Much Ado About Foam

Photo: Mujer vertiendo chocolate - Codex Tudela. (United States Domain Tag: )

“After straining, the cacao is lifted up high so it will pour in a good stream, and this is what raises the froth. And whoever makes it well, makes and sells the cacao such as only the lords drink: smooth, frothy, vermillion red, and pure, without much corn masa. Cacao that is no good has a lot of masa and a lot of water, and so it doesn’t make a good froth, only a bubbly scum.”[1]

Those were the words of Bernardino de Sahagún, a 16th century Spanish missionary who wrote about the Aztec culture during the contentious period of the conquest of Mexico. He documented daily rituals, spiritual practices, and culture of the indigenous people including their consumption and production of cacao. Today, we might label this as ‘anthropology,’ or even a modern form of storytelling. And as such, we can only make guesses as to how well his descriptions accurately portrayed the actual customs of the indigenous peoples he interviewed.

A while back, Lauren Heineck interviewed me for the WellTempered podcast. Like any good interviewer, she started with a simple warm-up question. Except, the question “What did you have for breakfast this morning?,” turned out to be not so simple. I had been experimenting with different cacao beverages she joked that recipe might be called “Bulletproof Chocolate.” We soon discovered that this name has already been claimed as a registered trademark. Nor is the idea of a foamy chocolate drink all that original. Clearly, as Sahagún documented, people have been consuming frothy hot chocolate and coming up with their own concoctions for centuries. What's the big deal with foam? One of the reasons I learned during interviews with cacao farmers in fieldwork in Tabasco, Mexico is that the air bubbles captured the celestial or ‘divine’ properties of chocolate as food of the Gods.[2]

Whether as daily ritual or occasional drink of indulgence, foamy hot chocolate is not something I—nor Sahagún—invented.

You can still enjoy it.

Foamy Chocolate Mate

What do I do to start each day the right way? Mm, I get high with a little chocolate mate Uh-hum, gonna be happy first thing in the day.   Lend me your tongue and I’ll give you a taste.

Filtered water, 8 oz. Yerba Mate tea, loose leave, 1 tbsp. Milk, ¼ cup (anything that suits your fancy including coconut, almond, hazelnut, hemp, or cow’s milk). Cocoa powder, 1 tbsp. Coconut oil, 1 tsp. Cinnamon, a dash Chili pepper, a smaller dash Optional superfood add-ons: Reishi mushroom powder (1/4 tsp), maca root powder (1/2 tsp).

Percolator, French press, tea ball, tea press, tea pot, strainer, or espresso machine
Swan-neck kettle

1: Heat up the water to 170 F. Measure and add the mate tea leaves to a strainer. Moisten the leaves with cool water before brewing.
2: Pour heated water over the mate leaves (ideally, pour-over style in a steady stream over the leaves, starting in the outer rim and moving in concentric circles inward).
3: Cover and steep the mate leaves for 4-6 minutes.
4: Heat up the milk over the stove until it reaches 160-180 F.
5: Add the brewed mate to the pot of milk. Add the cocoa powder, coconut oil, spices and optional add-ons.
6: Either whisk the ingredients quickly in a pot or transfer to a blender to foam up and cool down the beverage.

Follow the recipe, or not. It is an invitation to make your own version of the century-old tradition.


[1] “Hot chocolate to the rescue.” BBC World Series: The Forum. 22 May 2017.
[2] Weeks, M.R. (2011). La comida de los dioses: El cacao en México y la transformación de la sociedad mexicana./Food of the Gods: Cacao in Mexico and the transformation of Mexican society. (Unpublished B.A. thesis). Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA.  
Dirty Dirt Cups

Dirty Dirt Cups

Tropseolum majns (Nasturtium flowers). Image from the "Annual illustrated and descriptive catalogue of new, rare and beautiful plants and seeds" circa 1894. Flickr Commons.  

“Cleaner" Dirt Cups

  • 6 ounces grass-fed Greek yogurt
  • 4 tbsp crushed natural chocolate cookies or graham crackers
  • 3 natural gummy worms
[cute squiggly worm] Mix yogurt and 3 tbsp crushed cookies; place inside a small jar or cup. Top with remaining crushed cookies and insert gummy worms.   And so goes the advertisement for “Cleaner" Dirt Cups. Besides being somewhat annoyed by the ambiguous term “natural,” I couldn’t help but fall for the cutesy marketing and think fondly back to my childhood days of dirt cups. I used to love dirt cups. I ate the “non-natural” version that is probably more typical of what American school kids eat: artificially flavored chocolate pudding, crushed up Oreo cookies, mixed with gummy worms somewhere hidden in the middle. But I loved these dirt cups for a different reason: The Nasturtium flower. That bitter edible flower grew everywhere in my backyard and I loved the concept of an “edible backyard.” Growing up, mud was my medium of creation. I could make almost anything by mixing soil with the water and forming these clumps into little people, animals, houses, and food (picture Madeline age five playing in the mud, he he). I also loved tasting the bounties of nature—the red plums that hung over the fence from the neighbor’s backyard, sour flowers that rebelliously sprung up in the middle of the soccer field, and most of all: Nasturtium flowers. Nasturtiums are not your “nice flower.” They knock off your socks with a peppery kick, which can be a pretty harsh taste for the young child’s developing palate. I liked them, not just for their taste, but because they made for a great trick to play with my friends. Edible flowers? It seemed novel (oh, how much we have learned since then). Now, I still enjoy the metaphorical concept of eating soil so here’s my grown-up version of dirt cups:

