Monday, September 10, 2012

Hot Cocoa and Conversation with Friends

It is hot cocoa season 2012, and after a long respite, Valerie's Vignettes is waxing nostalgic about, what else? Hot Chocolate! This time 'round, the conversation is expanded to include a little help from my friends, The Cocoa Chronicles' guest contributors.  
Anthony Rainone is an established writer of mystery and other genres of fiction.  His vignette is a memoir of sorts, a nod to his youth, his mom and of course, hot cocoa.


A Cocoa Chronicle Vignette -- by Anthony Rainone

One of my earliest memories of hot cocoa is a happy consequence.  In the winter, my mother would make me and my siblings hot cocoa by shaving bittersweet chocolate into heated milk and then adding sugar to taste.  On the day of my sixth birthday – a cold January afternoon, my older sister met me at the school bus stop to walk me home.  She told me that a package had come in the mail for me. While a birthday card from a relative wouldn’t be surprising, a package was downright intriguing.  Who sent me something?  Our house was only two blocks from the bus stop, but the anticipation made it seem like miles!  I raced into the kitchen and there on the table was a brown paper wrapped box.  I tore through the wrappings and discovered inside a big red boat with white sails.  Man, it was a thing of beauty.  Unbeknown to me, my mother had noticed an offer on the chocolate label for a red boat.  My mother sent in the label.  Fate added its own peculiar twist to deliver that boat on a special day.  Maybe best of all: in the hold was a packet of cocoa!  The boat is long gone and so is my mother.  But that memory will stay with me forever, especially on those winter days when I have a cup of hot cocoa.

-- Anthony Rainone is a novelist and screenwriter.


Anne Shisler Hughes is a freelance writer and cultural journalist, covering art, design and history as well as food for Edible Queens,, and Fruit of the Forest. 

"Le Chocolat Chaud," a Cocoa Chronicle Vignette -- by Anne Shisler Hughes 

What do Americans call breakfast?  It’d be great if each of us could muster up something involving protein, even better if that plate could be served hot.  Or if we could attain a humble bowl involving truly untouched whole grains, wholesome dairy, or a piece of fruit.  But I’m willing to bet that most of our country – both for the sake of the limited early-morning palate and for that of the early-morning rush – go with a combination of bread and sweets. 

While those enormous boxes of cereal with their dusty stream of sugary bites is perhaps okay for filling the insatiable bellies of teenage boys, none of the rest of us can really pull it off.  But hear this, America, for all of our excess and highly-processed habits:  the French have no business scoffing at us – their petit déjeuner is simply one big chocolate fix, with pains au chocolat and endless chocolate spreads and especially, especially, chocolat chaud, the precious morning bowl of hot chocolate. 

So eager are they to consume this stewy delectable that they can’t even be bothered with handles on cups.  The sweet stuff is served in not-terribly-small bowls that are gingerly lifted with both sets of fingers and sipped accordingly. 

I’ll give the French this – there is a proper way to prepare chocolat chaud.  Start by heating milk in a saucepan, add in small pieces of bittersweet chocolate, stirring as they melt, let boil for a few minutes and, if desired, add a little light brown sugar.  It’s rich and creamy and is the perfect anecdote for day-old, crumbly baguette. 

The French are busy, too, and they occasionally purchase readymade varieties. Nearly all of the great chocolate shops make and sell their own specialties of the house in cans: Maxim’s, Angelina’s, Chapon, MarieBelle, and Pierre Herme.  There are also many brands available in grocery stores such as Poulain Grand Arome, Monbana, Le Gamin et le Chocolat, and many others.  Demand for a morning treat as beloved as this must be met from as many different angles as possible.  

If you make your own chocolat chaud from scratch or purchase it to prepare on the fly, don’t be afraid to dive right in - sip at it, soak pieces of bread in it, waft in the aroma.  The French do it.

