Chocolate Saves Lives
The Make-a-Wish employees who helped plan out my wish told me right from the beginning that they had never had anyone ask for this before. Most kids wanted to go to Disney World, maybe meet a celebrity, take a trip to Hawaii. For me, my wish was a no brainer. I had never been one to turn down sweets, but chocolate was in a sublime category of its own. I would watch Jacques on the Food Network most nights that I was in the hospital, mesmerized by what he could create with just chocolate and creativity. I knew I needed to meet him, taste the chocolate he made, experience what a real chocolate factory was. So indeed, that’s exactly what I did. I wished to meet Jacques Torres, master chocolatier, and make chocolate with him all day long. It was the best day of my life.
“Mama!” I called from the bottom of the stairs, waiting again for her response after my third yell. I had already washed my hands, eager to snag a few chocolate chips from the shiny golden bag, laying open on the counter. I waited patiently in the kitchen, sniffing the fragrance of the translucent brown bottle that held our precious vanilla. It had become a ritual, inhaling the sweet scent before making our hot fudge. Just taking it out of the cabinet signaled it was time to make another batch and for me to throw on my apron. After a few minutes though, I couldn’t wait any longer for mom to get downstairs.
“I’m coming, “I’m coming,” she laughed, finally emerging like a beacon at the top of the stairs, ready to start the official process of melting and whisking, while I mostly was excited for the licking of the tasting spoon.
My mother used to refer to me as her sous chef, even though I could barely see the flames that lit our stove. I knew it was time to cook when she would hand me my red apron, stained with anonymous goo and schmutz from previous kitchen adventures, and grab the step stool from our dining room where it was stowed for most of the day. While baking was often the easiest way to get me involved, my mother let me help with whatever she was making if I felt up to it. Even if all I could do was pick the bitter leaves of parsley off of their sprig, she would find a small bowl for me to drop my plucked leaves into and set me up at the counter.
Christmas time was my favorite part of the year, ironic considering my entire family is Jewish. And while we spent eight nights in December celebrating Hanukkah and making latkes, we still participated in holiday gift-giving. The holidays became associated with one thing and one thing only in my mind: our hot fudge.
As I watched the beautiful pale-yellow melt slowly into the pot, my mother measured out the cream in a Pyrex dish and pulled down a few glass mason jars from the top shelf. Seeing butter melt is a moment of pure bliss, where its change of state is so visually pleasing and smelled so delicious that I find my mouth watering with no effort at all. I poked the shrinking butter stick with my whisk, making sure the heat was evenly touching every part of the butter’s surface. When I looked over at my mother, her smile suggested that I was doing everything right. I shyly smiled back.
“Let’s add our sugar in now and keep whisking,” she told me as I stepped back to let her pour the measuring cup over the pot, mesmerized by the cascade of sparkly crystals. I stirred with all of my might until my muscles ached, before passing the stainless-steel whisk to my mom to take over. The butter and sugar melded together gently, and before long it was time for the chocolate chips and cream. This was always my favorite part, the part where the deeply intoxicating aroma would start wafting through our open kitchen, lingering in the air for hours after the kitchen had been cleaned. My chubby toddler fingers reached out to feel the sensation of the falling chocolate as mom dumped the bag in, almost as if each single chip had magical powers and I needed to touch every one. The pot’s contents began to bubble hypnotically, making little popping and gurgling sounds as the chocolate oozed into the mixture. The sauce was almost complete; only a small drop of that fragrant vanilla was left to finish off the recipe, but my impatience was no match for an extra thirty seconds left on the stove. I grabbed my spoon and held it towards mom, unable to wait any longer to get a lick.
“Wait one more minute,” she said as she poured a perfect teaspoon of vanilla into the fudge before whisking it one more time and adding a few flecks of sea salt. My eyes widened with anticipation as she finally lifted the spoon from my grasp and soaked it in the sea of chocolate. She handed me back the spoon and I brought it to my tongue with precision, the kind of precision only “real chefs” are capable of. As soon as the warm gooeyness hit my tastebuds, I couldn’t help but grin. It was always astonishingly tasty, but this time felt different. In my head, my contributions were integral to the hot fudge making process on that day and I was in awe that I had helped create something so rich and delectable. I tasted my pride in each bite.