“Dirty" Dirt Cups

  • Mud: Hmmm, this is a tricky. Why not go with real mud? I mean, dirt is good for us… Okay, if that grosses you out, try this (or any other) chocolate risotto pudding and that could pass for the worm-like appearance.
  • Roasted cacao nibs to give it some crunch.
  • Unflavored yogurt (it doesn't have to be the fancy Greek yogurt, totally up to your preference) to give it some tang.
  • Nasturtium flowers to give it some bite.
  • Spices to give it some earthiness. You could try cinnamon for the sweetness and chili pepper for the kick.
Have fun with it. Eat your dirt. It’s good for you.

Great artwork is flawed. Beautiful is not nice. True journeys never end.

...and other profound insights from walking across Spain on the Camino de Santiago.

“Would you call this landscape beautiful or nice?” the French woman asked me.   “Usually, we refer to landscapes as beautiful. The weather we could call nice. In this case, the weather is not nice, which makes this landscape beautiful.”   She seemed to get it.
There is an attractive quality to rawness. To experience it can make us feel uncomfortably alive; to see it in others kindles a vulnerable connection. There is an aura of mystery and depth surrounding those who wear substance over surface on their sleeve. Beauty is not synonymous with aesthetic perfection. The French expression jolie laide (“beautiful ugly”) describes unconventional beauty, especially for women with atypical and sometimes an asymmetrical inner and outer radiance. The Japanese term wabi-sabi (侘寂) adds to this the notion of transience in which beauty is “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.” Beauty is present in that which is dynamic and adapting. I learned to appreciate the winds of change while walking the Camino de Santiago during my 900 km pilgrimage across Spain from St. Jean Piedad de Port in France to Finisterre on the west coast of Galicia. Change was the only constant through the motion of seasons, terrains, and faces. Each day was a completely new adventure. Day 1: Thunder, lightning, and blinding rain through Pyrenees Mountains. Day 13: Windswept highways and lack of shelter through the high Central Plateau. Day 35: Redwoods and fern forests and the invigorating breeze of the ocean breeze. I would curse the rain and howl alongside the wind: stop! And it did. Rainstorms do sometimes lead to rainbows.
Si deseas el arco iris tienes que soportar la lluvia. /If you want rainbows, you’ve got to put up with the rain.

Si deseas el arco iris tienes que soportar la lluvia. /If you want rainbows, you’ve got to put up with the rain.

I learned to embrace the winds of change. I also learned to accept the imperfections of my own body and confront the flaws of my personality. Never before have I been so acutely aware of my strengths and vulnerabilities. Some days, my monster pack felt like a hundred pound weight; my feet, heavy as lead. I fainted from exhaustion. I came down with a fever, walked eleven days with a twisted ankle, and had moments when I question everything and wonder: Is this really worth it? They say you carry your fears with you. I carried my insecurities: You’re not pretty enough, smart enough, strong enough. When people past age sixty sped past me, I couldn’t help feeling incompetent. Until, at one intersection, a retired Australian couple turned to me and said:

“You have a beautiful stride.”

Really? Cause all that I felt was ugly inside.

“Keep at it. You’re steady and seeing that in young people gives us hope.”

They helped me realize that it is okay not to be at the front of the pack. Each of us follows our own pace, our own rhythm in life, and we have the choice to slow down or speed up according to our bodies and internal clocks. IMG_0414 The way in which we walk is more than an external expression. It is an amplification of our internal state and the way in which we interact with others. It abruptly removes us from our daily routine and forces us to discover who we are in our most authentic, unadulterated state. There were no pretences or cover-ups to impress. We were all one, together and individual, pilgrims walking the Camino. We learned to lighten our packs. All those unnecessary items—books, blankets, shoes—and the emotional baggage left behind, made room for discovery. One young woman had taken leave from her daytime job in Paris to switch her high heel shoes for hiking boots. She said the hardest adjustment was getting used to seeing herself without make-up on every morning. An American woman who had married her high school sweetheart said that the hardest thing about her divorce was realizing that everything about her past life, hobbies and social network, had involved her partner. She was walking the Camino to re-discover herself, without the need of anyone else to make her happy. IMG_2372 Reaching Santiago was not the “end” of the Camino. Rather, it was more like the beginning. I have greater appreciation for a different form of beauty: that which is imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. Our lives are works of art in progress.


