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justin brotton - Sunday, February 01, 2009

Judy Brotton

CHOCOLATE: made from the seeds of the tropical cacao tree, Theobroma cacao . The Greek term theobroma means literally "food of the gods."

A brief history of chocolate

Early people attached importance to this tree discovered in Central America 3000 years ago in the land of the Olmec people. For all of its early history it was fermented into a bitter, frothy beverage, used for religious and social purposes by the cultures of Mexico and South America, including the Maya and Aztecs, and referred to as the “drink of the gods.” The Aztecs believed that cacao was the source of spiritual wisdom, tremendous energy and enhanced sexual powers.

Christopher Columbus was the first European to encounter chocolate, but it was left to Hernando Cortez to conquer the Aztecs in the early 1500s, carrying beans back to Spain as spoils of war. It took nearly a century for the Spanish to “spill the beans,” but the mystery of chocolate was eventually introduced to the rest of Europe.

The clever Europeans began heating the chocolate and adding sugar and spices like cinnamon and vanilla to make a more palatable drink. Expensive chocolate was saved for the elite, but the Industrial Revolution changed the processing of chocolate, finally making it available to the masses at an affordable price. With the aid of Quakers like John Cadbury, chocolate soon began to resemble the candy we love to consume today. Many Quakers fled to America due to religious persecution; one such Quaker, Milton Hershey, opened his first plant in Pennsylvania in 1900. Names like Cadbury, Lindt, Ghirardelli, Hershey and Nestle began to emerge, and are still among the largest chocolate producers today.

The armed services are largely responsible for the popularity of chocolate in America, included in G.I. rations in WWI. Upon returning from the war, the doughboys were fond of their chocolate candy, and as civilians wanted more of the same. In WWII, U.S. soldiers even introduced chocolate to the Japanese.

The popularity and importance of this “food of the gods” has not changed, becoming one of the most popular flavors in the world. Chocolate molded into different shapes has become traditional on certain holidays: bunnies and eggs for Easter, coins on Hanukkah, Santa Claus and other holiday symbols on Christmas, and hearts on Valentine's Day.

Chocolate as medicine?

Can moderate consumption of high-quality chocolate be good for you? Some physicians at U.C. Davis, Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the Harvard Medical School think so, having unveiled research linking flavonols in cocoa and dark chocolate to the maintenance of healthy blood pressure and overall cardiovascular health. Other studies have found that dark chocolate has proportionately more antioxidants than other foods that are better known for their health-giving properties, such as red wine, green tea and berries.

Consumption of chocolate triggers the release of endorphins, which may account for that warm, fuzzy feeling induced in some chocoholics. This may explain why chocolate is such a popular gift at Valentine’s Day.

One taste is never enough!

For chocolate lovers, two local events are not to be missed. The first is CHOCOLATE DECADENCE 2009 on Feb. 5 at the Hudson-Essex Loft in Automobile Alley. The event showcases decadent chocolate treats crafted by premier local restaurants and caterers, along with smooth jazz, wine and champagne, gourmet coffees, and a Valentine auction. You can enjoy your chocolate while at the same time helping to beautify Historic Automobile Alley.

Francy Palmer of RCB Bank of Nichols Hills, co-chair of the event, said that past events have featured fabulous chocolate creations, and even some savory dishes using chocolate, such as molé sauces. This year, one of the participants will be creating a special chocolate fantasy beverage for the event. www.automobilealley.org/chocdec.html

The Firehouse Art Center hosts the 27th ANNUAL CHOCOLATE FESTIVAL Feb. 7 at Norman North High School. This popular event was ranked third among food festivals in the U.S. by the Food Network, and has won the Frontier Country Grand Award for Best Food Festival in Central Oklahoma.

Tickets to the Chocolate Festival are always the hottest tickets in town. “The tasting of fine chocolate includes savoring the texture, defining the flavors, and indulging one’s entire being in the moment. At the Chocolate Festival, there are entire lifetimes of moments waiting to happen. It’s just dreamy – something you must experience at least once in your lifetime,” says Kris Abbey, Festival participant.

The Premiere ticket includes 15 chocolate samples, a drink, and a container for leftovers (what leftovers?).

