Chocolate contains more than 300 known chemicals, and scientists have been studying how they stimulate the brain's pleasure centers. One theory is that the caffeine in chocolate mimics amphetamines; another study says the effect is similar to marijuana.Buzz or high, chocoholics got their fix - and then some - Friday night at the 23rd annual Chocolate Fantasia.
Durango-area restaurants and amateur chefs created more than 200 chocolate delicacies to view or taste around this year's theme "Tropics of Chocolate."
Organizer John Gamble, director of Volunteers of America, said more than 700 people attended the event in the Fort Lewis College Ballroom. Gamble estimated $10,000 was raised to benefit the VOA Southwest Safehouse and Durango Community Center.
Cheryl Byington, a prep cook for CJ's Diner in Bodo Park and an award-winner at the event, said she was helped by an organization like VOA in the past.
"It was fun to participate, and it feels good to be part of a worthy cause," she said.
The community also was happy to participate, judging from the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd. A tropical heat, created by so many people wedged into the space, fit the theme well. Tots played with beach balls in a plastic pool, and the walls were decorated with parrots and pastel streamers.
Karen Reyes, a Durango resident and owner of Forget-Me-Not Flowers, created floral arrangements, which were raffled off for the event.
"I like the tropical theme this year because of all the colors," she said.
Reyes came with her daughter, Sylvia, who said she was "five and three-quarters old."
"She was so excited when we were coming in," Reyes said. "She said, 'Can we eat the walls?' "
Young or old, guests often are amazed by the visual entries. This year's chocolate flights of fancy included a volcano, octopus, pirate ship and the winning visual entry - a cake shaped as a sassy yellow carrot dressed in a bikini.
The tropical scene from south City Market had many whimsical details, such as tiny trees with Coco Puff coconuts and leaves made with green fruit roll-ups.
"Creepy Crawly Critters," created by 4- and 5-year-old children at Riverhouse Children's Center, were chocolate-covered pecan halves with frosting eyes and pretzel legs. The critters were cleverly displayed on a bed of edible sugar-sand in a large glass aquarium.
Despite the artistry of the visual entries, this fundraiser isn't a gallery stroll: People love it because it's a diet-be-darned, sticky-fingered feeding frenzy.
Nature's Oasis won first place for taste for both the People's Choice Award and the professional category. The creator of the layered mousse cake was Joey Hughes, head chef, kitchen and deli manager at Nature's Oasis, who also has run Electra Lake Restaurant for 16 years.
"We went for the spin of the equator tropics, and tried to incorporate ingredients from as many countries as we could."
The "Chocolate Without Borders" cake was light in texture but rich in flavor. It had multiple layers of flavored chocolate and liqueurs from 14 different countries. All the chocolate in the cake was organic and fair-trade.
Durango resident George Hozier said his favorite entry was "Coconut Mango Rum Truffles," the first-place winner in Amateur Visual and Taste, as well as the The First National Bank of Durango amateur winner.
Hozier said it was his fifth time attending the event. When asked if he had learned to pace himself through the sweets, he laughed and said no.
Dave Cuntz of Mahogany Grille offered an imaginative silver-dollar sized delicacy. His entry was a white-chocolate and dark-chocolate shell with dark rum juice, passion fruit curd and a tiny white-chocolate and coconut truffle shaped like a pearl, which sparkled with edible silver.
"I wanted to do something different," said Cuntz. "My vision was 'treasure.' You can buy chocolate clamshells, but I painted each shell myself to make the base. Yeah, it took some time."
Durangoan Ryan Mickelson said the shell delicacy was his favorite of the night.
"I liked it because it wasn't over the top. It wasn't as rich as the others."
Coffee addicts enjoyed the "Lack of Common Sense" confections by Common Sense Café. Dark chocolate was mixed with espresso beans and crisp coconut for a rich, creamy bite.
"Ronald's Delight" by McDonald's paired a chocolate chip cookie and a huge orange slice in a cup of melted milk chocolate. The fruit combination was a welcome break from the creamy candy entries.
Pam Pastor, of Durango, is a self-described "chocolate nut" who attended the event for the first time. On leaving the venue, she appeared a little dazed.
"I'll have to admit, I've had enough. I never thought I'd say that."