A Life in Chocolate
“Chocolate is a divine, celestial drink, the sweat of the stars, the vital seed, divine nectar, the drink of the gods, panacea and universal medicine.” —Antonio Lavedán, surgeon in the Spanish army, 1796
I whip over a chair. Open a high cupboard.
Parents gone. Siblings out of sight. There are six of us: two stepbrothers, one sister, one brother, one baby half-brother. And in-the-middle me, the Chocolate Robber.
On tiptoes, I find it: the bag of chocolate chips. I dive my hand in. Grab. Close the cupboard. Replace the chair. Scurry to some corner, my room, my lair, where I eat them. Sometimes one by one. Sometimes one glorious mouthful. Then I lick the melt marks from my hand.
Or I get down the giant tin of dipping chocolate “hidden” above the oven. Scoop a spoonful. Leave gouges in the soft chocolate’s surface.
My stepmother would line up the kids and demand who, this time, had stolen the chocolate. I never confess. With so many of us, with precious little sweetness to go around—brothers fighting, sister too old for dolls, Dad at work, Stepmom busy with the baby—I have to seek it out in its hiding places. Steal it in secret snatches.
“It had been discovered in Baroque Spain, and in fact all over Europe, that the strong taste of chocolate made it an effective disguise for poisons.” —The True History of Chocolate
Door to door to door we go, till our buckets fill and our hands freeze. When we arrive home, Stepmom insists on dumping our loot on the living room floor. She inspects each piece, turning over each wrapper. I don’t know what she’s looking for. Maybe she’s not looking for anything and this is a special torture she’s invented. Cinderella’s stepmom made her clean. My stepmom makes me clean. Cinderella’s stepmom kept her from the ball. My stepmom keeps me from my candy.
Dad has tried to make peace between us. He says call her Mom, not Stepmom. But we started on bitter ground. A few days after their wedding, I asked Dad if he could find a different mom for us. I didn’t like this one. He shook his head. The next time Stepmom and I met, her eyes—cold, clear blue—struck mine like a hurricane.
Finally, finally, finally she gives the goods back to us. Mini-Snickers. Mini-Reeses. Mini-Twix. Mini-KitKats. Mini-Hershey bars. I can’t unwrap them fast enough. I eat until I can’t eat any more. I eat until I’m sick. Then it hits me: something’s wrong. It can’t be the chocolate’s fault. Snow White’s stepmom poisoned an apple. Maybe my stepmom poisoned my chocolate! All my suspicions bubble: oh, she is wicked after all.
“The friars . . . were astounded that the pagan Maya had a baptismal rite for boys and girls [.] . . . The noble who was giving the ceremony took a bone and wet it in a vessel filled with water made of ‘certain flowers and of cacao pounded and dissolved in virgin water’; . . . with this liquid he anointed the children on their foreheads, faces, and in the spaces between the fingers and toes, in complete silence.” —The True History of Chocolate
Every Easter. A sweater. Dyed eggs. And a chocolate bunny, giant, but sadly hollow. I try to make it last. Nibble its ears, its chocolate tail. Put it on a shelf in my room for safe-keeping.
One year, a few weeks after Easter, I get my period. And my older sister doesn’t have hers yet. Ten and I’m a woman! So proud, I yell out the front door for Stepmom. She hurries inside. I roll out my panties like a scroll: Ta da! One rust-red spot in the center. Oh, she says, Do you know how to use a pad? I’m not sure what I was expecting, but this isn’t it. No celebration. No roses or fireworks.
I need chocolate comfort. I plod downstairs to my room, find my bunny. But its surface is beady, mobile.
Ants. At least a hundred. I brush them off the best I can and take a huge bite. So what if it crunches a bit?
“The Infanta [María Teresa] brought with her from Madrid her own retinue of Spanish women to serve her at court, and they, like the new queen, were all chocolate drinkers. . . . The queen’s chocolate habit did not meet her husband’s approval, and so she took it in secret[.]” —The True History of Chocolate
Why don’t you stay a whole year? Stepmom says. If you’re going to study abroad, a semester isn’t enough.