The week following the Camino I visited the Harvard Art Museum. This sculpture made me stop dead in my tracks. The dancer in motion is working toward the arabesque position. It is not your typical sculpture of a ballerina: She looks clumsy. Ungraceful. And yet, beautiful.
The sculpture depicts the arabesque, a classical ballet position in which all parts of the dancer’s body are fully extended. It captures a sequence of movement and the physical complexity of movement. Beauty as motion is impermanent.

The sculpture depicts the arabesque, a classical ballet position in which all parts of the dancer’s body are fully extended. It captures a sequence of movement and the physical complexity of movement. Beauty as motion is impermanent.

Memorable artwork, as with life-changing experiences, have a quality of openness. There’s this beauty in the art of process. The following day I met with a Eric Parkes of Somerville Chocolate. He is a chocolate maker and artists unto himself struggling with the imperfections of bubbles that surface in his chocolate molds. These blemishes literally melted away when I popped the chocolate in my mouth. It was perfect. And that’s when I realized:
No great art exists. No good chocolate exists. There is no perfect human being. We all have our imperfections. Yet, we ignore this reality and go around searching for the impossible, which only leads us down the road of disappointment. If instead we choose the more difficult path to experience the “good” or “beautiful,” that comes too with having experienced what is “bad” and what is “ugly.” Great art comes after we have learned to make mistakes. It speaks to us on a different level, arousing our soul and sometimes most sinful desires. Good chocolate comforts our vulnerabilities, nurturing us like a mother who loves us just the way we are.
Great art, like good chocolate, is beautiful when raw. True journeys never really end.
Doña Olga the Rockstar

Doña Olga the Rockstar

Rocja Pomtila, la Chua, Alta Verapaz, Guatemala

Doña Olga is a rockstar. She wields a machete like a warrior in the field and attends evening church services dressed like a queen. She is a cacao farmer, community leader, and a mom to three teenagers. The best way to describe her attitude is “¡vámanos!” (let´s go!). Do you want to go visit the cacao farm? ¡Vámonos! Nor the heat nor distance fazed her. We strolled through the corn field and I observed how she paused, keenly attuned to the natural surroundings with ears perked for the sound of howler monkeys. We bonded out there on the farm. Usually that´s my chance to ask farmers about technical aspects of cacao farming, like how often they prune and whether they graft or plant from seeds. Visiting the farm with Doña Olga was different. We talked about the plants. We talked about people. We talked about relationships, personal journeys, and aspirations. “Do you remember the first time you tasted cacao?,” I asked her. Oh yes, she said. It was five years ago when she planted cacao to supplement the income from corn and cardamom. She remembers tasting the fruit for the first time and falling in love. I nodded in agreement. Cacao for both of us is a love story. She pulled out a bag to collect the seeds that we had sucked. Her resourcefulness reminds me of my Chinese grandmother, a petite yet a mighty force of nature. Everything has a use. Doña Olga gathered cardamom pods, corn mazorcas, even the bird-picked cacao seeds on the ground. She walked—or more accurately glided—with wild instinctive grace over the slippery leaves, perfectly at ease through the shadows of the forest. Her enchantment is the ability to transform. While not so uncommon for women to work alongside men on the farm, women are still in charge most household activities. Doña Olga cooks for the family, washes the clothing and dishes down by the river, and tends to the backyard chickens. Her work extends even beyond the household. For the past couple years she has served as a member of the Junta Directiva committee represent the cacao farmers’ association. She can be quite opinionated too, and I like that about her.

This is a traditional Q’eqchi’ huipil (top garment) and corte, with a characteristic waistband around the skirt.

That evening we attended the Evangelical church service together. I had nothing to wear but soiled jeans and boots so she lent me her daughter´s corte and huipil, the traditional Maya skirt and loose tunic still worn by women in indigenous communities. Wearing the huipil can be a marker of both class and identity, according to my friend Callie who is studying Guatemala’s textile tradition. Both for everyday use and special occasions, the huipil is an example of the living and dynamic Maya heritage. Doña Olga was the first woman I have met who identifies herself as a cacao farmer. Even among men this identity is rare; being a cacao farmer takes tenacity and dedication. It takes an attentive eye to subtle shifts in the balance of nature, a soft touch to pick the cacao pods when ripe, and the endurance to keep going when the weather turns sour. It’s not a matter of male or female capabilities. Rather, it’s about the core character strengths that make farmers like Doña Olga truly different. Plus, she is adorably in love with cacao.     forest olga

Final interview question: What about cacao makes you happy?

Me gusta porque da frutos, es bueno el jugo, se siente uno sano. I like that it gives fruit, the juice of the pulp is delicious, and it is good for the health.