For most people, National Hot Chocolate Day is just another bullshit food-themed holiday like every other day — from Julienne Fries Day to National Cheese Doodle Day — an excuse for the foodie media to publish recipes and for restaurants and retailers to run specials on the stuff.
For me, it’s a day to reflect on the most self-assuring beverage I’d ever sipped. At least, the non-alcoholic kind.
April 28, 2012: I’m sitting at the counter of a tiny kitchen in the back of Wisdom, an edgy neighborhood hangout in Southeast Washington, D.C. And, by edgy, I mean, literally, on the edge of the neighborhood, nearly the farthest point from the Capitol on Capitol Hill. And, I’m having an appropriately far-out experience.
“So, you drink it a-slowly,” I’m instructed. “It’s just hot chocolate. That’s all it is.”
I’m speaking to the proprietor’s aunt, Maria Piedad Mayorga Diez, who’s visiting from Colombia, and who, I’m told, possesses the unique psychic ability to see the future in a cup of cocoa — a sort of Swiss Miss Cleo, if you will. (Because my Spanish is far worse than her English, another family member is acting as translator.)
Much has been written about chocolate’s psychoactive effects, how the chemicals in cacao stimulate your brain in a way similar to sex and marijuana. This explains why I misspent too much of my early twenties in bed chasing bong hits with Yoo-Hoo in search of enlightenment.
Far less is written about any alleged psychic properties. Of course, I’d heard about fortune-tellers interpreting tea leaves and coffee grounds, but never chocolate. In Colombia, however, locals are known chug their chocolate caliente like Americans guzzle grande lattes. In that light, the mystical switch from spent coffee to chocolate residue makes some sense.
Chocolate reading is a tradition in Ms. Diez’s family, passed down to descendants who show an interest or intuitive talent for the practice. Both of her daughters, as I would later learn, are carrying on with this sweet-tooth shamanic legacy.
As much as I respect family traditions and enjoy tales of mysticism, I also fancy myself a skeptic, the kind of guy who quickly shuffles past the common neon "psychic" sign and wonders what nefarious business transactions are truly covering the rent. But, on this particular day, I’m feeling adventurous, and the timing just seems right, as I’m leaving my dreamy but demanding job as a food critic and heading home to confront family issues. The circumstances are far from the same, but the transition brings to mind a story my grandfather told me about visiting a palm-reader before shipping off to war. She told him he’d live to see 80; in fact, he made it to 87.
A good story, if nothing else, and there are far worse ways to drop $20.
“Drink it a-slowly, and if you wanna know something, just think about it and she’ll tell you,” I’m told.
Like any fashionably minded foodie, the first thing I want to know has to do with sourcing: Where does the chocolate come from? The answer is less exotic than expected: “Oh, we just bought it here.”
Generally speaking, the local purchase would be something to celebrate, befitting today’s trends. But, in this case, a lower carbon footprint comes at the expense of authenticity. Usually, as I would come to learn, the practice involves a specific type of Colombian chocolate that is boiled with sugar cane. Explanation for the substitution: “She was going to bring it from Colombia, but it was too much, too heavy.” Store-bought Corona-brand chocolate would have to suffice.
The steamy drink arrives in a dainty old-school china cup with matching coaster. “You just drink it,” I’m told. “And then, when you’re finished, you turn the cup upside-down.”
As I sip the sweet liquid, it grows increasingly grimy as I get down to the dregs. I suppose that’s the point. Finally, I finish enough of the stuff to flip it over and see what residual patterns emerge.
Ms. Diez inspects the grime, rotating the cup several times. After some consultation en español among the relatives, the results start rolling in.
Changing jobs: “It’s good for you.” (Health-wise, for sure: reviewing restaurants full-time certainly takes its toll on the ol’ waistline.)
Personal life: “There’s a woman who loves you very much, but she wants you close.” (Frequent spousal text messages regarding my whereabouts seem to confirm this.)
Family drama: “Somebody in your family doesn’t think she’s the perfect woman for you.” (Probably true in most families.)
Friendships: “There is a friend that you trust a lot, but be careful; he’s not truly trustworthy.” (I’ll remember this the next time one of you guys suggests “just one more drink.”)
Overall, a pretty innocuous cup of cocoa: “You have a beautiful future.”
Unsatisfied, I press vaguely for some hint at the outcome of a serious health matter facing the household. About this, the chocolate is silent. My own interpretation: no news is good news.
The fortune-teller herself seems pleased. Not every frothy cup turns out so rosy: “One day, we did it and everybody was crying.”
As I get up to leave, I have to admit I’m feeling pretty good about my future prospects. I also have a nagging urge to brush my teeth.
One thing is certain. Twenty bucks is a lot for hot chocolate.