How she wants to get rid of me. How I’m ready to leave, travel far. Far away to Northern Ireland and the University of Ulster for my sophomore year of college. Ireland, with its retina-burning green, hills flecked white with sheep, and lovely Wispamint bars.
Eating Wispamints, the meltaway mintiness dissolving like tongue silk, so easy and quick, I eat them daily. And daily chocolate releases endorphins so that I’m perpetually happy, despite the early dark of winter days and constant rain. I gain 15 pounds in four months, shocking my flatmates, one of whom studies nutrition. I feel her eyes on me every time a candy wrapper rustles. I take to eating them in my room, locking the door behind me.
“I observe my chocolate diet, to which I believe I owe my health. I do not use it crazily or without precaution. . . . [I]t is admirable and delicious. I have it made at home, which can do no harm. I often think that if I should see you again, I would make you take it methodically, and make you confess that there is nothing better for the health.” —Marie de Villars, wife of the French ambassador to Spain, in a letter to a friend, 1680
For Christmas break, I head south on the train, past Belfast, past Dublin, all the way to Rosslare Harbor in the southeast, where I catch a ferry to Harfleur in northern France, the place where Sabrina and her mother will meet me, a friend who studied abroad herself in Utah, my home state, and who introduced me to Nutella.
I was never a fan of peanut butter, but Nutella was a spread I could love, whether smeared on toast or crackers or cheese, or simply scooped on a spoon I’d lick like a chocolate hazelnut lollipop. Lollipops are for children, or teens, or college kids bent on pleasure.
When I arrive in Harfleur, my friend doesn’t immediately tell me I’ve ballooned because she’s too polite, but she’s also French and petite, health-conscious, so she tells me a week later: You know, you really need to be careful. This, after repeated breakfasts of pain au chocolat and a giant box of hazelnut chocolates her grandmère gives me for Christmas. I agree with her because I’m polite, too, and then I keep licking.
“. . . we are told that one day, after many hours of an ardent elevation of spirits, the Holy Girl [Santa Fanciulla], feeling herself languish, lacking breath, and weakened in body, had at her side an Angel, who presented her with a little cup of chocolate, with which she regained her vigor and her strength returned.” —Giovanni Batista Gudenfridi, in answer to an anti-chocolate tract, 1680
I’m a missionary in Quebec. I’m learning French in its thick Quebecois form. I’m learning how to protect my toes from frostbite with battery-powered socks. I’m learning to go door-to-door in subzero weather, bible bag slung over my shoulder. It’s a time of discipline. Obedience. Self-denial.
Then I discover the Wunderbar. The promise of half a bar reels me through the icy water of a day. I study moderation, allow myself maybe one per week. Sometimes my toes are gray and I have to thaw them in a lukewarm bath. That’s a chocolate day. Sometimes dogs chase us, leaving frozen drool on our dresses. That’s a chocolate day.
When our car slides off the road into a deep bank. When children follow us down the street, yelling curses in French. When I slip on ice and fall down a flight of stairs, badly bruising my hip, while above me a chorus of unmuffled laughter, it’s Wunderbar time.
“[In 1868], Richard Cadbury introduced the first ‘chocolate box,’ containing chocolate candies and decorated with a painting of his young daughter Jessica holding a kitten in her arms; he is also credited with the invention of the first Valentine’s Day candy box.” —The True History of Chocolate
I land a post-mission job at Flick’s Club, my cousin’s shop that rents out bowdlerized films. If you’ve been longing to watch Last of the Mohicans, but couldn’t because church rules forbid R-rated movies, now you can, knowing all the swears and sex and gratuitous violence have been carefully scrutinized and cut.
