A meal of the senses isn’t complete without the sweetness, the simple happiness, of dessert.
We used to spend our Valentine’s Days reaching fierce speeds downhill skiing the slopes of the Pocono Mountains. Our first year together, I followed him along the bunny hills, taking his lead until I understood the feel of the icy, Pennsylvania snow. Our last year together, we agreed — he would ski his black diamonds and I would ski my blue squares. We would meet at the lodge at 4 p.m. before going to the Olive Garden.
Every year, he would order the chicken parmesan, I would order the chicken scampi and we would eat too many breadsticks — a well-deserved, carb-centric meal. The piece de resistance, though, was always the creme de menthe, the Andes mint. The sweet chocolate tasted like the pure white scene of the mountainside, the windchill on our faces, the sounds of scraping snow, the smell that accompanies a breath of fresh air at the top of the lift. The Andes mint was a bite of the Poconos.
So, when Feb. 14 rolls around each year, I think back to the five years in a row that I spent strapping on skis, canoodling on the lift and debating — playfully, romantically — where we should go for dinner, even though we always knew it would be the Olive Garden.
Digging into the past like that, year after year since the relationship’s end, leads me to the same depressing conclusion.
“Ugh, I miss those Andes mints.”
And, I know, the Olive Garden doesn’t have a monopoly on the chocolates, but I never find myself in the grocery aisle reaching for the green-wrapped package, decorated with the iconic peaks. To me, Andes mints are tucked inside the checkbook of a first love, and that’s where they’ll stay.
Instead, I look for new desserts, a new happy. I recently called Wildman’s from the back seat of a car, two friends in the front as we whirred through the Turnagain Pass.
“We’re driving back to Soldotna and probably won’t make it to Cooper Landing by closing, could you take my credit card information over the phone, make three milkshakes and leave them on the front steps for us?” I asked.
A day spent ice skating across Eklutna Lake was behind us, with Bashful Peak watching our smiles grow as we glided atop the snow. Alpenglow stretched across the peak, the sweat on my back was a staunch contrast to the below-freezing air and the wind that brought sharp, but excited, tears to my eyes. Yeah, a milkshake would be the cherry on top of a day like that.
In her aptly titled novel “Chocolat” Joanna Harris wrote: “I believe that being happy is the only important thing. Happiness. Simple as a glass of chocolate or tortuous as the heart. Bitter. Sweet. Alive.”
And I agree, but the complexity to that happiness lies in the ever-changing desires of your sweet tooth. The wind may hit your face harsher than last year, you may not feel the same way you did before and an Andes mint just doesn’t taste as sweet.
So, instead I search for something new, like a milkshake, or indulge in the nostalgia that tastes best to me, like a piece of my grandmother’s shortbread.
A box has been landing at my doorstep every few weeks all winter long, bringing me back to the mornings spent poolside in Florida with her, talking while timing each bite of shortbread to match a small sip of coffee, achieving the perfect mouthfeel for a treat in the early morning heat. I’d dive right into the pool, propelling myself deeper underwater until my hair floats high above my head, the pressure fills my ears, water fills my nose, my lungs grow timid from the lack of oxygen and my eyes shut tight, the taste of shortbread still on my teeth.
But now, instead of indulging in the shortbread poolside with my grandmother, I share it with a young woman who has become like a sister to me. We end our days over a cup of tea, chamomile wafting into our noses, and a piece of shortbread to calm our sweet teeth while we talk about all the emotions and feelings attached with being a teenager, and remembering being a teenager.
The simple happiness has changed over time, but it still feels right. It’s still me.
And I can find new happiness too, even though Wildman’s said “No” to the front-step shakes, fate removed slow drivers from the Sterling Highway that night. With minutes to spare until closing, there was just enough time to order a milkshake and laugh when the employees congratulated us for making it on time.
My friends and I walked down to the stolid Kenai River, spoiling our taste buds. The silvering spotlight of a full moon stretched across Slaughter Ridge, Cecil Rhode and Right Mountain. I’d climbed them all last summer, and I plan to climb them again.
And I knew the sweetness, the simple happiness, I’d yearn for afterward. It was right in my hands. Right now.
The Andes mints lose their charm while a piece of shortbread’s changes and a milkshake makes its mark on the senses. Happiness is a five-course meal, but it’s up to you to find the right dessert.
Reach Kat Sorensen at email@example.com.