I often remember parts of my childhood in terms of the food I was eating or at least dreaming about eating. I became a cancer patient at the age of three, where a majority of my days were spent in the hospital or at home, with little appetite and little energy. My diagnosis, Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, called for multiple rounds of chemotherapy, trial drugs and time away from school, all of which made my tiny body feel alien to me. It was hard to feel normal hooked up to beeping machines and IV’s and I resented the fact that while most of the kids my age were playing on the teeter totter at recess– my favorite on the playground– I was stuck with a hairless head, a laundry list of meds to take each day and a shot every Friday.
Despite not feeling hungry on most days during treatment, some of my favorite pastimes were watching cooking shows for hours and drawing pictures of the good things I longed to cook and eat. One of the games I liked to play best while sitting in the waiting room between appointments was “the grocery aisle game.” Though self-explanatory, it was the name I coined to describe the process of drawing the aisles in a grocery store on a piece of blank paper and then adding different foods to each aisle. A messy pile of green grapes, drawn in crayon, would accompany bright yellow bananas and navy blueberries in the “fruit” aisle while a misshapen carton of milk would find a home with scribbled orange cheese slices in the “dairy” aisle. The normalcy of drawing these common foods and pretending I was roaming around the aisles of a grocery store calmed my desire to escape the fluorescent lights in the waiting room.
And on particularly gloomy days, even just hearing the upbeat theme song to the Barefoot Contessa on the hospital’s small TV could lift my spirits, transporting me to a world where I could host the most fabulous dinner party with the most beautiful flowers and delicious pot roast and gorgeous cake. I could wear a floral dress and heels and welcome all of my guests with homemade cocktails.
Food occupied my mind at every moment. When the day came that I was allowed to come home and spend some time outside the confines of the sterile hospital and its linoleum floors, I jumped at the chance to be in the kitchen with my mom. The smell of roasted carrots and potatoes seemed to fill my house when I walked in the door after a hospital visit, a scent that still lingers in my nose to this day. Even if I just sat perched on the wood counter, too tired to move, the view of my mother artfully creating a meal out of anything, was enough comfort. Watching her stand over the stove, stirring a steaming pot of spaghetti or browning meat, felt safe. I was in my house again, but the kitchen was home.
With about as little warning as when I had been diagnosed, suddenly I was in remission and free to do the things I had longed to do during treatment. In the years after going into remission, though I was grateful to get back to regular life, I felt like I was playing catch up. I joined every sport, took singing lessons, acted in school plays and tried to make as many friends as I possibly could, in what I now realize was an effort to make up for all of the time I had lost stuck in a hospital bed. Being sick for so long had made me miss out and lose time, but it had also convinced me that there was only one part to myself, the sick kid. Cancer had become such a part of my identity that I had no idea how to be anyone else. It felt like a secret I needed to hide, something that made me abnormal and weird and I hated it. Instead of feeling proud of how much I had overcome in just a few short years, I felt a constant need to forget and avoid. I just wanted to be the same as my friends, not the cancer girl. So, I did things that made me feel like I could fit in, out of desperation for normalcy. But nothing made me feel whole in the same way as interacting with food did.
After a decade or so of making our hot fudge for holiday gifts, my mom and I decided to take a leap, sell the sauce and call it “Hannah’s Homemade Hot Fudge.” The proceeds all went to the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, where I had been treated, and for the first time, I felt like I had found a purpose. The decision to sell the sauce and the days we spent after, hunched over the stove whisking away, brought me right back to my happy place, a place I had always felt comfortable in, where there was no catching up to do, only tasting. Yet, the calming energy of hot fudge making also instilled a new feeling, a feeling of resiliency that I hadn’t realized before. Suddenly, cooking our sauce, watching chocolate chips fall into a pot in a hypnotizing cascade, whisking rich white cream into a thick mass of chocolate and butter and sugar, all felt like the culmination of how far I had come. Making hot fudge when I was sick had never been about just the sauce, it was proof that I could still do things, still enjoy life and sweets and being with my family despite the disease that was destroying my body. Making hot fudge pushed the fight I needed as a cancer patient, to keep my spirits up and remember that being sick was not the only part of my identity. The lingering smell of sweetness, of fat, of chocolate in the air was a direct reminder that I was healthy and that I had fought to become healthy. “Hannah’s Homemade Hot Fudge” became my badge of honor, my scar to help me recall the remarkable hardship I overcame as a child. And every time someone else poured a spoonful on a scoop of vanilla ice cream, it was like they were realizing this part of me too, somehow seeing me at both my most vulnerable and most strong. I could share my entire story through one little jar and without any words at all.
