Kaylen Baker—one of our café baristas—takes a look at hot chocolate through the eyes of one of history’s original gastronomes, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin.
It’s hard to forget your first hot chocolate. I sipped mine inside Angelina’s, off the rue de Rivoli in Paris, where Marcel Proust allegedly dined. I’m talking about the thick stuff, not the scalding, sandy-textured, cocoa-water of the collective American youth (though that’s just as hard to forget; the smell of chlorine and campfire comes to my mind). I still remember steam coming from my cup, the bowl of whipped cream, and a blanketing sensation as molten chocolate rolled across my tongue and hit my taste receptors, flooding my brain with sweet signals. The moment felt holy.
Since then, I’ve spent five years hunting down and devouring this beverage in all its variations: sipping chocolate, chocolat chaud à l’ancienne, European drinking chocolate, even “l’africain” (a perplexing nod to colonial imperialism). Its modes are endless: slurped from bowls, chewed with cinnamon-sugar churros, flavored with strawberries, deconstructed with a meltable chocolate spoon. Dripping, thick-skinned, coagulated, and cooling, hot chocolate takes so many forms. But there’s one version that continues to evade me, and my search—like Proust’s—is futile, because I’m looking for a hot chocolate from a lost time. Let me explain.
In 1825 a Frenchman named Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin published a book about food. Or rather, a book about survival and the human spirit, using food as both the key and the keyhole (we’ll assume that the door opens a forbidden pantry) to a happy life. He called it The Physiology of Taste, or Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy, and he called himself the Professor (he was not). If you haven’t heard of Brillat-Savarin, you’ve at least heard his famous phrase, “Tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you what you are.”
A country lawyer, amateur violinist, and suppertime storyteller, Brillat-Savarin lived long enough to witness 71 years of drastic change in France: the birth of fine-dining, the invention of the guillotine, bread riots, bloody riots, the death of the monarchy, rolling heads, and the rise of haute cuisine. Amidst all this, Brillat-Savarin jotted down alimentary observations. He made talking about lunch trendy long before we started to Instagram our plates.
But what does he have to do with hot chocolate? Well, by this time, the drink had already leaked across the continent, carried over the mountains by monks and a princess, one Anne of Austria. It caught like the bubonic plague, but this time people praised God. In fact, in 1753 Swedish botanist Karl von Linné dubbed the tree cacao theobroma*—“food of the gods.”
According to Brillat, the Italians drank it bitter, while New World señoras drank it during mass, under the chagrined eye of their bishop. King Louis XVI drank chocolate made by the pharmacist M. Debauve of rue des Saintes-Pères, 25. (His shop still stands. I ate a truffle as I left, it was pralinée.)
Brillat-Savarin drank chocolate for breakfast, claiming it had two main functions: to aid in happy bowel movements, and regulate feminine beauty. This prescription may sound absurd to us, with our indoor plumbing, fiber supplements, and vast array of grocery-aisle lipsticks. Yet in Brillat’s day, when gout and gallstones could take your life if the Jacobins didn’t, the speed of your bowels indicated not only your physical health but a spiritual one. Digestion, said Brillat, “makes us habitually sad or gay, taciturn or talkative, morose or melancholy, without our even questioning it, and especially without our being able to deny it.”
In order to maintain a healthy weight and fight off disease, he recommended breakfasting with “a little meat pie, a cutlet, or a skewered kidney” (yum), then washing it down with “a bowl of Soconusco chocolate.” His version of hot chocolate began by dissolving chocolate, sugar and cinnamon in hot water, then boiling the mixture for 15 minutes, “so that the solution takes on a certain thickness,” and finally leaving it in a porcelain coffee pot overnight to develop a velvet texture. For special ailments he advised add-ins: salep for the gaunt, almond milk for the irritable, orange flower water for the nervous, and amber for the unhappy.
“Because of my scientific enthusiasm and the sheer force of my eloquence,” Brillat-Savarin wrote, “I have persuaded a number of ladies to try this, and although they were convinced it would kill them; they have always found themselves in fine shape indeed, and have not forgotten to give the Professor his rightful due.”
Which brings me to—ah, yes. The ladies. Nothing made Brillat-Savarin happier than sitting across the dinner table from a beautiful woman, engaging in “coquetry.” Though he never married, Brillat fell in love once, but the girl, Louise, wasted away from a poisonous diet. After drinking down a glass of vinegar each morning, she turned skeletal, and died at 18. Thus haunted, Brillat took on the role of beauty consultant, administering hot chocolate to the wives of friends and neighbors.
If we are what we eat, then these were people of exotic hopes, relying on sensual and sensory remedies as an answer to their bodily crises. They were health-crazed monks, monarchs and mademoiselles, peering into murky mugs for balance and beauty. They knew life was short, and drank dessert first.
Today, we still take chocolate hot. I serve about 75 European drinking chocolates on a busy day in our café, and I wonder what Brillat-Savarin would think, were he to walk in and order one. We’ve simplified ours by eliminating cinnamon and vanilla to let the flavor of the Camino Verde bean shine through, and use milk instead of water. I imagine the silky-soft, dense consistency of our European remains true to Brillat’s recipe, but this is based purely on gut instinct, and my own affinity for the man.
You see, Brillat-Savarin didn’t include any measurements. He only referenced a “cup,” which could have been an exact volume in 19th century France, or simply a drinking utensil. Furthermore, by omitting quantities for sugar, cinnamon or vanilla, his recipe remains vague and unreliable. I’ve attempted to make his drink at home several times, all with different results. So I shrug, and slug, and will continue to wonder. What I do know is Brillat had a penchant for pure, quality flavors, and from that alone I feel sure he’d deem our European très bon. In fact, judging by the size of his paunch, I expect he’d order a double.
Though Brillat-Savarin would have wandered into Dandelion at breakfast time, we San Franciscans drink chocolate all day long, and often at night, more for pleasure than for potion (though the two remain inextricably linked). We’re a people of practicality, of play, and we expect we’ll live forever. For now, at the end of each day when we fall into theobromine-infused sleep, we dream of firsts sips, lost times, and wake remembering a mishmash of sweet, holy things.
*We now know that theobromine, the bitter alkaloid C7H8N4O found in chocolate, produces certain effects on our nervous system: a rush to the head, sweaty palms, a fluttering, excessive trips to the bathroom—hold on, does this sound a bit like falling in love?