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The Road to Kisses

The True History of Chocolate

by Sophie D. Coe, by Michael D. Coe
Thames and Hudson, 280 pp., $27.50

In 1544 Dominican friars took a delegation of Maya nobles to visit Prince Philip of Spain. Among the presents they brought to his court, together with various kinds of chilies, beans, sarsparilla, maize, liquidambar (a plant of the witch hazel family), and 2000 quetzal feathers, their most precious offering, were receptacles of beaten chocolate. This was, according to Sophie Coe and Michael Coe, the first appearance of chocolate in Europe. The future Philip II, however, seemed more concerned about his visitors’ nakedness than their gifts, and may not have been aware of the historic event.

The Coes return to the Mayas at the end of their story. Inhabitants of the clouded, forested mountains and the fertile valleys bordering the Petén lowlands, called Verapaz (“True Peace”) by the Spaniards, the Kekchi Maya people were for the Dominicans a striking example of how kindness and understanding could bring greater rewards than violence. It was here, in what is now Guatemala and southern Mexico, that Bartolomé de las Casas began his locally successful, but ultimately doomed, efforts to counter the rapacious destruction he saw all around him in the ancient worlds the Europeans had stumbled onto in 1492, with devastating consequences for the indigenous populations.

The title of the Coes’ book is an allusion to The True History of the Conquest of Mexico, completed in 1572 in Guatemala’s capital by the old, poor, and partially blind conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo, a warrior who wished to get the facts straight, free from “lofty rhetoric,” about the fate of the Aztecs. The Coes seek to do the same for chocolate and also to bring seriousness to the study of the history of food and drink. “Although food, sex, and mortality are the three great givens of human existence,” they note, “earlier generations of academics generally avoided these topics as not quite respectable.” This is not entirely true: Gilberto Freyre’s trilogy on Brazil is full of sex and accounts of exotic and erotic sugary delicacies of one sort or another. Nevertheless, what the Coes have achieved is to strip away, as Bernal Díaz del Castillo tried to do, the myths and misunderstandings, and to reconstruct from often very obscure sources, with some exciting archeological fieldwork and hieroglyphic deciphering, the remarkable passage of chocolate from its origins in the lowland jungles of southern Mexico to “Hershey’s Kisses” and Cadbury’s “chocolate box,” and to reestablish its genealogy over three millennia.

Chocolate for nine tenths of its long history was drunk, not eaten, and only one fifth of that history post-dates the fall of the Aztec capital in 1521. The dark brown, pleasantly bitter, chemically complex substance bears little resemblance to the pulp-surrounded seeds of the cacao plants from which it is produced. The European invaders had to name many of the plants and plant derivatives, new to them, that they encountered in the Western Hemisphere, and to fit them into their own schemes of classification, as well as within the health theories of classical authors, who had been totally unaware of the existence of the New World but whose ideas dominated medicine until the eighteenth century.

Chocolate was first used in Europe as a curative. The scientific name given to the cacao tree in 1753 by Carl von Linné, more commonly known as Linnaeus, in Latinized form, was based on the binomial system he invented. As a chocolate lover, Linnaeus named the cacao tree Theobroma cacao; the first part, the name of the genus to which the cacao belongs, he took from the Greek meaning “food of the gods.” The New World name cacao he found barbaric, and put in the second place as the specific name. Yet as the Coes demonstrate in fascinating detail, it is the word cacao that provides the clue to the unraveling of chocolate’s earliest history.

The cacao tree itself is a spindly shade tree. Exceedingly difficult to grow, it will not bear fruit outside the region from 20 degrees north to 20 degrees south of the Equator. Even then it will not grow in the tropical highlands, where the temperature falls below 60 degrees Fahrenheit. It requires year-round moisture. There are two major varieties of cacao tree: the criollo, native to Central America, and the forastero, originally from South America. The flavor and the aroma of the seeds of criollo are superior to the more hardy and now more widely cultivated forastero. Like other tropical fruit trees, the cacao tree produces flowers from small nodes on the trunk and on the larger branches. Europeans could not at first believe this, and their illustrations moved the cacao pods out to the smaller branches, assuming the indigenous watercolorists whose work they were engraving had not accurately observed the plants.

