I love a cup of steaming hot chocolate almost any day or any season, as it has been with me through thick and thin.
When I was little, I had a sweet tooth but not much sweets around my house, as food was still rationed by that time in China. My older cousin Kelli invented this drink by putting two tablespoons of cane sugar into a glass of hot water. It was hot and sweet, the closest thing to hot chocolate I ever had growing up and I treasured the moments I spent sipping it slowly to make the sweetness last as long as possible.
I first learned about "the real thing" from Larry, my university friend here in California. I was curious to see what it looked like when he tore open the bag containing the powder, and I thought it resembled a couple of tablespoons of sugar but only darker. As he stirred hot water into the mixture, I was attacked by the sweet aroma that instantly filled the kitchen. I curve my hands around the cup and held it close, able to contain neither the constantly rising steam nor the marshmallows swirling in miniature chocolate rapids. It tastes like melted sugar but is more complicated than my childhood standby. I fell in love with the drink at that first burning sip. Since then it had comforted and picked me up on many a cold and gray or down and blue days long after Larry and I had lost touch after the university days.
A few years later as a customer ambassador I went to Paris for a work assignment. It was a November day when wind had swallowed Paris and spit it out as distorted and tortured pieces. Trees bowed deeply to the invisible yet powerful force that was whipping their branches about, pedestrians dove into nearby cafes hidden behind plastic wind barriers or glass windows. I followed suit and found myself in a cafe across the Louvre ready to be fortified by a steamy cup of hot chocolate before the day's windy journeys.
I was surprised to find the drink served me to have none of the powdery sweet aroma nor swirling mini marshmallows. Rather it looked literally like a cup of melted chocolate, so thick it threatens to congeal. Besides the generous sized cup is several squares of dark chocolate, sugar cubs, a pitcher of steamed milk, and a tiny hand whisk. I took a tentative sip of the drink, it was warm but not burning. It was sweet but not overwhelming so I could taste the tangy, rich, slightly bitter signature of coco and detect a hint of spice. I could even feel the smooth softness of the milk taming and combing through everything, not so much diluting but bringing it all together.
It was so elegant and sophisticated that I could hardly recognize it. I could not decide between feeling elated at the new discovery, indignant at the transfiguration, or rural for my love of the humble American powder. Yet I suddenly remembered that old childhood drink of sugared hot water, of how it had carried me through many belly aching days, when there never was enough food to sustain my growing hunger and it the only reliable cheer and comfort, food wise.
I made two more cups of the delicious french drink out of the excess provided, enjoying it to the last drop and feeling strengthened against even the harsh howling wind outside. Foreign as it seemed, it came through for me just the same. I have since then discovered many varieties of hot chocolate drinks and welcomed them all into my life. I guess sometimes old favorites can put on new costumes or masks that surprise, confuse or test us. But humble or elegant, the unchanging familiarity of this old friend's warm sweet comfort lies just beneath any fancy disguise; and it is never just beyond my reach, for which I am so glad.