PiPC5: Sideways Chocolat

PiPC5: Sideways Chocolat

It’s Valentine’s Day and that either means romance or getting wasted to forget you’re single (or just treating yourself). My friend Johnna has covered roses today. In this edition of Plants in Popular Culture (PiPC), I am covering two movies where plants are heavily featured: “Sideways” (2004) and “Chocolat” (2000) featuring two plants that feature the finer things in life: Wine and chocolate.

“Sideways” is the story of friends Miles and Jack (Paul Giamatti and Thomas Hayden Church) as they tour the California wine country (editorial comment: this is a great and hilarious movie). It is not exactly a romantic movie, even though it ends up well for Miles, who is not exactly the best guy, though arguably better than Jack. It says something that they’re both creative types (writer and actor, respectively I think). It also shows the ugly and beautiful sides of wine/alcohol: Drunk dialing an ex…that always never goes well. But then there’s this meditation of Maya’s:

“Maya: How it’s a living thing. I like to think about what was going on the year the grapes were growing; how the sun was shining; if it rained. I like to think about all the people who tended and picked the grapes. And if it’s an old wine, how many of them must be dead by now. I like how wine continues to evolve, like if I opened a bottle of wine today it would taste different than if I’d opened it on any other day, because a bottle of wine is actually alive. And it’s constantly evolving and gaining complexity. That is, until it peaks, like your ’61. And then it begins its steady, inevitable decline.

Miles Raymond: Hmm.

Maya: And it tastes so fucking good.”

“Chocolat” is the story of single mother Vianne (Juliette Binoche //editorial comment: she’s gorgeous) and daughter Anouk (Victoire Thivisol, who has an imaginary kangaroo named pontoof (sp.??)). They arrive in a small French village in 1959 for the beginning of Lent and open a chocolate shop across from the Catholic Church in the town (this town takes it’s Catholicism seriously!). It is implied that Vianne and daughter are atheists (gasp!!!!). She starts selling her chocolate to the villagers, who become a lot happier when they indulge in the pleasure of chocolate that Vianne helps them pick with a weird hypnotic wheel that people gaze into and say what they see. This somehow tells her what chocolate confection they’ll most enjoy. She also seems keen on observing behavior to divine what will be most tempting. The mayor of the town (Anothony Garcia) is deadest against the Chocolatterie and tries to shut it down. It’s basically the story of outsider coming to closed off small town and opening their minds and helping them discover who they are and what they want in life rather than blindly obeying the strictures of the church/mayor’s authority (“Hot Fuzz” is a similar kind of narrative). And yes, Vianne falls in love with Johnny Depp, a drifter who comes through town as part of a traveling gang/circus/trader convoy. Vianne also has an odd business model; where she’ll give out a free sample first, and of course everyone is enticed into buying more. In that sense, she’s like a drug dealer, corrupting the young, old and everyone in between (or at least bringing in a cultural exchange).

As I write this, I’m watching Chocolat…there’s a scene where Vianne tells her daughter the story of why she’s a chocolate peddler. Her father went on a trip to Central America (where chocolate comes from!) to study medicinal properties of plants, he falls in love with a wanderer, has a daughter, and one day, wife and daughter travel around peddling medicinal chocolate confections to the world; obviously Vianne has expanded the idea of medicine to using chocolate to heal people’s lives/solve problems.

Wine (Vitis vinifera) and chocolate (Theobroma cacao) are both plants of huge economic importance (both are multi-billion dollar industries) and in moderation are probably healthy. And both have a long history with humans, and both benefitted from the Columbian exchange; chocolate was refined in Europe with sugar and milk while wine was introduced all over the world, including to the US west coast where “Sideways” takes place. Chocolate and wine are of course both associated with romantic occasions, like Valentine’s Day…and of course both are known comfort foods if you’re single. They’re both plants that humans have developed intimate relationships with.

The Chocolate genome and the grape genome have been sequenced. A genome of each, anyhow; there are many varieties of chocolate and grapes that aren’t covered. They’re so called draft genomes, the full diversity of the species is likely yet to be discovered at the DNA level (it’s why you might need your specific DNA sequenced to have insight about what your genes say about you; the draft human genome doesn’t necessarily tell you that). Genome sequences let us know organisms a lot better…get into their jeans, er genes, that is. It’s what helps guide breeding of new and better varieties of plants (higher yield, disease resistant, drought tolerant, etc.). It also gives specific sequences of individual genes (both plants have ~30,000 genes, on par with many other complex multi-celled organisms, including us) that can be taken from the genome and put into another plant with genetic engineering methods to bring a desired trait into a plant where it doesn’t exist (as far as I know, this has not happened with either Chocolate or grapes). One example is a tool used by scientists the world over; the Green Fluorescent Protein. It’s a gene from a jellyfish.

These plants are not just in a lot of popular culture, they have a cultural heritage that goes back into antiquity. We love these plants, and have been married to them since we learned what they could do for us. Thanks to modern science, we also know a lot more about them and can hopefully continue our relationship with them long into the future (both industries face challenges of climate change, pests, diseases, etc.).

I hope you can enjoy one of the products of these plants this week by yourself, with a friend or a “more than friend”.

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Author: Ian Street

Ian is a plant scientist and science writer relating stories of plant science and scientists on his blog, The Quiet Branches as well as other outlets. You can find him on Twitter @IHStreet.

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