In the damp, shaded depths of the tropical forest the five-petaled flowers are pollinated by midges and, once pollinated, each flower produces a large pod of thirty or so almond-shaped seeds, or “beans,” surrounded by a sweet, juicy pulp. The cacao pods, which cannot open on their own, are cracked in the wild by monkeys seeking the pulp. It was the pulp, the Coes believe, that first attracted human beings as well. Once the pods are opened and the pulp extracted, four steps are necessary to produce cacao “nibs,” or kernels, which are ground into chocolate. Whatever the technology employed, from that of the earliest forest dwellers to the modern factory, the steps are: first fermentation, then drying, roasting, and winnowing.

The cacao plant was first domesticated by the Olmecs, the complex culture of the Mexican Gulf Coast, around 1500 BC. The Maya took the word “cacao” from these distant ancestors and, at some time between 400 BC and 100 AD, began using the word to mean, as it still does, the domesticated Theobroma cacao. The Coes provide a brilliant excursion through the pre-Conquest Mesoamerican city-states in the forests of northern Guatemala and southern Yucatán, with their towering temple pyramids of stucco masonry, their palaces, stone relief carvings, and delicately painted and carved ceramic vases. Archeological evidence and some remarkable hieroglyphic deciphering have brought to light the central role of the production and consumption of chocolate in Maya society, and this extraordinary detective work is beautifully described by the authors. From a tomb in a medium-sized Maya city at Río Azul in Guatemala, a trove of the paraphernalia of chocolate consumption was discovered in 1984, including a chocolate jar with a screw-on lid. Among the many fine illustrations the Coes include in their book is a scene from an eighth-century AD vase from the Nakbé area of north-central Petén, now in the Princeton University Art Museum, depicting a Maya woman carefully pouring a dark substance from a cylindrical jar into a larger one—the first known picture of a chocolate drink being made.

The Aztecs, too, were great chocolate drinkers. Chocolate was much favored by warriors as well as the nobility because the drink was, among its other attributes, non-alcoholic, and the Aztecs, whatever else they may have been, were notably abstemious. Cacao beans served as money as well as for making chocolate and became objects of long-distance trade. Huge storehouses of cacao beans were kept by the Aztec rulers.

Columbus during his disastrous fourth voyage met with a huge Maya dugout canoe in 1502 near the Bay Islands off the Honduran coast. With typical alacrity, Columbus had the canoe seized and stripped of its trading goods, including a cargo of “almonds” which the Spaniards were very surprised to see the Maya traders valued highly. Also typically, Columbus did not comprehend what he had seen. The inventor of the phrase “New World,” the Milanese chronicler Peter Martyr, knew better. He called cacao beans “happie money…which I call happy, because…the bowelles of the earth are not rent a sunder…. For this groweth upon trees.”

For the Aztecs, chocolate, which they called cacahuatl, was apparently a cool drink prepared in much the same way the Maya did. The cacao beans were crushed, pulverized, soaked, and steeped. Water was added sparingly, followed by aeration, filtration, and straining. The liquid was then poured back and forth from one vessel to another to produce a head of foam. All pre-Conquest chocolate drinks were made by this method.

By the late sixteenth century the bitter, usually unsweetened cold liquid had become transformed in the early colonial kitchens where conquered and conqueror met. In the same period cacao also met, again in the colonial kitchen, a product of another domesticated crop. Sugar arrived by way of the long process of continental and transoceanic transplantation that brought sugar cane to the Americas—from Asia, through the Mediterranean and the Atlantic islands, to Santo Domingo, and finally to the estates established by the family of Hernán Cortéz in colonial Mexico. The Coes make too little, perhaps, of this momentous encounter between cacao and sugar; but it was a mix that made chocolate sweet and hot.

The Spanish conquerors suspected, perhaps hoped, that chocolate had aphrodisiac properties. But this, according to the Coes, was a Spanish obsession, “as was the chronic constipation” caused by their diet of meat and lard and few fresh vegetables. “The conquistadors searched for native Mexican laxatives as avidly as they did for aphrodisiacs,” the Coes observe.

The authors’ ingenious explanation for the transformation of the word for the drink from cacahuatl to chocolate is not unrelated to these particular Spanish concerns. The Spaniards, the Coes suggest, were uncomfortable with a noun beginning with caca to describe the thick, dark-brown drink they were increasingly appreciating. In Latin and most Romance languages caca, as in cacahuatl, is a vulgar word for feces. Chocolatl and chocolate, a neologism derived from a Maya and Aztec mix, had a more respectable sound. Philologists will doubtlessly argue over such derivations, but it is an explanation that would have been much appreciated by the Marquis de Sade, a chocoholic who became grotesquely obese during his long captivity, when, denied other outlets, he spent his time overindulging in all manner of chocolate delicacies, of which he was always demanding more from his loyal and long-suffering wife. “I asked…for a cake with icing, but I want it to be chocolate,” he demanded in 1779, “and black inside from chocolate as the devil’s ass is black from smoke. And the icing is to be the same.”