While attendees enjoy their chocolate, the proceeds will go to the Firehouse Art Center, which provides art education to Norman and surrounding communities. http://normanfirehouse.moonfruit.com

For many, chocolate has become a necessity in life, as evidenced by the word “chocoholic.” Chocolate can be an indulgence or reward, therapy for a stressful day, or soothe an attack of the blues. Whether in the form of a bar, drink, cake, mousse or fondue; enjoyed hot, warm, cold or frozen, milk or dark; whether served with sweet or savory food, true chocoholics love it all!

(For more information on chocolate and its possible health benefits, please go to: www.prohealth.com or www.chocolate.org.) 

‘distinctly’ Better Than Flowers and Candy

justin brotton - Sunday, February 01, 2009

Vincent F. Orza Jr., Dean

Meinders School of Business, OCU


February is the month of love. Valentine's Day is a big deal for couples, and florists know it and take full advantage as flower prices, particularly roses, skyrocket. Candy shows up in the stores in heart shaped boxes, and your local jeweler becomes more visible on TV, in newspapers and your mailbox. If you're past the flowers and candy stage, here are a few things to consider while shopping for your Valentine.

If you're in the jewelry mode, remember that amethyst is the birthstone for February. Ironically, the amethyst gets its name from the Greek word amethystus, which means ‘sober.’ Legend has it that drinking wine from an amethyst cup would prevent drunkenness, make soldiers brave, prevent evil thoughts, and make you shrewd at business. Whatever your reason for buying an amethyst, darker wine-colored stones are considered more valuable.

However, if you want something really romantic for a Valentine's gift, check out a Caribbean or South American cruise. Virtually all the cruise lines operate in those regions this time of year. Voyages on Carnival are best for first-time cruisers and younger guests, with more Vegas-like atmosphere of glitz and noise, and generally good food; Princess and Royal Caribbean are a couple of notches above Carnival, and both are good if you have the kids along. Holland America is generally an older crowd, and Celebrity is the best mid-priced operation at sea. The top lines are Seaborne, Silversea, Regent (formerly Radisson) and the best of the best, Crystal. Patti and I have sailed all of these lines, so I'm speaking from experience.

Most cruises are generally all-inclusive, with some exceptions. Hotel, meals, entertainment and casinos are all part of the up-front price. Over the last few years, there have been a dozen or more spectacular new ships added to the fleets. In fact, there are actually too many ships; look for great cruise deals that include two for one prices, free roundtrip airline tickets, even cash back or shipboard credits to use for the spa, shore excursions, wine purchases and other things. Purchase your cruise with an American Express Platinum card and you'll get several hundred dollars in shipboard credits on top of the cruise line offers. Alcohol and soft drinks are usually not included in the cost of a cruise, but some of the higher end lines even include all your soft drinks, liquor, beer and wine.

Patti and I have taken more than 70 cruises all over the world. When we took the kids, we used Princess and Celebrity. We hosted group events on Carnival and Royal Caribbean, but would trade up if it were just the two of us. Celebrity's ships and service are generally excellent, but you're paying extra for it relative to their less expensive competitors. If you really want a great sea experience, Regent, Silversea, Seaborne and Crystal are 5-star in every way.

Consider buying your cruise through a travel agent, or better yet, a cruise broker. We've used both, but most of our personal cruises were booked through a broker. The price was always a few hundred to a thousand or more dollars less expensive. Shop around... prices do vary based on how much business travel agencies and brokers do with the various cruise lines.

If you do cruise, Feb. 24 is Mardi Gras in New Orleans, and some of the ships have itineraries that start or visit there. If you really want something out of the ordinary, book a cruise that stops in Rio de Janeiro for Carnivale. Patti and I did this a few years ago with Celebrity. Carnivale was different than we had expected. I always thought the ‘parade’ went through the streets of Rio, and it did 25 or more years ago. In 1984, Rio built a stadium called the Sambodromo for the Carnivale Parade. You have to buy tickets, which are not cheap. Expect to pay a couple of hundred bucks or more per ticket depending on whether you select grandstand or box seats.

The parade starts around 10 p.m. and goes until sunrise the next morning. Samba schools mobilize thousands of supporters who create elaborate, colorful, detailed floats that take up to eight months to build. One hundred to 200 dancers wearing costumes made of flowers, beads, feathers, cloth, silk and coins surround the floats. There is likely to be a fair amount of body paint, as well as topless or nearly nude participants.

