For the Love of Mochas

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For the Love of Mochas

Photo by Guy’s Art / Shutterstock

Somewhere around my fourth month of pregnancy, I started drinking coffee. The terrible migraines that plagued me as a child had come back in a steaming cocktail of pain and cherry nausea, and I was at wits’ end. The pain fed off the hormones like a parasite, sucking out my life force one heartbeat at a time. I was told I could not take prescription medication I’d previously been prescribed, nor could I take over-the-counter medication that had often worked when I’d had more mild migraines as an adult. Try coffee and some Tylenol, the midwife told me.

Caffeine is a neurostimulant that constricts blood vessels. While migraines have no known (or specific) causes, this vasoconstriction may bring about relief for headache sufferers. It can also do the opposite and inflict more pain. And then there’s this: the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends pregnant women limit caffeine consumption to 200 milligrams a day or less. That comes out to about ten ounces of coffee.

While many suggest avoiding coffee during pregnancy, I was willing to try anything and if the midwife said it was okay, who was I to argue? The thing was, I wasn’t about to start drinking black coffee, that bitter very-adult quixotic beverage. I was not a coffee drinker in any way before and I couldn’t start cold-turkey.

While I appreciate a kitchen soaked in the smell of fresh-brewed coffee and maple syrup, I never wanted to partake in the American coffee ritual. Enter: the mocha. Espresso, chocolate, milk. And since I preferred my drinks cold: on ice. And since I really needed to mask the coffee flavor: an added flavor shot, usually vanilla or hazelnut syrup. So, a handful of sugar and the subsequent calories went into my raging hormonal body in hopes to quell the outrageous pain in my head.

The word “mocha” comes from the Yemen city of Mukha, on the Red Sea, which was a major coffee port during the Ottoman Empire. It defined a certain coffee bean varietal in the 1700s; we now refer to those beans as “Arabica.” The beans were grown further inland and shipped out at Mukha. At the time, the port was bustling and cosmopolitan. After plague and the disease of imperialism (troops from the British East India Company helped destroy much of the population and infrastructure, and Mukha stopped being the busy port it was), that role moved over to nearby Aden. At the same time, Ethiopia picked up the slack and became the leading coffee bean trader, often selling the same beans for a lower cost.

It wasn’t until 1849 that “mocha” came to mean what it does now: espresso, steamed milk, and chocolate. The drink is sometimes known as a caffe mocha or a mochaccino. I was unable to find out the specific origin details of the mocha, but I did find a definition of “cho’ca” in Beeton’s Dictionary of Commerce in 1873, and the story of one young Yemeni businessowner selling dark, chocolatey, mocha-like Yemeni coffee in Oakland. And, it was Voltaire’s apparent drink of choice.

We all know espresso drinks are pricy. These days they often go for over $5. They are also easily accessible, thanks to the plethora of drive-through options. (Note: this is heaven for a pregnant woman and later for a mother of an infant.)

In the 1990s, independent coffee stands steadily became more commonplace in towns and cities with a car culture (read: not New York, where I am from). In 1994, Starbucks got into the game. They were reluctant, as they wanted the whole café experience to be what made their shops stand out. By the end of 2005, fifteen percent of their stores had drive-thrus. Now that number is around 50 percent. My time and place as a pregnant woman (Seattle in 2013) was a fortunate thing indeed.

While I did become familiar with myriad local indie coffee shops in addition to the Starbucks drive-thru, I realized it wasn’t sustainable financially. $5 a day, $35 a week, $140 a month, and so on and so on. So I did what many people do: figure out a way to get my fix at home. There would certainly be up-front costs and maybe some work-arounds, but I was determined to figure it out.

Let’s start with milk. Like bygone days, we get our milk delivered. I have a cooler out front for our milkman to leave it for us every Tuesday morning and we even receive his family Christmas card in December. We also get eggs and — critical to this endeavor — coffee beans from the semi-local Stumptown Coffee Roasters (based in Portland, Oregon). I purchased flavored syrups at the grocery store – vanilla and hazelnut. I have a toddler, so that means we have no shortage of Hershey’s syrup, but after several attempts, I realized I had to up my game if I was going to compete with the café offerings. I found a few brands of “fancy” chocolate sauce and syrups and I frequently melted down Mexican chocolate disks for a spicy sweet mocha.

I was reliant on my husband’s long tradition of coffee making in the morning. This wasn’t espresso, but turns out, if you add all the accoutrements, it doesn’t matter. Mix it all up and pour it over ice. Serve in a fancy cup and you have a fancy drink.

Except the coffee cocktail the midwife prescribed did not work. The migraines never abated during my pregnancy. And now I still get them, though a little less often and I can finally take my prescription or OTC medicine. At the end of the ten months, I’d grown rather dependent on “my mochas.” I think I’m hooked on the sugar and not the coffee. But the ritual of coffee has embedded itself into my life. I still go to cafes often — my young daughter has asked “can we go to the coffee shop” since she learned to talk. But each morning begins with the sweet decadence of a mocha.

I eschew many things that are considered vices, things that can control you rather than the other way around: drugs, cigarettes, alcohol. And for so long, coffee. Caffeine and sugar have been studied and frequently we are told that those too are terrible for us. I believe it. But right now, I’m kind of in that “enjoy life” phase. And that sweet potion that’s a combination of creamy on the lips, cold in my throat, and clinking cheers with my daughter — that’s an amazing feeling.

Jennifer Fliss is a New York-raised, Wisconsin-schooled, Seattle-based essay and fiction writer. Her writing has appeared in diverse publications including The Washington Post, Paste, The Kitchn, Ravishly, Narratively, and elsewhere. More can be found on her website at