themselves a bit better at home."

But does one get more by paying more? Is there really a difference in chocolates? For help, PEOPLE turned to five chocolate lovers—Sandra Boynton, author of the best-selling Chocolate: The Consuming Passion (Workman, $4.95); actor James Coco; Maida Heatter, author of the Book of Great Chocolate Desserts (Knopf, $15); Milton Zelman, New York-based publisher of the bimonthly Chocolate News; and New York Times restaurant critic Mimi Sheraton, whose The New York Times Guide to New York Restaurants (Times Books, $9.95) will be out in January.

On a recent afternoon in New York, the panelists assembled for a taste test of solid milk chocolate, solid semi-sweet chocolate and solid "white chocolate." (The latter contains no cocoa and technically should not be called chocolate at all.) Only solid chocolate was used because, although bonbons have their place, purists will not tolerate nuts or fruits sullying the authenticity of the substance.

The PEOPLE test included samples from 11 manufacturers whose wares ranged in price from $3 a pound for Hershey to $22 a pound for Teuscher. They represent the country's largest manufacturers (Hershey and Nestlé) and some of the smallest confectioners (Bissinger of St. Louis and Kron of New York) as well as several of Europe's most venerable firms (Lindt, Tobler and Suchard). Only six of the companies produce solid white chocolate, and of the 11, four firms—Godiva, Bissinger, Kron and Teuscher—do not actually make their own chocolate from bean to bite-size pieces. Instead, they either have a blend prepared especially for them by another firm (Wilbur's of Lititz, Pa. supplies Godiva with its dark chocolate) or use a mix of chocolates from several makers.

The panelists approached the tasting with the enthusiasm oenophiles reserve for grands crus wines. "This is the ultimate fantasy," gasped Coco of the 28 pieces of chocolate (11 milk, 11 semisweet and six white) lined up before him. All identifying marks had been removed, and each panelist's samples were presented in a different order so one judge wouldn't be influenced by another's remarks. The chocolate was rated on a scale of 1 (unacceptable) to 5 (bliss). "Chocolate is at least a 2 to begin with," decreed Zelman as the test began.

In between mouthfuls (there were no suckers among the panelists; all chewed their samples), the quintet cleared their palates with a variety of substances. Zelman had green tea, Boynton drank milk, Coco had Perrier, Heatter chose black coffee, and Sheraton opted for a combination of water and matzo wafers. Throughout, their comments tended to reflect their preconceived preferences. "My semi-sweet favorite is my favorite of the whole contest," said Heatter. (It turned out to be Kron's.) "I don't like semi-sweet," erupted Coco. "This one is pure candle wax." (The same Kron's) "Milk's not my fave," revealed Zelman. "I hate white," countered Sheraton. "It tastes like sweet fat. I like pork rinds better."

Seventy-five minutes later it was all over. Then the scores were tabulated. Out of a possible 25 points, Ghirardelli of San Leandro, Calif. received 18 to win in the milk chocolate category, even though only one judge (Heatter) gave it a top score. Wilbur placed a close second with 17, while Lindt came in last with 11. The semisweet results were just the opposite. Lindt garnered first place with 20 points, also with only one top rating (Zelman). Nestlé and Teuscher brought up the rear with 6 points each. As for white chocolate, Kron walked off with first prize with just 13 points, a testament to the panel's disdain for the stuff, which is made of sugar, vegetable fats, milk solids and flavorings. Heatter, the only judge to give it a 5, explained, "It's my least favorite so-called chocolate. This wasn't as bad as the others." Interestingly, not one of the highest-priced confections ranked No. 1 in any category.

As the proceedings ended, most of the panelists' yen for chocolate was sated—at least for the rest of the day. "I've got paralysis of the palate," complained Sheraton. Not so Coco. "I've finished tasting," he said. "Now I'm going to go home and really eat some chocolate."

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