The floats and costumes reflect the theme of the parade, and competition is fierce. FYI, watch for pickpockets and leave your jewelry, expensive watches, etc. on the ship or in your hotel safe. Rio has a reputation for problems in this area.

If you are inclined to stay closer to home, Southwest, US Airways and other airlines have a variety of non-stop and one-stop flights to Phoenix and other southwestern destinations. February is the perfect time to visit Scottsdale, AZ. Beautiful warm, sunny days, and cool nights. There are hundreds of great golf courses in the area, and some of the finest hotels and resorts in the world. It is peak season, so expect to pay double what they charge in the off-season. However, the recession is affecting tourism, so many of the resorts have attractive deals. Check online or with a travel agent for suggestions.

Most distinctly OKLAHOMA readers are beyond the Whitman’s box of chocolates as a Valentine's Day gift. If you find a great Valentine deal at some exotic locale, let me know and we'll pass the word. Happy Valentine's Day. 

Books in Brief

justin brotton - Sunday, February 01, 2009

Linda Sargent


“Heat Lightning” by John Sandford, G.P. Putnam’s Sons ($26.95)

Virgil Flowers, the newest member of Lucas Davenport’s investigative squad, is back with a new puzzle on his plate. When Davenport calls Virgil to tell him there has been a second homicide in less than two weeks with similar circumstances, Virgil hits the streets. Both of the victims were shot at close range with a .22, both were discovered by a war memorial, and both had a lemon stuffed in his mouth. Virgil needs to find the connection before another murder takes place. When he finds the connection, he almost wishes he had not.

During the investigation, Flowers finds out that a lemon in a person’s mouth is a Vietnamese symbol of keeping family secrets. Finding out that the victims served in the same unit in Viet Nam leads Virgil to a Veterans’ support group. Virgil begins to believe that the group’s leader may be a person of interest in these murders, but he can’t quite connect the dots.

The list of victims grows, and Virgil is running to keep up with the new information that comes to light. This is a brilliant suspense story that will keep you up late.


“twilight” by Stephenie Meyer, Little, Brown and Co. ($19.99)

This is the first in a four-book series that is sweeping the country in popularity with teenagers and adults alike. Not your typical “blood-sucking” tale of vampires roaming the night, this book is a love story with complications.

Bella moves to Washington State to live with her father so her mother can be free to travel with her ball-playing second husband. She finds it difficult to transition from the sunshine of Florida to the cloudy skies of the northwestern state. While sitting in the cafeteria on her first day of school, she notices a group of five kids across the room; her eyes are drawn to them because of their beauty and the paleness of their skin. But when one of the boys meets her eyes, she almost recoils from the hate in the look that he gives her. She thinks it’s her imagination, but when she enters her biology class and discovers the only available seat is next to him, his intense dislike of her is noticeable to other members of her class.

Her father, the local sheriff, tells her that the father of the family is a noted surgeon at the hospital and that all the kids are very intelligent and well behaved.

As the days pass, she notices that the family always sit together in the cafeteria, but they never eat. Edward, the oldest boy who seems to hate her, surprises her one day in biology class by speaking to her and being friendly. She eventually gets to know Edward and learns to love him. Along with this familiarity, she not only learns their secret, but that they are not biologically related. They have been rescued from dire circumstances by Carlisle, the head of the family, who has taught them to renounce human prey and live off the blood of animals, which they hunt far from their home turf.

For Edward’s sake, the family welcomes Bella into their home, but when a group of tracking vampires becomes fixated on her, they risk their home life to protect her. The results of their decision have devastating effects on the family and on Bella, personally.

If you are not a fan of vampire stories, this one is so different that you will still want to pick it up and read it. Once you finish this book, you will be anxious to read the three that follow.


“The Gate House” by Nelson DeMille, Grand Central Publishing ($27.99)

When John Sutter’s wife shot and killed Frank Bellarosa, mafia don, neighbor and lover, John got on his sailboat and sailed around the world, ending up in London, where he has worked for the last seven years. Ten years later, he has returned to the Gold Coast to help settle the estate of an old family servant. Taking up residence in the gatehouse of the estate, he discovers that his ex-wife has also returned and is living only a quarter of a mile away.