-- Read more of Anne Shisler Hughes' musings at her blog:    


Gerry Wendel lives in Southern California, and is the Founder/Owner of 2 businesses, ModlandUSA (a marketing consultancy) and Groovy Reflections (specializing in one-of-a-kind hand tie-dyed t-shirts). Her writing ranges from nostalgic and pop culture pieces to tips on social media, market research, and branding.

"Hot Chocolate on Ice," a Cocoa Chronicle Vignette -- by Gerry Wendel

How lucky was I as a kid to have my very own, almost private, ice skating rink?

An asphalt basketball court that saw little use was located right behind the town firehouse. During the cold New Jersey winters, the firemen, including my Uncle, would take turns squirting a fresh coat of water on the existing ice. The newly smoothed surface was ready for another evening of skating!

Several nights a week I’d make that eight minute walk to the rink, thermos in hand and skates dangling from my shoulder using the laces as purse straps.

Sometimes a friend or two would be there. It didn’t matter. I was there to skate! Upon arrival, if it wasn’t already on, I’d flip the switch that would flood the court in fluorescent light; you didn’t think I was skating in the dark, did you? Seated on the bench, I’d shed the fur lined rubber boots and switch to skates, removing the plastic blade protectors moments before hitting the ice. My thermos stood proudly on the bench, keeping that all important hot chocolate ready to warm me with piping hot liquid.

No instant hot cocoa here! Warmed milk over the stove, a few tablespoons of Nestlé’s Quick, and lots of stirring with a wooden spoon created that delicious elixir.

Time to skate! For some odd reason I enjoy skating backwards most of all. I was able to fly backwards at lightning speed. For what purpose? Who knows? Guess it was a challenge.

Break time! A little hot chocolate; sometimes shared with friends.

Back to the ice. Go home? Fuggetaboutit!

Sometimes my dad would come and pick me up.

Good night, skating rink! Until tomorrow…

Oops. Wait dad! Go back! I need to turn off the light.

-- Visit Gerry Wendel's blogs: and


Leslie Fields-Cruz is a storyteller whose preferred media are stage, film, and television, particularily public television. 

"TV Time and Hot Cocoa," A Cocoa Chronicle Vignette -- by Leslie Fields-Cruz

When I was a little girl I remember winter evenings in California, sitting on the couch with my siblings drinking a cup of hot cocoa and watching TV. For a kid who loved chocolate as much as she loved watching television, TV time and Hot Cocoa was truly a treat.  
But the activity of watching TV has changed so much since then. My parents placed several restrictions on our viewing time (no TV until homework and chores were complete, or, no TV programs with strong sexual innuendos like SOAP or Love American Style), and we only had about five or six channels to choose from back then, appointment-viewing TV was one of my favorite things to do.  Nowadays, with the ability to watch programs on any and every device invented since the turn of the century, I wonder if there’s something that we’re missing from the very act of appointment viewing.
Perhaps I miss the way in which appointment viewing taught siblings how to get along. Many of my big brother and my verbal fights were around who controlled the TV dial.
“I sat down first!” I'd say.  “So!" He'd counter, "you already watched your program, now it’s my turn.”
Other times, he'd bark, “I said MOVE! I can’t see!" Or even: "I’m still WATCHING that!"
Which always drew the inevitible response: "I’m telling, MOM!”
Although we had different tastes, I learned to appreciate science fiction (Star Trek, Twilight), and superhero cartoons (Justice League), as much as he learned to appreciate old movies (Casablanca), musicals (Singing in the Rain), and insipidly stupid sit-coms (The Brady Bunch).
We agreed on another thing, too: we both liked hot cocoa. Nowadays, there are few disagreements my brother and I can’t resolve. More, I still enjoy appointment TV-viewing whether it is done on a Saturday morning via laptop, while on a train rushing towards the city with a smartphone, or curled up in an easy chair with an IPAD. 
But most of all, now married with children of my own, I still like my cup of hot cocoa sitting on the couch with my family, watching TV on a cold winter’s night.

