Chocolate joyride

My family’s motto was ‘Give Nicki Chilmark Chocolates whenever possible.’

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Chilmark Chocolates was formed the year I graduated from Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School and set off for America. Here are three random thoughts from that period:

  1. Artisanal chocolate manufactured right up the road from home as soon as I leave home? Gah, why didn’t they do this 10 years ago?
  2. Artisanal chocolate manufactured in the middle of nowhere, sold only on site during a few irregular hours now and then? That’s the business model? Yeah, good luck with that, whoever you are. 
  3. Artisanal chocolate manufactured in a small rural community, employing the local disabled population, sharing their excellent product affordably with the rest of the community. Dang, I am so proud to have sprung from the community where someone would try this.

And then the years went by. 

Years full of school, life, personal triumphs and tragedies; multiple addresses ranging from rural to inner city; cross-continental moves. Eventually I returned to the Vineyard, but for all the years I was a visitor, the great unwritten rule of my family was this:

Give Nicki Chilmark Chocolates whenever possible.

When I was off-Island for Christmas, my parents mailed me a box. When I came home for a visit, a small box awaited me — or else we’d go the first day I was back. If they weren’t open, I’d be promised a box via post as soon as the eccentric store hours allowed.

My story is not unique. Au contraire, my petit four. Decades of the Vineyard’s ex-children are nodding in recognition as they read these words. 

I confess that during the salad days of e-commerce, I fantasized that the co-owners, Mary Beth and Allison, would start an online store so that I could buy a box no matter where I was. I’m so grateful they never went that route. A box of Chilmark Chocolates contains far more than the chocolates in the box. It contains the trip up winding, wooded roads — maybe under the warm green canopy of summer oaks, but maybe under leafless branches, or a fading russet overstory. 

The box of chocolates contains the iconic sign that looks (appropriately, when you think of it) like it belongs outside a saloon in the Wild West. It contains the angling for a parking place and waiting outside in a long line, even in drenching rain, or impossibly humid sunshine, or knifing wind-gusts.

But most of all, that box of chocolate contains its own ecstatic assembly. It symbolizes the communion of the server and the served. It is a

ppetite’s favorite carnival ride, the epicure’s white-water rafting. Sure, you can buy the pre-packed boxes at the far end, past the register, but c’mon, really? The true delight of buying Chilmark Chocolates lies in the anticipation, the adventure, the visceral satisfaction of the hunter seizing his prey. For that high, you must run the gamut of the glass case and choose for yourself from the dozens of bliss-heavy tidbits. Everything about it is a feast of plenty. The whimsically localized names, the eclectic shapes, the range of hues (light, milk, dark, , glossy ginger, matte caramel), the textures (smooth, lumpy, crunchy, chewy, gooey, granular, ), even the order in which little pats of mmmmm are presented along the length of the case. You must lock eyes with your server to make sure they hear and angelically fulfill your sainted cravings despite the chaos of other covetous voices calling out their gluttonous desires. 

No matter how horrible your day has been, no matter how out of control everything else might feel about your existence, you are the engineer of your own salvation. Ask and it shall be given. You don’t even have to say “please” (although I hope you do).

Thank God they never took to e-commerce, or even mail order.

This joyride would be satisfying even if the chocolate was average, or the company was just some typical small business. But the chocolates (and all the glorious amendments) are delicious. Really delicious. There is a sultry purity to the dark chocolates, a jolly comfort to the lighter ones. 

Yet what makes Chilmark Chocolate truly special are the people behind it. This is not a typical small business. 

Most devotees already know the company’s backstory, but in case you’re new here: co-owners Mary Beth Grady and Allison Burger met in their early 20s as counselors at Camp Jabberwocky, and decided to make and sell chocolate, employing the disabled/handicapped campers for much of the work. More than three decades later, now that the queue goes out the door (nearly all day, nearly every day), they still only sell their chocolate where they make it, they have very little themed merchandise, no website, and they have always been famously publicity-shy. 

And now, to the dismay of thousands, they are closing at the end of the year. 

“We both love our work and we figured we should stop while we still love it,” Mary Beth tells me in a phone conversation. There was a long lead-time on this; they told their employees months ago, to give them time to adjust to the idea of it. 

For the record, utter despair is uncalled for. There are other plans afoot (with other folks). There will be chocolate in Chilmark again; there will be meaningful community engagement for the campers. That’s all in the future and not ready for print yet, but please: let hope outweigh dismay.

Meanwhile, for the rest of 2019, take your appetite to Chilmark for a final wild ride.