Much to his chagrin, he soon crosses paths with Frank Bellarosa’s son, who is not only trying to earn the respect of his father’s mafia family, but is also driven by a need to avenge his father’s death, his target being Susan Sutter.

As John and Susan’s feelings for each other are rekindled, they find themselves in a fight with Susan’s parents to reunite, a tug of war with law enforcement officials who want Frank’s son behind bars, and in a struggle to make sure that Susan is protected.

This book is the sequel to DeMille’s earlier story, The Gold Coast, and his writing style draws the reader in.


“Scarpetta” by Patricia Cornwell, G.P. Putnam’s Sons ($27.95)

Kay Scarpetta is in New York with her husband, Benton, and her niece, Lucy, to examine a patient in the Bellevue Hospital psychiatric prison ward. The prisoner has asked specifically for her and has refused to talk to anyone else. He is free to leave the hospital at any time because the police have no evidence that he has committed any crime, even though he is discovered holding the body of his murdered girlfriend.

When Kay enters the room of Oscar Bane, she is treated to a bizarre story from a paranoid individual who believes he is being tracked and spied on by the government through electronic means.

Unknown to Kay and Lucy, Pete Marino is now with the New York Police Department, and the reunion between the three may be strained due to the circumstances under which Pete bowed out of their lives.

Bodies that seem to have no connection to each other begin to be discovered. In addition, someone is attacking Kay Scarpetta, not physically but through a Web site that is damaging to her reputation.

The team of Scarpetta, Benton, Lucy and Marino come together once again to put the case to rest. A new character is also introduced who will probably find a place in future Kay Scarpetta books.

This book is Cornwell at her best, with many unexpected twists and turns.


“Books – a memoir” by Larry McMurtry, Simon and Schuster, ($24.00)

Pulitzer Prize and Academy Award winner Larry McMurtry is probably best known for such works at The Last Picture Show, Lonesome Dove, and his co-authorship of Brokeback Mountain. In this memoir, McMurtry takes you down the road for a glimpse of his childhood, his young adult life, and where his experiences with books have led him.

Born in Archer City, Texas, he grew up on a cattle ranch where there was not much opportunity to read. When a relative left him a box of 19 books, his world opened up to the concept of imagination. His life took a series of turns that led him to become an author, a scriptwriter, a college professor, and a bookstore owner. His writing led him to live in Houston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Washington, D.C., and finally full circle back to Archer City.

Finding that he has a love of books, he has become a bookman, buying and selling books ranging from comic books to travel books to historical novels.

This book takes you on an extraordinary journey through the life of a writer, a voracious reader, eccentric collectors and sellers, and the search for those rare finds that bookmen long for. It is full of stories, amazing characters, anecdotes of authors, including McMurtry himself, and engaging gossip. This is a look behind the scenes of the buying and selling market of books. 

Priceless Vacations

justin brotton - Thursday, January 01, 2009

Vincent F. Orza Jr.

Dean, Meinders School of Business

Oklahoma City University


You’re trying to plan your spring or summer vacation. Europe would be nice, but given the prices, you’ll have to sell your kids to afford a hotel. The Euro is declining, but relative to the costs of a trip to Asia or South America, Europe is still expensive.

There are solutions. Cruises to Europe are paid for in dollars, which controls some of the pricing. However, once you disembark, you could be paying $5 for a Coke and $10-15 for McDonald’s. Why someone would go to Europe and eat at McDonald’s is a mystery to me! The best reason to visit a European McDonald’s is they allow you to use their restrooms free, as opposed to having to tip to use the facilities in many local establishments.

The Mediterranean is the best sightseeing in the world for first-time overseas junkets. England and France are also great and easy to get around. The Brits speak English and always treat their cousins from across the pond very graciously, so if this is your first international trip, England is easy. Windsor Castle, Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, Piccadilly Square, London’s wonderful theater district, and close-by visits to Oxford, Cambridge and Leeds Castle – or just to drive the countryside is worth the trip.

Paris and all of France are also a great trip, but the language is a small barrier. France has spectacular sightseeing – castles, the Palace of Versailles, Notre Dame, the Louvre, bookstalls on the Seine, the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower – many within walking distance of each other. By the way, check out renting apartments rather than staying in a hotel. Years ago, we took our girls and had a lovely three-bedroom apartment with a full kitchen, courtyard and all the amenities of home for a fraction of the cost of a hotel.

