Permitting the pleasures of chocolate
“She wants elaichi cookies,” my grandmother declared, nodding in my direction.
“She does?” My grandfather sounded suspicious.
My eyes widened. During my childhood summer vacations in India, my relatives were eager to provide my favorite sweets, but on this particular day I’d made no cookie-related demands—and indeed had no idea what elaichi was. (It’s cardamom, by the way.)
Of course, had I known my grandmother was a borderline diabetic (or the meaning of “borderline diabetic”), I might have protested the subterfuge occurring before my very eyes.
Later that evening, when the cookies were purchased and proffered, I rejected them after one bite—the cardamom smelled and tasted far too sharp for my eight-year-old palate. When I sneaked into the pantry a few days later to give them another try, they’d mysteriously disappeared.
Looking back now, I’m glad I served as the excuse for my grandmother to obtain a treat she clearly loved but never requested for herself. With a household that rarely held fewer than twenty people, and with her health concerns, she rarely permitted herself an indulgence, even one as small as cardamom cookies.
While my life circumstances are wildly different than hers were, I do relate to her difficulty asking for sweets. In my adult life, I simply cannot imagine marching up to a dessert counter and unabashedly ordering something delectable for my own consumption.
Of course, I’m not above pilfering from my husband’s dessert plate, or using inception tactics to get him to stop by the local Italian bakery. You know, it’s been a long time since we had that amazing [fill-in-the-blank]. In short, I’m delighted to eat dessert (preferably alone and with the shades drawn), but not to ask for it. For some reason, doing so induces a bit of guilt, and, depending on the exact indulgence involved, even feels weirdly illicit.
So, when I received my Poet Laura assignment—Write an ode to chocolate—it felt like a permission slip. This was my work after all, and therefore, required research. This rationalization in connection with sweets is a specialty of mine. A few years ago, while traveling in Ecuador, I crafted a mental challenge [read: guilt-bypass] in which we had to match squares of exquisite Pacari dark chocolate to their region of origin. Is this one an Esmeraldas? Or maybe a Manabi? No? Well, I’d better try again.
You get the idea.
But, even with permission slip in hand and rationalizations in tow, I felt nervous. What if this chocolate-tasting assignment opened my none-too-secure floodgates and led me to gobble confections all day long? What if I became a person with a See’s lolly perpetually dangling from her mouth, with a purse stuffed with toffees and a freezer full of lava cakes?
And then I remembered a greeting card a friend sent me long ago and dug it out of a drawer. It pictured a cartoon woman sprawled on a couch, surrounded by chocolate in a variety of formats, unconscious from what could only be a fudge coma. It reads:
Chocolate Is My Spiritual Path
Holy Chocolate, Sacred, Divine and Succulent Chocolate
Go Ye Forth and Indulge Likewise
And You Too Will Become Enlightened.
(There’s no author listed because, well, it’s a greeting card.)
Its sheer facetiousness made it impossible to take myself and my concerns seriously. So, I “went forth,” sifted through readers’ recommendations (thank you for contributing important information to this most worthy cause), and finally made my chocolate choice.
Unfortunately, it was a false start. After perusing this particular company’s mouth-watering options for an hour and filling my online shopping cart to the hilt, I was given a single option for shipping: $50 air mail, to best preserve the integrity of their product. (Note, my chocolate order was $25.) I moved my cursor closer and closer to the submit button (it’s research—it’s research), but in the end, I couldn’t do it.
Luckily, within a few minutes, Facebook’s creepy mind-reading technology fed me an ad for Austin-based Madhu Chocolate. Their concept caught my attention immediately: hand-crafted chocolate featuring the spices of masala chai and of my favorite Indian desserts. They promised all the wonderfulness that the fusion of foods and flavors, cultures and countries, can bring.
(And here I ought to mention that, to my knowledge, I have no connection to anyone at this company.)
I particularly loved learning that the founder named the company for his mother, Madhu, whose name, appropriately enough, means “sweet.” Because of my own recent experiences, all tributes to mothers make me weepy-happy.
After my earlier ordering snafu, it seemed as though Madhu (the website, that is) rolled out the red carpet for me—the transaction took two minutes, and two days later I had four bars: Dark Masala Chai, Saffron Milk, Vanilla Fennel, and Rose Pistachio.
As I laid them out in front of me, I realized that my Poet Laura “permission slip” had wider applicability than I’d initially thought. Much more than an authorization to eat something yummy, it was an invitation to take up space and time, to simply be within my own enjoyment and pleasure, to let those moments expand, and to savor with all of my senses.
To accept that invitation, I simply took in the lovely Madhu packaging in shades of coral and sunset and lavender, with intricate patterns of flowers and branches and leaves. They reminded me of the sarees my mother once wore, always elegant and delicate and subtle.
Unwrapping the Dark Masala Chai first, I traced a finger over the floral design etched into the bar’s entire surface and then over the indentations of the Hindi letters spelling “Madhu.” I inhaled the scent of the cardamom I’d rejected as a child, but had long since grown to love. Next, I opened Rose Pistachio and gasped at the whole green nuts pressed right into the chocolate, interspersed with rich red rose petals.
After this visual feast, I enjoyed an actual feast, with its aroma of cacao and its tastes of saffron and fennel and cinnamon and all the spices I knew well.
An Ode to Chocolate
Afloat within your dark sea, I hear a melody
from the lands of eternal sunshine,
from the sprawling forests that offer
root, seed, bark, flower, with hands open.
I hold my breath as the aria begins, as cardamom
trills into your rolling waters. How bright her verses,
how true! She tells the old stories, and you add
your own murmurs through the waves.
The symphony shifts—the clove crescendos, and
then ginger follows, crooning their notes into the
harmony of mint and black pepper, and you—
you hold them all as a chorus of voices.
I join the song, and I am
In Chocolat, one of my all-time favorite movies, Juliette Binoche and Alfred Molina are at odds over the proper approach to life—personal freedom and joy, or restrictions and rules. As you might guess, the consumption of chocolate is their battleground.
In pursuit of my ode to chocolate, I felt a bit of the same turmoil within me. Even as I enthusiastically embraced my assignment, a little voice within me tried to talk me out of it. As I tasted and savored the multi-layered flavors, I felt the press of my spreadsheets and to-do lists, my self-criticisms and self-admonishments. As I asked myself Should I be eating this? I suspect I was also asking Shouldn’t I be working, exercising, producing, or doing something for someone else?
The Sanskrit word Satchitananda describes the nature of existence as a compound of truth, consciousness, and bliss. Of course, bliss refers to something deeper and more profound than sensory pleasures, but I find it wonderful that it is considered a foundational part of our existence, hard-wired within every part of creation. When Chocolat ends, Alfred Molina’s character learns that inviting, rather than denying, pleasure and play, brings a far richer and happier experience of life. Indeed, the more wholehearted that invitation, the more it leads to moderation, rather than excess.
Until I can tap that universal bliss, I’ll start with enjoying some sweetness whenever I wish: chocolate, preferably with a bit of cardamom.
I wondered how many people were like me—supposedly protecting themselves from overindulgence, but really, setting up barriers to self-kindness and pleasure and play. This Valentine’s Day, please accept this gift from me: your own permission slip to partake in something you enjoy, with total abandon. Use the slip as often as you wish, and there’s no expiration date.
If this post resonated with you, consider the following exercises:
- Do you have a favorite food? Write a poem about your experience of consuming that food, bite by bite.
- What is your own relationship with pleasure and play?
- Does it make you feel fully joyful? Write how bliss manifests within your body and mind.
- On the other hand, do you feel somewhat conflicted? Write about that struggle.