While we hit pause on our company as I entered high school and then college, the recipe for the sauce remained the same, always ready whenever I was. Recently, I channeled my four-year-old spirit and decided to surprise my best friend after she took the LSAT exam with a batch of Hannah’s Homemade. Having moved back to college for my final year in the midst of a global pandemic, I woke up at the first light most mornings, feeling unsettled and overwhelmed with how uncertain everything in my life seemed to be. Cooking at all was a great distraction, but it hadn’t eased my mind as much as I had hoped, making me feel lost in a way I hadn’t since finishing treatment. I had struggled then, trying to find something to remind me of who I was outside of cancer and I felt myself doubting who I was within all of the uncertainty of the world. In my new kitchen in Maine, I grabbed a pot from the disorganized mish-mosh of cookware on the shelf, placed it on the stove and took a minute to survey my unfamiliar surroundings. There was no mom, no step stool, no dirty red apron or wood counter to sit on. It had been almost a year since I had made the recipe and I feared the magic wouldn’t feel the same without being at home in my own kitchen, surrounded by all of my happiest memories.
Nonetheless, I turned on the stove and got to work. The sizzle of the cold butter hitting the warming metal immediately jolted something in me awake, prompting a muscle memory I didn’t know I had retained. With each passing second that feeling the familiar excitement continued coming back and I let it wash over me with relief. As I went to measure out the sugar, cream and chocolate chips, I began to remember just how good it felt to be making something so deeply ingrained in my body. Measurements felt unnecessary; my hands knew what they were doing, and I let myself continue adding the ingredients, elated at the start of my favorite smell in the world. Clenching the random tiny whisk that I had found in one of our drawers, I watched the pot and stirred as the familiar motion took over. I was on autopilot, just letting my brain tell my body to make the moves it needed to, no permission necessary.
When the time came for the chocolate to make its way into the pot, I reached out my hand, enjoying the familiar sensation of falling chips as they splish-splashed into the melted butter and sugar mixture. I stood over the heat and continued to stir, nearly looking to the side to see if my mother was nodding to me in approval. Stirring and stirring, I breathed deeply to inhale the notes of cocoa and sugar and butter that I hadn’t smelled in so long. I stared down at the glossy chocolate sauce and just let myself be. No thoughts of the pandemic, of schoolwork I needed to do, problems with friends, just a quiet moment over a pot of chocolate.
With each passing moment and the scent of chocolate wafting through my nostrils, my bones felt looser and longer, my mind clearer; a therapy session I didn’t know I needed. Finally, while I added in the vanilla and salt, I realized how much I had missed chocolate. Not because I hadn’t been eating chocolate at all, but because I hadn’t truly been tasting it, at least not the way it tasted when I eventually took a bite of my finished hot fudge. It tasted like my prideful four-year-old grin, bringing me right back to the days of being my mother’s sous chef. It tasted like every good day during treatment, where just one bite of sauce could transform my mood, all folded into rich notes of cocoa, vanilla extract and the perfect pinch of sea salt. I could see my bald head, puffy cheeks, chocolate on my face, but none of it mattered because the smell only reminded me of happy times. Even on my sickest days, this hot fudge sauce gave me life. This taste was implanted in every part of me, I had just forgotten to look for it. It was a necessary reminder, especially during such a time of uneasiness, that taking a moment to slow down and really savor could make all the difference. It was as if standing over that stove again allowed me to channel all of the feelings my younger self relied on during treatment to get through the hardest days. I relied on chocolate then and I could still rely on it now. Finally, a fifteen-minute activity brought me all the calm and joy I needed.
I went back to the clinic where I was originally treated for my annual checkup around my thirteenth birthday, and I brought a check. Every dollar from every jar of Hannah’s Homemade Hot Fudge went directly back to the people who had saved my life and brought joy into it, even at my lowest. The money wasn’t much, maybe a few hundred dollars, but I didn’t care. There was something so fulfilling in handing over that check and knowing I had made an impact, even if it was a tiny one. I got to tell my story through my fudge, share it over and over again, and give that money back to the place where I grew up. At the time, I didn’t realize why it felt so good. Now I know it’s because I finally felt pride. I finally owned my history and owned the part of myself that I had always been quick to hide away. I gave away the check and finally my sickness wasn’t a weakness anymore, it had led me to do something valuable. I had gotten to cook and raise money for something I believed in, and I had gotten to own my identity; cancer and all. Eating chocolate along the way didn’t hurt either. Nothing could be better than that.