Intuition and Chocolates

On Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood long ago, a little square building was home to ERNA Chocolates, named for the late wife of the owner, Naftali Blumenau. Mr. Blumenau and his lady companion made the best chocolates ever. I went and bought some pretty often.

You went up a couple of steps, through a door centered in the front wall, and found yourself before a glass counter displaying chocolates. Behind the counter, a dark old curtain spread from left to right, with a split in the middle. Many old, signed photos hung on the walls. It was all very small.

A few moments after you entered, you’d hear a shuffling sound, the curtains would part, and Mr. Blumenau, in his slippers, would come out to wait on you.

Chatting with him over a number of visits, I learned that, one night long ago (“long ago” from then, which was 40 years ago from now), he had walked the Nevsky Prospekt, in St. Petersburg. The next morning, he left “Peter” and Russia forever, and came to the United States.

I wanted Mr. Blumenau to know that I appreciated his history, so I told him about my favorite of his chocolates. It was like a small rock, perhaps an inch in diameter, and very irregular. At the center was a nugget of semi-sweet chocolate; around that, a layer of bitter-sweet—less sweet than the semi-sweet; and the outside was dusted with cocoa powder, completely bitter.

As soon as the outside touched your tongue, you got the bitterness of the cocoa powder, before you’d really begun to bite. By the time you’d assimilated that bitterness, your bite had arrived at the semi-sweet in the middle, which by contrast tasted positively sweet.

The size of the piece played a role. If it had been much larger, you might not have the cocoa-powder bitterness still on your tongue when you arrived at the semi-sweet, and the contrast would have been less.

“Did you invent this?” I asked him.

“Yes,” he replied modestly.

“You’re a genius!” I exclaimed.

Eyes lowered, hands clasped, he murmured, “Thank you.” Accepting no more than his due.

I asked, “Are you a musician?”

“No.”

“I ask because I see so many musicians on your walls. I’m a musician myself.”

“Of course you are; you’re a pianist.”

I was surprised, but not very very surprised; I’ve always thought you could tell a pianist’s face. The poster for that old film “The Competition” always seemed absurd to me. It showed the male and female leads playing four-hands, and I thought neither had a pianist’s face. I didn’t see the film.

I told all this to an acquaintance who happened to know Mr. Blumenau; and he told me about someone he knew who had also visited ERNA Chocolates—but just once. This man entered and waited; and in a few moments, Mr. Blumenau shuffled out.

“Good afternoon, doctor; how may I help you?”

“How did you know I’m a doctor?” asked the first-time visitor.

“A doctor has a certain way of entering a room, closing a door behind him,” said Naftali Blumenau; and when you think about it, he was right.

“OK, you’re so smart,” said the doctor, “what kind of doctor am I?”

“You’re a psychiatrist, of course.” Again he was right.

Eyes wide, the doc felt for the doorknob behind him, and exited backwards.

The romantic departure from Russia, the exquisite chocolates, the squat little building in Hollywood, the powerful intuition—might be out of M. F. K. Fisher, the great food writer, whose brother-in-law was the great and little-known pianist Edwin Fischer.

Copyright © James Boyk 2013. All rights reserved.
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