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When Santa first came to town, brought by Dutch settlers in the 18th century, he was a skinny mournful dude riding a white horse. Alongside strolled an elf, swinging a stick to punish unruly children. How the elf lost his stick and became helpful and artisanal, how the white horse transformed into a flying sleigh, and how Santa took up the white hash pipe and turned slack-jawed and obese is a story best left to Disney. There's evidence that the Germans are to blame for crafting the first chocolate Santa. In Deutschland, December 6 was known as Nikolaus Tag, and on that day children received a chocolate Santa and a toy. One assumes that, like kids today, they gobbled the Santa in one sitting and thenhigh on sugar and caffeinesmashed the toy.
We can date the birth of chocolate Santa because his creation depended upon scientific innovations that occurred in the 19th century. Though chocolate had been enjoyed by the Mayans (who called it ka-ka-w, the root word of cocoa), it was the Aztecs who developed the greatest passion for itgrinding the beans, adding chile peppers, and making a warm and bitter beverage they claimed could help them screw all night. Blind to the broad appeal of chocolate, Columbus ignored it, demurely watching canoes full of cocoa beans float by without grabbing a handful. It was the conquistadores under Cortés who brought back the bean to their pale-skinned homies, probably around 1528, spawning hot cocoa crazes in Spain, Italy, France, and England that lasted through the end of the 18th century. It wasn't until 1847, though, that a process was developed allowing cocoa powder to be remixed with its cocoa butter to create a pourable and moldable form of chocolate. The candy bar was born and so was the chocolate Santa.
Visit Macy's Cellar around Halloween and discover the mythological hegemony of the chocolate Santa. Despite the early date, he already guards the front entrance of the candy department, phalanxed in one-foot ($36) and six-inch ($17) sizes, created by Joseph Schmidt of San Francisco's Castro district, sometimes called the Michelangelo of Chocolate. Eschewing the dull brownness of the usual Santa, this avatar has a flowing white beard, kidney-shaped red bag, and skin tone that the crayon box once called "flesh," all made of tinted chocolate. His beady eyes seem to be looking nervously over his shoulder, as if he expects to be mugged at any moment. Clearly, this is the perfect Santa for urbanites.
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If you prefer a more old-fashioned chocolate Santa, there's no better place than Elk Candy in the Yorkville section of Manhattan. The shelves of marzipan and the dense yuletide pastry called stollen testify to the continuing Teutonic tone of this chocolatier, founded in 1933. Santa is available in dark and milk chocolate, in quarter-pound ($5.50), half-pound ($8.95), and one-pound ($15.95) versions. The dark chocolate is dense and rich, while the milk chocolate is too creamy, light, and sweet for modern tastes. In addition to Santas, Elk also purveys other seasonal products, such as Advent calendars ($2.75) in the form of a shallow box with 24 windows that, when opened, reveal tiny wafers of chocolate. A cardboard container shaped like a Christmas tree ($16.75) conceals 16 cordial-filled chocolates that dump raw alcohol into your mouth when you bite into them, a good start to a holiday drinking binge.
Other old-time New York places that make their own chocolate Kris Kringles include Evelyn's Hand Dipped Chocolates, located on John Street for over 40 years. From a vast range of sizes in dark and milk chocolate, the largest is approximately two and a half feet tall and retails for $150. It's usually used for a centerpiece at Wall Street Christmas parties, one store clerk told me. Nosing around the tiny establishment you'll find other long-forgotten chocolates, including "sponges" (a quarter-pound, $5.24) that sport a creepy-looking honeycomb filling that resolves into something midway between nougat and caramel when you chomp down on it, recommended warmly by an old codger who stood next to me in line. "It's like a fancy Butterfinger," he exclaimed. Christopher Street stalwart Li-Lac Chocolates also births chocolate effigies in the usual dark, milk, and white, with the dark preferred by medenser and grainier than the European-style luxury chocolates that dominate the New York market. A Bay Ridge institution with the tortured name of Choc-Oh!-Lot Plus sells not only chocolate Santas, but the two-part molds that allow to you to make your ownand fill them with whatever substance you choose. A Santa with a K-Y gel center? It's your call.
While the Guinness Bookdoesn't record a world's largest chocolate Santa, it notes records for the biggest candy bar (12 feet long, 1,526 pounds) and the world's largest Hershey's kiss (who cares?). The hugest I've heard about was made by DUMBO celebrity chocolatier Jacques Torres for a Christmas-season charity event in 2001, molding a life-size Santa climbing into a life-size chimney. You won't get one of these in your stocking, unless you have very big feet. You can, however, buy chocolate assortments right at the Brooklyn factory, but you have to step over the prone bodies of the folks who've just finished a cup of the thick and luxuriant hot cocoa sold in their tiny coffee shop.