To my great surprise, I find sweetness everywhere. Its presence is familiar and delightful, like a mug of hot chocolate slurped between lips half-frozen by February’s cold. Sometimes sweetness is obvious, like a shared box of chocolates on the day before Valentine’s Day. Few things demand to be shared like chocolates. While I have no qualms about spoiling myself with treats, I find that it’s even more fun to spoil other people with treats. When See’s Candies offered me an entire pound of chocolates, in exchange for a mention on this site, I knew immediately that 1) it was an offer I could not refuse and 2) free chocolates would give me an excuse to help others celebrate the holiday of love. I have long believed that Valentine’s Day is really just an excuse to eat chocolate, romance be damned.
Perhaps it sounds cliché, but gourmet chocolates are a pretty good model when it comes to pleasure. Even when life is threatening to overwhelm us with rotten news—and these days, between economic woes, lying politicians, and a winter that refuses to make room for spring, who isn’t feeling down?—it’s possible to embrace pleasure, one bite at a time. I love that chocolates encourage us to share pleasure with others. I hummed with pleasure as I made my chocolate rounds in the lab on February 13th. My colleagues hemmed and hawed over the candy, their faces glowing with the delight of an unexpected treat. With no chocolate map to guide us, the chocolates remained mysterious and unknown until the moment of truth when a selection was finally made and a hand lifted the lucky piece to a mouth. As the chocolate yielded to teeth, tongue, warmth, and wetness, so did each person yield to pleasure, transported out of time and place for a few moments as the mystery fell away and sweetness said its familiar hello. For all the support my labmates have shown me, sharing a box of chocolates with them seems like a small, even inadequate gesture, but pleasure, much like love, isn’t measurable with numbers and fancy instruments. A small gesture is that much sweeter when it’s a surprise. Bite-sized delight can infuse our whole being with pleasure.
Since that day, sweetness has been following me around like an eager suitor. This weekend I felt submerged in the sweetness of urban life, reminded by my longtime friend Shawn Marie just how much fun it is to live in a city like Chicago. Shawn Marie, having recently moved to Toledo, Ohio for a new job, bubbled with longing for Chicago, the city she called home for four years. As we sat in The Chicago Diner, our greedy eyes devouring the menu, Shawn Marie confessed that she had dreamed about returning to the Diner. She was burning with anticipation for the dinner we would be eating in moments. That evening, surrounded by friends in one of my favorite places in Chicago, I felt a sweetness born not of sugar but of happiness and contentment.
Chicago has been my home for five and a half years now, and it is thanks to people like Shawn Marie that it actually feels like home. It is because of Shawn Marie, who is the Kevin Bacon of my life, that I know people like Ammie, and it’s through Ammie that I’ve met new friends like Anna, who plays the cello. That night, Anna had invited us to attend her recital, a practice gig for an important audition. I felt very urban and grown-up, attending a cello recital performed by a professional musician. And that musician is my friend. Like, “Hey, that woman up there who’s rocking the cello? Yeah, she’s my friend. We cook together.” I still have a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that I have real-life musician friends. I feel so cultured.
The day of the recital, long before we hit the Chicago Diner for a rowdy group dinner, Shawn Marie and I spent the afternoon running errands and eating cheese. She spoiled me with her car, taking me to exciting places like the recycling center and Target. We hit up Whole Foods for some provisions, where we found ourselves face to face with a curiously delicious cheese called Parrano Uniekaas Dutch Cheese. The staff had set out a little tasting display of this cheese, along with olives and some mixed nuts. But I only had eyes for the cheese: sweetly tangy, with the nutty saltiness of Parmesan and a nice smooth texture, it made me pause and admire its flavor while it melted away on my tongue. Shawn Marie, never one to turn down free samples, announced that the cheese was the best item on the tasting tray and decided that we needed to take some home with us. The cheese guys, bless their hearts, cut us a tiny wedge weighing in at a third of a pound, and we headed home, ready for a snack.
Shawn Marie decided that beer needed to be part of her snack, so she poured a big glass of Samuel Smith’s Imperial Stout, a dark ale. She poured a few sips into a second glass for me, we set out a loaf of pumpernickel bread and the Parrano, and then we settled into the peacefulness of late afternoon, our errands done and a fun evening with friends ahead of us.
When it comes to flavors, SM knows what she’s doing, and I'm smart enough to trust her when she’s got an idea. SM’s brilliance had us eating slice after slice of pumpernickel topped with the Parrano cheese, a combination that made each component sing with scrumptious harmony. The tangy-sweet high notes of the cheese opened up into a savory cascade of flavors, slipping and sliding over themselves. The bread provided steady bass notes to underscore the cheese’s symphony of tastes. We washed it all down with swigs of bubbly sweet ale. As recital time approached, Ammie joined us, and we plied her with cheese and freshly baked Double Walnut Banana Bread, another recipe of mine in the works. Full of food and ready for an evening of music, we piled into SM’s car and drove up to Northwestern’s campus, where Anna proceeded to sweep us away, her fingers flying up and down the cello.
As I sat in the meditation chapel, listening to the notes pouring out of Anna’s cello, I marveled at the beautiful music filling this space devoted to peace and God. The recital was lovely and unlike anything I’d ever heard before. It was composed of baroque cello pieces, with two accompanying musicians playing harpsichord and cello. Anna soared through her music, confident, concentrating, absorbed in the sound and the rhythm. I thought about how lovely it was to listen to her play, how nice it was to do nothing but listen to her play as the music soothed me into a sleepy daze. I tried to sit still. Sometimes I closed my eyes. Other times I looked around at the stained glass windows and the high wooden arches of this chapel, a place I’d walked past a million times but never set foot inside until tonight. I thought to myself, We all need days like today, days devoted to pleasure and peace and beautiful things. We need afternoons of cheese and beer, of friends stopping over and teasing each other with a comfort born of years spent together in good times and bad. We need sweetness to find us, and sometimes we need to give sweetness to others. We need cello music and friends who aspire to greatness. We need to lift each other up so that we might live among the stars. But above all, we need each other. And that might be the sweetest thing of all.
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The generous folks at See’s Candies asked me to mention that they still offer chocolate fundraiser opportunities for groups looking to raise some funds. Remember the school fundraisers of your youth? That’s exactly what we’re talking about here! See’s Candies is still selling their delectable products AND helping out communities by partnering with schools and other organizations that need some extra cash. If a chocolate fundraiser sounds like the perfect sweet incentive for your group, follow the link for more information. Thank you and have a great week, dear reader!