I stand at the checkout counter on a slow day, watching a movie. I don’t remember which movie. Perhaps it’s Last of the Mohicans, the part where Daniel Day Lewis bids farewell to his love under a crashing waterfall: Stay alive! I will find you. Maybe it’s this moment that Charles walks in, a guy from church I’d been dating, tall and dark. His eyes, I later learn, such a deep brown I almost can’t tell where his irises end and pupils begin. He gives me a chocolate box from Bluebird’s, a local confectionary, where once, on a class field trip, I watched a woman patiently hand-dip ganache in a pot of tempered chocolate, her skilled fingers drizzling a signature on each.
With the chocolate box, Charles hands me a letter, then dashes out the door. Shy boy. The letter is a love letter:
I was overjoyed when I saw you at church a few months ago. I began searching through all of the theaters within a fifty-mile radius in order to find the perfect play to watch during the perfect date with someone so elegant and beautiful.
I’ve discovered that besides being beautiful, you are also fun, smart, caring, and deeply spiritual.
I wake up each morning terrified that it may have all been a dream, but then I see your beautiful smile at school or church and breath a sigh of relief and joy.
Me? Beautiful? Hardly anyone comes in for a flick, so I read it over and over between bites of chocolate: raspberry cream, caramel, cherry cordial. When I drive home that night, I’ve memorized the letter. All the chocolates are gone.
“The form of the marriage is: the bride gives the bridegroom a small stool painted in colors, and also gives him five grains of cacao, and says to him, ‘These I give thee as a sign that I accept thee as my husband.’ And he also gives her some new skirts and another five grains of cacao, saying the same thing.” —an early Colonial report on the Chol Maya of the Chiapas forests
We’re both 24 years old and virgins. On our wedding night, our first love-making in a bed and breakfast in our hometown, our car out front decorated with Cheez Whiz and Oreos, adds to our embarrassment. We timidly explore each other’s bodies, two previously forbidden countries, our peaks, valleys, ravines.
We honeymoon in St. George, hike in Zion’s National Park, with its alien red cliffs and winding muddy rivers. We visit Las Vegas for a couple hours, determined to try the slot machines, but we leave with all our money. We try kayaking below Hoover Dam, in what our guide calls “the divorce canoe,” two paddles we must pull through water at the same time or clash. We don’t clash; we’re careful with one another. The guide leads us to a secret spot, a warm pool fed by a waterfall. He gives us some privacy, but it seems the rocks have eyes. We wait and wait for him to return.
A few weeks later, we attend a big party in Salt Lake. There’s a chocolate fountain, and a lavish table nearby loaded with strawberries, pineapple, marshmallows, pretzel sticks, fresh coconut. With toothpicks, we dip our fruit into the chocolate flow and eat.
And eat. We feed ourselves; we feed each other. We dip our fingers in and lick them—slowly—clean. Then we drive home and race to the bedroom. Even though the apartment’s tiny, we don’t make it past the parlor floor.
Utah Truffle Bar
“The great Use of Chocolate in Venery, and for Supplying the Testicles with a Balsam, or a Sap, is so ingeniously made out by one of our learned Countrymen already, that I dare not presume to add any Thing after so accomplished a Pen. . . . And Adam is commanded in Paradise to increase and multiply, therefore I hope this little Excursion is pardonable, being so adequate to this Treatise of Chocolate: which, if Rachel had known, she would not have purchased Mandrakes for Jacob.” —Dr. Henry Stubbes, 1682
Three months married, we move to New Mexico for his studies. I pick up part-time work at a church bookstore that sells Utah Truffles. Every shift, I eat one. They remind me of Wispamint bars, mouth meltaways I can’t resist. They remind me of home, Utah, 14 hours away, if only because of the chocolate bar’s name. They remind me of desire, my longing to have a baby. I am ready for babies yesterday. I want twins I will name Mary and Martha, my own M&Ms.
