In early October of 2015, I stood with Andrew in a Wisconsin chocolaterie, sipping a hot chocolate sample with my eyes closed. Luscious cream warmed my lips and tongue. Sweetness ached in my cheeks, and as the liquid slipped down my throat, the chocolate’s gentle tart depth sprawled sumptuously across my tastebuds.
All at once, I began to cry.
In all our cultural speechifying about rock bottom, we seldom share this fact: rock bottom makes everything exquisite.
Exquisite has a few entwined adjectival meanings. Extremely beautiful and delicate, like the drape of a hand-beaded lace wedding veil. Intensely felt, like the agony of grief. Highly sensitive or discriminating, like the focused, informed eye of a critic.
Rock bottom makes everything exquisite. Rock bottom itself is exquisite.
Life has its own mysterious wit. Rock bottom came suddenly for me. One afternoon in mid-June 2015, my world ceased making sense. My seven-year marriage was over, and I did not understand. For months, with each changing step forward, more information emerged, each piece more painful, more mindless, more senseless than the last. There could be no understanding.
At last, in October, I chose the lesser chaos and vanished to Wisconsin, to the safety of a dear friend I’d trusted for a decade.
On this day—less than a week after my arrival—Andrew had taken me sightseeing up and down Madison’s State Street. A farmer’s market wrapped around the Capitol building. Delicious smells emanated from the restaurants lining the street towards UW-Madison’s campus. There were quirky boutiques and shops filled with specialty popcorn and flavored oils. There were art exhibits and clothes shops. The early-autumn air was sunny but cooling, crisp and comfortable.
Toward the end of our outing, we stepped inside a chocolaterie called Red Elephant Chocolate to admire their glass cases full of jewel-like confections.
Almost immediately we were offered samples of fresh hot chocolate, made from Red Elephant’s own melted dark chocolate. And so it was that I tasted the ambrosial drink with full, exquisite awareness, and began to cry.
Some part of me almost believed I had arrived in heaven somehow. This moment was so acutely beautiful, this chocolate so impossibly delicious, this entire day so intensely tranquil, that my raw exhausted mind thought perhaps a meteor had struck me very suddenly and that I had passed into some blessed chocolatey hereafter without realizing.
My eyes were only misting, but something in my expression made the man behind the counter ask if I was all right.
“It’s so delicious,” I said helplessly. Andrew put his arm around me and I took another sip. “It’s so delicious. Thank you.”
Many moments that October were turning points for me, and this was one of the earliest. This moment was special and precious. And—in this very moment—I knew unequivocally that this most priceless moment would have been impossible without each unspeakably horrible moment that had led me to this bright little Wisconsin chocolaterie.
I ordered a large hot chocolate with chocolate whipped cream on top, and settled into a chair near the window, closing my eyes and sipping my sweet sybaritic boon.
This was not a dawning of comprehension. There would be no understanding. But this was a beginning of new wisdom; the beginning of knowing that not-knowing could be a mystery of life. The acceptance of mystery could be a stepping-stone. I could stand with one foot in grief and one in gratitude; one foot in hurt and one foot in joy; one foot in chaos and one foot in serenity.
Even at rock bottom, there was laughter, delight, and enchantment to find. Perhaps pain was exquisite, but so was gladness, when it came. Perhaps betrayal was more savage than anything I had known—but this new exquisite world also contained small and secret wonders on the other side of misery.
The universe was bitter. The universe was sweet.
This realization was sweet. This realization was bitter.
Everything was exquisite.
Most of this essay focused on the way my emotional state impacted my experience of the chocolate, but I do want to emphasize how much I enjoyed Red Elephant’s offerings on their own merits. The Madison location for Red Elephant Chocolate closed down in 2018, but that’s not due to a lack of quality (it was difficult for most Madison residents to access, except for the university students). If you’d like to try some unique chocolates, you can order them online from the chocolaterie’s website. I recommend their hot chocolate and, for a unique experience, their rare chocolate collection.
If you visit their Milwaukee, WI location in person, make sure to try their hot chocolate or chocolate coffee (with chocolate whipped cream!). Both are absolutely indulgent.
Have you ever tasted something so delicious that it changed your understanding of how food could be? Have you ever enjoyed a simple pleasure that blossomed into something focused and important in your life? Or, have you ever encountered a really amazing chocolate shop? What was it? Tell us all about it in the comments!