Chocolat for Easter
By Hollen Wheeler
It’s the season of Lent and with Easter Sunday just around the corner, those who partake in this holy tradition will find their season of fasting, penitence and abstinence coming to an end. Part of the Christian calendar, Lent begins on Ash Wednesday lasting 40 days, culminating on Easter Sunday, which for Christians, is the most important day, as it celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
But if most children are asked, and maybe a few adults, Easter Sunday means frilly baskets loaded with chocolates and goodies ferried by a special bunny and perhaps an egg hunt.
Regardless of one’s religious affiliation or zest for sweets, Joanne Harris’ timeless novel, Chocolat, underscores human nature’s push and pull between the sacraments and the secular; restraint versus indulgence; self-denial versus … chocolate. And what can happen when one extreme takes over.
The story begins with wanderluster Vianne Rocher and her young daughter, Anouk, who settle in a small, provincial French village in the late 1950s. Rocher is an alchemist of all things chocolate and hangs out her shingle across the street from the town’s church at the beginning of Lent.
The chocolatier makes everything from scratch, grinding cocoa beans and usually adding a touch of brandy or liqueur to the decadent fillings inside the chocolates. Caramel fondants, three champagne truffles and meringues served with whipped cream and chopped hazelnuts are just a sampling of her tempting treats. Similar to a coffee shop, Rocher’s cafe always has a pot of chocolate ready to serve, and her signature sales pitch is, “This is your favorite,” as she hands a customer a mouth-watering treat.
Rocher’s polite but unapologetic way of life includes being non-Christian, an unwed mother and pursuing happiness. “I believe that being happy is the only important thing. Happiness, simple as a glass of chocolate or tortuous as the heart. Bitter. Sweet. Alive.”
Her philosophy, decadent treats and shop become a harbor for the town’s nonconformists: a battered wife, a rebellious and unrepentant octogenarian and the River Rats, drifters who live on boats floating town to town for sundries and odd jobs.
Curé Reynaud, the priest and default leader of the village, finds Rocher’s confectionery and her perceived rebellion and indifference to the bucolic way of life, especially during Lent, an abomination. Reynaud makes it his personal mission to supplant Rocher and recruits his flock to deny themselves from patronizing her shop.
The priest’s disgust with her increases with each passing day of Lent, not to mention his increased fervor for fasting. The final straw for Reynaud is twofold. Rocher decides to hold a ‘Chocolate Festival’ on Easter Sunday and she welcomes the Rats.
Curé Reynaud complains to his mentor, “Is this what she intends? A gathering of these people, a celebration of excess? … The hare, the egg, the still-living symbols of the tenacious root of paganism exposed for what they are.”
By Easter Sunday, Reynaud’s obsession has reached its tipping point. In the early morning hours, he breaks into Rocher’s shop and begins to annihilate the chocolate treats for the festival. But during his bent-on destruction, his senses are awakened, the smells of rich chocolate and a primal hunger. Reynaud binges and overindulges delicacies to the point of delirium. Church goers gather and gasp at the spectacle while Rocher watches him from behind a curtain. Rocher isn’t angry and the Chocolate Festival turns out to be a success – not to mention a freeing event for the religious, to include Reynaud, and a celebration for the secular.
The lessons from Chocolat are perhaps “Live and let live” or “Everything in moderation.” At any rate, the enduring classic may give the reader a sweet tooth.
If watching Chocolat the movie is more your cup of, well, chocolate, it will not disappoint. Starring Juliette Binoche, Johnny Depp, Alfred Molina and Judi Dench, the movie (released in 2000) received five nominations at the Academy Awards and Binoche won the European Film Award for Best Actress.