You could stay in the States and go to Disney World, which is more convenient, but it can make Europe look cheap. Hotels in the theme park can be expensive, meals can be outrageously expensive, parking is extra, and buying four or five park passes may give you a heart attack! There is a side benefit – you’ll be able to sing ‘It’s a Small World After All’ for the rest of your life… whether you want to or not. It’s hypnotic! As I write this, Disney is running a promotion that will give you a $200 gift card and three or four nights free at their hotels if you buy three or four nights and park passes.

Mexico offers some of the best vacation values. Cancun is like the 51st state of our union. English is spoken everywhere, it’s easy to get around, and you can get there in two hours or less from Dallas or Houston. Most of the major Mexican resort communities have every form of vacation entertainment and sports you could want for less than you’ll pay in Hawaii, but the recession also has Hawaiian resorts offering some great deals. The downside to Hawaii is that due to the distance, you waste a day traveling each way.

A large number of Oklahomans own timeshares in Cancun and often rent them through travel agencies. One- or two-bedroom villas with full kitchens provide a great family venue and often cost considerably less than a basic hotel room.

Head further south and the deals get even better. Cruises on the east and west coasts of South America are good values. You pay for them in dollars, and when you go ashore, the exchange rates are very favorable. The dollar can go a long way in Argentina, Chile, Peru and other countries in South America. Brazil can be pricey, but there are deals, and it is beautiful with a lot to see. Keep in mind our winter is their summer, so January through March are good times to visit.

Many of the cruise ships stop or start their voyages in Buenos Aires. Argentine hotels and restaurants offer some of the best travel values anywhere. Famous for its beef and great fish, dinner in a Buenos Aires restaurant will cost a fraction of what you’d spend in Oklahoma. Make sure you see the flamenco dancers. Some perform in the streets, but the real professionals work the nightclubs, and it’s a show worth watching. Buenos Aires is called the ‘Paris of the South,’ and is a beautiful city to explore. Not too far away is Montevideo, Uruguay. Like Argentina, Montevideo was another Spanish colony with great Spanish architecture. Brazil is further north with Portuguese roots, so the food, language and customs are somewhat different than neighboring nations.

Chile borders most of the west coast of the continent. It offers lovely beaches in the north and breathtaking fjords in the south. Cruise ships sail from Santiago down the coast of Chile, inland to see the ice-covered fjords, occasional whales, and some of the most beautiful mountain ranges in the world. At the southernmost tip of the continent, where Chile connects with Argentina, you arrive in Ushuaia, a pretty but rustic town at the edge of the last place on earth to get supplies before you descend around Cape Horn. The end of the continent is a cold, rough, lonely, rocky and occasionally rough ride, but worth seeing if for no other reason than to say you saw it. Bring an apple to calm your stomach.

Just above Chile is Peru, a wonderful country that is home to Machu Picchu, one of the most spectacular historical finds on earth. It’s not easy to get there – you fly from Lima to Cuzco, then take a two-three hour train ride up the mountains to heights of 8000-11,000 feet above sea level. The ruins were discovered beneath a jungle growth of trees, vines and grasses. The tribe that lived there lasted only one generation before disappearing. They left no language, alphabet or clues as to why they built this spectacular fortress on top of a mountain, or where they went when they left.

We live in a cool world. Patti and I have had the good fortune to visit over 70 nations. Our trips, cruises and tours have included Europe, the Middle East (Egypt is our all-time favorite), North and South America, Australia, Southeast Asia (Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma aka Myanmar), China, Russia, Japan, a few dozen other countries, and most of the US. We’ve never had a bad experience anywhere.

Whether it’s seeing the Statue of Liberty, Golden Gate Bridge, the Grand Canyon or some of the great sites across the globe, travel is a great education. If you try to fit in with the locals and learn to say ‘hello,’ ‘goodbye,’ ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ in the local language, you’ll do fine. So as you plan your next vacation, be a little adventurous and head someplace exotic. Disney World is fun, but Machu Picchu, the Pyramids of Giza, the fjords of Norway and Chile, the Eiffel Tower or the Vatican are breathtaking! 

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