With a chill in the air, and a summer of hot, humid days and persistent rain nearing a close, I’m craving fall’s comfort foods. Turkey chili, cornbread, pumpkin coffee, and hot chocolate.

Ok…so maybe it’s still a little too hot for hot chocolate, with the temperature hovering around 75 degrees where I live, but college and pro football seasons have kicked off, school is back in session, and pretty soon, we’ll be wearing hoodies and complaining about the shrinking hours of daylight.

When it comes to warm drinks, I’ve always been a coffee drinker. I love the smell, love the warmth, and appreciate the jolt of caffeine that comes from a cup of joe.

But every once in a while, when I’m searching for a drink that has an extra level of comfort, the kind that comes from a warm blanket or the heat from a fireplace, I reach for hot chocolate.

And hot chocolate, with its sweet, rich flavor, will always make me think of Paris.

Parisian Grief

I started living in Paris in the fall of 2009, working as an English Teaching Assistant in a high school in a southwest suburban town, and living in the 13th arrondissement with two fellow American teachers.

In November 2009, on a damp, cold, rainy Sunday afternoon when the weather was especially hoodie-friendly, I found myself in a café with a circus theme, drinking hot chocolate.

My brother John had died, suddenly and without warning, just one month earlier. He’d died from suicide at the age of 19. I was in this stage of grief that alternated between painful, overwhelming shock and deep sadness. I’d left for France on September 24, having seen him that weekend when he’d made the drive home from college to join in the goodbye party my parents had thrown for me. He seemed overly anxious, but I blamed it on the normal jitters of a new school and a new routine. During those first few weeks In Paris, I was busy navigating French bureaucracy and assumed that he was busy with school and lacrosse practice, so we didn’t talk much. Then, I got a call from my parents on October 17. He was already gone, having taken his life on October 16.

Just one month later, I flew back to Paris. And that Sunday in November, I sat in a café with red and white striped menus and elephants and clowns painted on the walls with my roommate. We’d walked there in the pouring rain, dodging puddles on Rue Tolbiac in La Butte Aux Cailles neighborhood.

Searching for Comfort

In an unordinary move, I’d ordered hot chocolate.

“The thing I just can’t get my head around is that he actually wanted to die,” I told Jocelyn, my roommate.

A few moments passed. I tapped my fingers on the checked tablecloth and reached for the pitcher of water, filling the glass in front of me.

“He thought he did,” Jocelyn said.

I thought about this, thought about John’s depression, and the pain it caused him.

“Et voila!” The waiter appeared, placing a silver tray on the table. He placed two white porcelain pitchers from the tray, one double the size of the other, in front of me. Then he unveiled a small, wide white mug that sat on a white saucer with two wrapped sugar cubes on it.

“Le chocolat chaud,” he announced.

Self Service

That was the hot chocolate?

I looked at the waiter. He was gone. Waiters in France are salaried, and tipping is not the mainstay in restaurant etiquette that it is in the United States. The service at most restaurants in France reflects that.

I looked in each of the pitchers. The larger pitcher held a thick white liquid that I assumed was cream. The smaller pitcher held a less thick, smooth dark substance. I smelled it. It was chocolate!

“You’re supposed to make it yourself,” Jocelyn said.

This was a far cry from the packet of powder and marshmallows mixed with milk, or the sugary, watered down liquid in a Styrofoam cup that I’d been drinking at home.

And it tasted nothing like it.

Each cup was an experience that I orchestrated from start to finish. I’d pour the cream, filling about three quarters of the mug. Then, I’d pour the chocolate into the mug and watch the cream darken to brown. Then, I’d add a cube of sugar, and stir.

On that cold afternoon in November, each experience was the fall comfort I’d needed.

Looking for more comfort foods? Check out my post on My Return to Chocolate Chip Cookies.