-- Leslie Fields-Cruz is Vice President of  Operations & Programs for National Black Programing Consortiam in New York. Check out some of her favorite tales on, "AfroPoP: The Ultimate Cultural Exchange" streaming at, or the WORLD Channel, at -- hot cocoa and couch, sold separately.   


Friday, March 30, 2012

A Hot Cocoa for All Seasons

A Cocoa Chronicle Vignette by Valerie Williams-Sanchez

Rich, dark chocolate color poured over my fingertips like fondue, with a creaminess that made my mouth water for hot chocolate. Shiny and smooth, the polish was a glossy coating over the blackened nail beds of my fingers and toes, an elegant remedy, hiding chemicals still visibly in my body. It was the first mani-pedi I had had since completing the second phase of my cancer treatment. The chocolaty brown liquid was part of my chemotherapy camouflage.
Much had happened since I’d last been to the salon. Namely, I had endured eight treatments of intravenous injection of an adjuvant treatment cocktail over alternating Mondays. This represented some 24 hours spent seated, gazing out onto the Hudson River from a reclining chair at a cancer center while tumor killing drugs were pumped into and through my body. 
It was the dead of winter, but snow had not fallen. The trees and ground were bare, cloaked in a ubiquitous grayness that shaded the landscape, smudging views outside the broad picture window where I sat. A record breaking mild winter in New York, the weather was unseasonably warm outdoors. Inside, I was weathering one of the harshest winters of my life: my battle with breast cancer was storming.
These days, darkness shaded my ashen face and collected like murky puddles under my eyes. My face and body were bloated and hairless. Form-fitting and explicit frocks gave way to draping ensembles that only suggested the curves of my engorged frame. A wig, with a hard, full bang, stood in for my own hair and areas of my face where arched brows and mascara-swept lashes once reigned. My crowning glory had fallen away like as many clumps of cotton candy pulled from a stick. I had removed slack hair painlessly over two days, during my return commute home. It was two weeks into treatment. My skin was sandpaper dry. My joints ached and limbs were painful, with shooting starbursts of sharp pain, conditions that couldn’t be masqueraded beneath make-up, or covered up with prosthetics.

Well-intending friends tried to bolster my spirits lying, speaking niceties like: “How are you doing, Val? You look great!” In fact, I looked anything but great. I was sick and it showed. On my inevitable “bad days” that followed treatment, my feet were numb, and joints made tender by drugs, so I walked gingerly, pausing between paces to be sure my legs were steady under me before each new step. Tennis shoes and flats replaced my stiletto heels. I moved ghost-like, cloaked in a chemo-induced fog, through and around my office, now returned to work on my regular schedule despite my treatments. Medications made my stomach alternately numb or vaguely nauseous.  Treatment had thrown my system into “defense mode,” and so my appetite, when I did try to eat, was, at once, fierce. The cumulative effects of chemo made me feel increasingly and alternately ugly, naked and deformed. This is why returning to the cheerful little nail shop to see the familiar rainbow palette of nail paints lined-up on clean, shelved walls was comforting.

