A True History of Chocolate
by Sophie Coe
Research for the recently published A True History of Chocolate was conducted by Sophie Coe, for her book, America’s First Cuisines, published by the University of Texas Press in 1994 just before she died. However, the material on chocolate had accumulated to such an extent the Sophie, knowing she would not live to see another book through the press, asked her husband Michael to finish it for her. He agreed.
The book is well-illustrated and sprinkled liberally with stories. Following an examination of how the Olmec, Maya and Aztec regarded and prepared the precious substance, its second half is strung on a series of amusing love/hate chocolate anecdotes written by Europeans of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.
"When we moderns think of chocolate, we think of it in its solid, sweetened form, and this is reflected in the undue emphasis which much food writing gives to solid chocolate. Yet during nine-tenths of its long history, chocolate was drunk, not eaten," say the authors. The Maya drank it hot in ancient times with a special taste for the foamy topping, and Coe provides a beautiful example from a Princeton Vase showing a graceful Maya lady standing over a large pot at her feet, pouring liquid into it from a height of three feet or so to raise foam.
Another illustration from Rio Azul where the Maya glyph for cacao was identified on a cleverly-made ceramic pot is also included among the book’s carefully chosen images. Constructed with a screw top (the only one ever excavated), the pot carries an inscription that identifies it as a container for chocolate. Scrapings from inside were sent to the Hershey Company in Pennsylvania where they were analyzed and confirmed to be cacao.
Sweetening the drink with honey was only one of a number of options used for seasoning the drink. Chili peppers for those who like it hot and numerous flowers, vanilla, and other flavorings were added to the boiling water and cacao powder. A number of corn-based gruels could also be added to thicken its substance, giving rise perhaps, to the custom of beating as well as pouring to raise the much-desired foam which they considered the best part of a cup of chocolate. Spanish beaters, called molinillos, are among some of the most sought-after collectibles from the colonial period.
We think of chocolate as sweet, but the Pre-Columbians used it in combinations with vegetables and meat as well (mole is still around and considered a delicacy, for example).
Cacao has always been expensive. In pre-conquest times it had to be imported from tropical places in bags carried on the backs of porters. Commercially, especially for the Aztec society, the dried nibs were used as currency. In the Maya world only the elite, merchants and warriors were permitted to enjoy chocolate. Among the Spanish in the colonial period, chocolate-drinking continued to be associated with aristocracy, royalty and the church. An amusing section of the Coes’ book, for example, deals with "Crossing the Ecclesiastical Barrier." Did chocolate-drinking constitute a breach of fasting regulations or not? Was it a food or a drink? "The literature on this question is enormous," say the authors. Generally, the Jesuits held that the chocolate drink did not break the fast while the Dominicans said that it did. The book contains a quote from the memoirs of the duc de Saint Simon "that Louis XIV was told by his Jesuit advisors to drink chocolate on fast days, as they did themselves, but to desist from his custom of dunking bread into it" (p.151).
Cacao grows on trees that find themselves among the world’s most graceless of plants. Spindly and awkward in appearance, the tree grows for protection under larger, spreading trees and produces big, pointed pods on short stems dangling from the trunk or base of branches. Inside these pods when they are ripe (there is a very short period of time they can be harvested), the seeds are immersed inside a spongy, sticky-sweet mass that for centuries in tropical South America was eaten or made into wine while the seeds were thrown away.
Whoever discovered that the seeds themselves could be eaten must have been truly inspired. After a very short but tricky period of fermentation at precise temperatures, several stages of drying and roasting must be followed before grinding can take place, complicated always by the ever-present danger of loss of flavor by mishandling. The same process was carried out by the natives and raises that eternal question—whoever figured this out in the beginning? Coe attributes the inspiration to the Olmecs who lived in the low, hot country where cacao was grown. However, he gives the Maya much of the credit for the many ways chocolate was prepared and consumed by Mesoamericans.
Cacao is difficult to grow, and its culture is confined to a very narrow band of between 20 degrees north and south of the equator. When the Spanish first attempted to cultivate it, they could not get the five-petaled flowers to germinate under orchard conditions. No one knows exactly how they finally determined that the necessary pollinators were midges who lived in the litter underneath the trees in the wild forest. When the "mess" was cleared away in cultivation, it destroyed the midges’ habitat. The Spaniards had to restore debris under their trees.
The Coes discuss but do not settle the many scientific, unresolved questions about the origin of cacao and whether its chemical composition really does contribute to a mild euphoria as some of chocolate’s aficionados claim. The isolated compound that is given credit for the passion westerners have conceived for chocolate is contained in a chemical substance called theobromine. Theobromine is akin to caffeine in that it is a mild stimulant to the nervous system and is considered by some investigators to be an antidepressant, although others can find no such effect. Readers will delight in the delectable story of The True History of Chocolate by Sophie Coe, published in 1996 by Thames and Hudson.
This review is reprinted from the newsletter "News from the Center", June 1997, vol.5, no 2, a quarterly publication edited by Teddy Dewalt of the The Center for Latin American Art and Archaeology and ALIANZA de Las Artes Americanas at the Denver Art Museum.