After a year that feels like eternity, I begin to read books on fertility. I chart my basal body temperature each morning before getting out of bed. I drink raspberry leaf tea. I insert egg white into my vagina before sex, which grows mechanical. Two lubed machines running at less than optimal efficiency. How to rewire? How to flip the crucial switch?
I grow tired of people at church, at the grocery store, at work asking if I’m pregnant. The answer is always no. I start running off extra fat so people will stop their damn asking. I run three miles. Seven miles. Ten miles. I run a half marathon. I’m thin and fit and my tummy’s telltale flat. I can eat as many Utah Truffles as I want.
Chocolate Ice Cream
“I asked . . . for a cake with icing, but I want it to be chocolate and black inside from chocolate as the devil’s ass is black from smoke. And the icing is to be the same.” —Marquis de Sade in a letter to his wife requesting she send him chocolate while he languished in prison, 1779
Another move, this time to central Texas. I’ve never felt humid heat like this. In the short walk from apartment to campus, I’m drenched, a sopping, sweaty mess. I take classes to fill my time until motherhood. Courses in literature, in Southwestern studies, reading Edward Abbey, Terry Tempest Williams, and others who remind me of Utah, the dry hot of home.
It’s too hot for sex, but we do it anyway—a chore, a duty—because I want that baby so bad my insides char and smoke and smother. We eat chocolate ice cream before sleep, a nocturnal ritual, chocolate ice cream because even with AC it’s hard to cool down, and opening the windows, even at night, swamps us. Ice cream to subdue the double inferno.
“The ‘heart flower’ tree, like the rest of the Magnolia family and genus, contains alkaloids; if the seeds and flowers of Magnolia mexicana are cooked in water and administered to a patient, they are supposed to augment the pulse and regularize the heartbeat[.]” —The True History of Chocolate
After tests and procedures and pills, we’re pregnant. We’re pregnant! I don’t even care that my doctor says no caffeine, which I translate as: no chocolate. I already don’t drink alcohol or coffee. I don’t smoke. Chocolate is and always has been my go-to indulgence, but now I’m too jubilant to notice.
Well, I notice. But I’m pumped by my blood volume doubling, our double heart beat, the bean shape of my baby on the first ultrasound as wondrous as a Milky Way enrobed in dark.
Chocolate’s a microscopic sacrifice. And anyway, after the initial flush of pleasure, my appetite grows fickle. My stomach turns traitor and repulses most food. For the first time in my life, my desire for chocolate dissipates, disappears completely. Maybe practiced in the delay of desire, now sated in one monumental way, lesser desires quench themselves.
When my baby comes, she has thick black hair, dark as her dad’s, and looks like a porcelain doll. At first, I’m almost afraid to touch. I open my hospital gown at the neck, feel her strong latch, my body and her body figuring out what to do, endorphins sparking.
“Henri Nestlé, a Swiss chemist, . . . in 1867 discovered a process to make powdered milk by evaporation; when mixed with water, this could be fed to infants and small children.” —The True History of Chocolate
I break my chocolate fast. The lactation specialist warns, what you eat will make your milk, but I’m done waiting. She’s here, she’s whole, my healthy girl, and I greenlight my greed. After nearly a year, the hospital’s chocolate pudding? Ambrosia. My eyes roll back in my head. I suck slow on chocolate kisses, letting them melt on my tongue.
I think of other new moms eating spinach or kale. Green milk? Eating curry or jalapeños. Spicy milk? Eating seaweed or shrimp. Fishy milk? I’ve heard what we taste young we learn to love, a mother’s gustatory gift.
And I wonder if my baby senses it, the rich sweet; theobromine, food of the gods. Welcome to the world, I whisper.