The wafting aroma of vanilla and fresh cake, the commodity of the neighboring storefront, filled the salon. The sights and smells were a cathartic, sensory respite from the more sterile hospital environments in which I was spending so much of my time. I breathed the sweet scents in deeply, taking in the calm of the place and relaxing deeper into the undulating movement of a massage chair. My feet bottoms, spotted black and brazed by medicinal cures, dangled weightless and soaking in turquoise blue water. I breathed out.
My body was only now beginning to mend from the assault of chemical therapies that had been steadily introduced into my bloodstream over the past two months. Moving on to more localized, noninvasive radiation therapy, my insides, physical and mental, were finally beginning to relax, and to heal.
There, on that day wearing my wig and weighing a good 15 pounds more than on my last visit, I felt the care of the manicurist to be less like a vain indulgence, and more like some form of occupational therapy. Being pampered, rather than being poked, pricked and prodded, was more necessary than ever.
My return to the shop had been a while in the doing. The neuropathy I had experienced during chemo made me think twice before allowing any clipper or pumice wielding beauty operator anywhere near my still numb extremities. The lack of feeling would make me susceptible to cuts, scratches or other injuries, typically warded off by the sense of touch.   
“Uh, please don’t cut my cuticle,” I said firmly on this day. “Just push them back. And don’t cut, just file my nails, please, on that hand,” I said nodding toward my left hand. The woman doing my nails nodded in tacit compliance, dropping the metal clippers and taking up an emery board instead.
Now, following the lymph node dissection I had endured prior to chemotherapy, the threat of lymphedema – a clinical term for swelling of the limbs cause by blockage in the lymphatic system -- made cutting my cuticles a risk I’d been advised never again, in my life, to take. Yeah, things were different, inside my body and out.
Sitting in the salon chair, wearing my wig with feet dangling in the warm whirlpool, I relaxed further into awareness of the conspicuousness of my still imperfect form. My breast reconstruction was still incomplete. Instead, I bore a soft tissue expander at my left, which now fully expanded with saline, created weird, almost cubist asymmetry to my physique.  On one side I had a rounded, ballooned and raised breast mound paired alongside my natural, softened and curved breast. My frame appeared adolescent on the left, middle-aged on the right.
In like fashion, the expansion process had left me with feelings something akin to the pubescent awkwardness and embarrassment of my changing form that I had felt in my youth. Following each session, I left with an ever more slightly filled-out left-breast mound and heightened self-consciousness over my changing appearance.
Day after day, I watched my body change and evolve. Each day, there was a bit less swelling, a sprig or two more hair and a bit less numbness at my fingertips and arches. As my body transformed, it was as if I was growing up again, reliving my transformation from a pudgy, awkward teenager into a woman.
But, I was healing, moving through a process that had given me cause to question everything: how I define myself, my values, my sexuality, my raison d'être, and even the meaning of life itself.  

A collegiate-level athlete in my youth, and still very physically active, I wondered if the illness would change all of that? Would my body be destroyed by chemo? Would I be sickly and weak forever?  Would I still feel womanly after all of the ordeal? Would anyone want me when all of this was through? Why should a few changes to my appearance make me feel so different about myself? Was I being shallow and superficial?   Would any of this treatment even be worth it? I mean, what was the point? Was fighting what seemed to be the inevitable, futile?
Such questions had been answered with the joy of talking with my daughter about her life--landing her first job at a pizzeria and getting her first paycheck; feeling the kisses and loving embrace of my ever-supportive boyfriend, Edwin; engaging in powerful and empowering conversations with other women, like Darla, Diane, Glenda, Linda and Naddy who were going or had also gone through the same experience of chemo and radiation; and, hearing the supportive nods of friends, co-workers and even total strangers who spontaneously shared their experiences, giving encouragement, love and knowledge freely. Even receiving feedback from my candid and open writing, all of these things were the answers I needed, affirmations acted out in bold relief and played out, loud and clear, in my life since my diagnosis. 
In hindsight, many aspects of my pre-diagnosis life had turned to drudgery, activities and tasks had blurred into tedium with which I had become disenchanted. Breast Cancer was my wake-up call to take nothing, not a breath, a smile, a passing chat with a stranger, even the presence of an eyelash, for granted. Even a hang-nail had assumed new urgency and importance.
Everything around me seemed new and different. I looked out the salon window to see cascades of cherry blossoms, forsythia explosions, pink-toned bursts of crocus and hyacinth, and hosta shoots thrusting from the ground. All signaled spring and another day in my renewal. Moved from the massage chair, removing hands and feet from under dryers, I was pleased with my nails’ mani-pedicured shine. They looked beautiful and healthy. A new season in my life has begun.

© 2012 Valerie Williams-Sanchez. All rights reserved.