People Go Cuckoo for Cocoa

There were no Oompa Loompas, and the ticket that got you in was paper, not gold, but the 5th Annual Chocolate Show in New York City was as close to Willy Wonka's chocolate factory as nuts and nougat in a candy bar.

"I live chocolate," said 46-year-old New York sculptor Patricia Tallone-Orsoni who was at the show. "It's very pure. It's the authenticity of life."

Outside the trade show in Manhattan this week, chocolate lovers lined up around the corner in freezing rain. Inside, they jostled for free samples of hot chocolate, chocolate dainties and Thai massages in cocoa-based creams.

Chocolate-clad models decked out as doughnuts and other sweets tried to find a spot to watch chefs demonstrate how to make chocolate roses or chicken mole, while at the Chocolat Weiss booth, Saint-Etienne, France-based chocolate maker Philippe Bel carved a human bust out of pure chocolate.

And at the booth of Ethel M people queued up for boxes of goodies patterned after Ralph Lauren and Versace's latest designs. Elderly women scrambled for handfuls of chocolate shards while hyperactive, chocolate-smeared children dodged from booth to booth, getting their cocoa fixes then darting away in a caffeinated millisecond.

"The people at the show are real chocolate lovers," Makenzie Brookes, vice president of MarieBelle Chocolates, said in a rare quiet moment. "They know not to ask for milk chocolate."

Behind her, the New York-based chocolatier's other two vice presidents set out steaming ramekins of oil-dark hot chocolate and passed out MarieBelle bon-bons, each decorated with a different intricate silk-screen design. The crowd surged forward and lapped them up.

"If you're into our chocolates, you're into total decadence," Brookes said.

Across the aisle, a different philosophy prevailed at the Protein Bakery booth, where owner Stephen Lincoln said chocolate and physical fitness don't have to be mutually exclusive. His protein-packed cookies and brownies don't go easy on the brown stuff, but he cautioned moderation.

"It's a natural product," he said. "It's not bad for you at all. You just don't need to go totally overboard."

A harder case might be for the chocolate-covered potato chips made by Swiss-based Neuchatel Chocolates, which passersby tried at first with trepidation and then returned to with the hell-bent eagerness of addicts. A thick layer of gooey sweet milk chocolate coats a salty Herr's ridged potato chip that retains enough crunch to be noticed.

"A lot of times, they say it's 'interesting,' walk away and then come back for more," manager Melanie Coldiron said. "Most women immediately love it.

"I think women just crave bad things," she added after some thought.

Of course, chocolate's always been married to the oddest edibles. Some, like the chocolate-covered espresso bean, become classics. Others, like the chocolate-covered pickle and various insects, become challenges on TV game shows. Koppers Chocolate's Leslye Alexander, whose father invented the chocolate-covered espresso bean, hoped her chocolate-covered gummi bears would join the former group.

"A lot of it was a dare," she confessed. "And gummi bears weren't popular when we first started, but I thought it would be a fun combination. When my father put out the chocolate-covered espresso bean, it took a lot of time to convince people you could eat them. Somebody had to be first to put the peanut butter and jelly together."

The Koppers gummi bear is made in a gummi factory in Sweden and specially formulated to hold the chocolate.

"The main question people have is what color is the gummi bear they're eating under the chocolate," Alexander said.

Several informal experiments only discovered milk-chocolate brown inside their gummi candy. The truly curious might have asked the Chocolate Psychic, a Paris-based fortuneteller who reads destinies in a client's hot-chocolate dregs.

In line for a consultation, Momo Altaoui, a 42-year-old New York personal chef, didn't reveal his supernatural concerns, but declared the show the best of the three he'd attended.

"Chocolate is homey, it brings people together. My father said, if you wake up in the morning and don't smell chocolate, it is not home," he said.