Chocolate y Churros
“The use of chocolate is widely distributed in the islands. In fact, the inhabitants use it so commonly . . . that these things seem to them as a clock and a measure; so that if you ask them at what time they left a place and when they arrived, they answer ‘I left at the stroke of brandy and I arrived at chocolate,’ which is to say 8 o’clock.” —Jesuit priest Jean-Baptiste Labat
The plan: sleep on the plane, so when we arrive we’ll be ready for sightseeing. What actually happens: none of us can sleep more than a few hours. At 9 am in Madrid, it feels like 1 am in our bodies. We drag ourselves, groggy, jet-lagged, yearning for our hotel beds, which we can’t fall into for another five hours. Almost numb, we check our luggage into the hotel, snag a train to the city center. There’s only one thing we all want badly enough to keep us going. Chocolate and churros.
We’ve told the girls all about this Spanish treat. When they were two and three, we left them with grandma while we spent a few weeks in Spain. Now they are seven and eight, prepped for international adventure.
The chocolate is thick and warm, we tell them. The churros are plain, but you can sprinkle powdered sugar on top, or just dip them in the chocolate. The girls, bleary-eyed, nod and smile. We get off at Plaza del Sol, wind our way past the Plaza Mayor, down to the famous chocolate shop, San Gines. I order in broken Spanish, and we find a table outside in the twisting, cobblestone alley. The alley is lined with umbrellaed tables to shade tourists from the hot July sun. Occasionally misters spray, cooling the heat refugees below. Hot and loopy from lack of sleep, we wait at the table.
When the waiter comes, he brings a cup of thick, dark chocolate for each of us and two plates piled high with warm churros. We divide the churros evenly and eat. We don’t stop to talk or comment. My girls let out little moans of pleasure that echo my own. We devour every churro, lap up every drop of chocolate. I tell my girls, Uh oh, you’re eyes are turning brown! They’re too tired to humor me with a laugh, and anyway it’s a joke they’ve heard before. Still, I’m certain this hour will prove a vacation highlight, a chocolate memory they’ll carry always on happy tongues.
Dark, Darker, Darkest
“But I haven’t yet told you about the one awful thing that tortured little Charlie, the lover of chocolate, more than anything else. . . . Charlie Bucket had to walk right past the gates of the factory. And every time he went by, he would begin to walk very, very slowly, and he would hold his nose high in the air and take long deep sniffs of the gorgeous chocolatey smell all around him.” —Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
From 60 to 70%. From 80% to 90. I keep thinking if I go darker, higher quality, I’ll be satisfied with less. One square will suffice, where before a whole bar would go down easy.
Two girls in elementary school, brown eyes flecked with grey and gold, mottled, unlike their dad’s. Part of me would love one more. It’s that old rule of threes: oldest, middle, youngest. But the tests, shots, procedures fail.
How selfish, I tell myself, with the world the way it is, with war, poverty, cruelty (those threes!), how could I want to bring another child into this mess? To the terror of death they’ll have to face? For along the way I’ve lost my faith, my husband and I abandoning the church that brought us together. With no more hope for eternal life, for a heaven hereafter, this life feels weightier, more pressing.
And my biology insists, pressing. Almost every night they come to me. A baby who morphs magically from my womb through the wall of my abdomen into my arm cradle. A baby who slips through my grasp like warm wax. A baby with chocolate eyes perched at the tippy corner of my lap about to fall and I can’t catch.
I’m trying, learning to be satisfied. To take my two, remembering what it was like to have none, and be happy, sated. We curl up on the couch and read The Secret Garden or Little House on the Prairie or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, their warm bodies pressing mine, their smells and voices and unfolding stories, my essential luxuries, my necessary ingredients.
Dayna Patterson is the Managing Editor of Bellingham Review, Poetry Editor for Exponent II Magazine, and Editor-in-Chief of Psaltery & Lyre. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in The American Journal of Poetry, Hotel Amerika, North American Review, The Fourth River, Sugar House Review, Literary Mama, Weave, and others. Her essays have been published in Exponent II Magazine and the essay collection Baring Witness: 36 Mormon Women Talk Candidly about Love, Sex, and Marriage, released by University of Illinois Press (2016).