Chocolate had become well established as an elite drink in Europe and Spanish America by the mid-seventeenth century. In all cases the dried chocolate mass in the form of cakes, rolls, or bricks was placed in hot water in a special jug or chocolate pot fitted with a lid pierced in the middle to hold the handle of the molinillo, or swizzle stick, and beaten to produce a froth. Initially, the Spaniards sipped their foamy chocolate the Mesoamerican way, from gourds or small open clay bowls called jícaras; but the Viceroy of Peru, the Marqués de Mancera, in the 1640s was concerned about the ladies-in-waiting at his receptions spilling chocolate on their court dresses. He had Lima silversmiths make up a plate or saucer with a collar-like ring in the middle in which a small cup could sit without slipping. This mancerina soon became ubiquitous, and was the progenitor of the magnificent eighteenth-century Viennese porcelain cups and saucers called trembleuses. At the French court the silver chocolatière was introduced with the lid adapted to hold a moussoir directly borrowed from the Spanish and Mesoamerican prototypes. The French added a straight wooden handle to the pot at a right angle to the spout; because it unscrewed clockwise, the handle remained tight while the liquid was poured in a counterclockwise motion.

The profligate Cosimo de’Medici became addicted to chocolate on a visit to Spain and on becoming Cosimo III, Grand Duke of Tuscany, was one of the greatest chocoholics of all time. Francesco Redi (1626-1697), the Grand Duke’s renowned physician and apothecary, invented the novel perfume flavors introduced into chocolate for the Tuscan court, most famously a delicate jasmine aroma. The jealously guarded secret formula for this most baroque of chocolate drinks is printed by the Coes for those who would like to recreate it, along with many other recipes and methods of chocolate preparation scattered throughout their book.

The Italians, in fact, were lyrical about chocolate. For Geronimo Piperni: “Chocolate is a divine, celestial drink, the sweat of the stars, the vital seed, divine nectar, the drink of the gods, panacea and universal medicine.” Another Florentine, Marcello Malaspina (1689-1757), composed a curious dithyramb called “Bacchus in Tuscany,” set on the coast of Guatemala, where shipwrecked Tuscans, finding themselves in a grove of cacao trees, sing out:

Che il CIOCCOLATTA d’ogni Beva è il Re.

[That chocolate is the king of drinks.]

Chocolate, it was soon learned, could also effectively disguise poisons. Horace Walpole’s old friend, Sir Horace Mann, believed that Pope Clement XIV, who had suppressed the Jesuits in 1773, had been poisoned by them. The Jesuits were great drinkers and producers of chocolate. Their cacao trade from the Amazon was one of their most profitable enterprises until the Marquês de Pombal expelled them from the region. The Pope, Mann told Walpole, persisted in drinking his chocolate despite fears of assassination and was slowly poisoned through his “dish of chocolate last Holy Thursday at the Vatican.”

By the late eighteenth century, chocolate was indelibly associated with decadence, aristocracy, and the Catholic Church, especially with the Jesuits, all of which made it suspect to the philosophes, enlightened thinkers, enterprising Protestant businessmen, and aspiring radical politicians who preferred coffee. Nor had the technology employed in chocolate’s preparation changed much since the time of the Olmecs, despite the invention of better pots, non-slip saucers, and exotic aromas. The plate dedicated to chocolate-making in the Encyclopédie of Denis Diderot and Jean d’Alembert shows a worker toasting cacao in a cauldron, another winnowing the beans, another breaking them in a heated mortar, and another grinding them on a heated surface—all steps familiar to the Maya and the Aztecs. In this as in so much else, the Encyclopédie was a compendium of things past rather than of things to come.

Yet the nineteenth century also saw chocolate go down-market. Chocolate became a product worked on by chemists and promoted by billboards. No longer a drink favored by gluttonous grand dukes, villainous Jesuits, and notorious marquises with specialized tastes, it became the respectable snack food of virtuous Quakers, of Royal Navy sailors weaned from grog, and of the unromantic Swiss. The leap into the modern era came in 1828 when the Dutch chemist Coenraad Van Houten took out a patent on a process for the manufacture of a new kind of powdered chocolate with a very low fat content. He had developed a very efficient filtering process which reduced the cocoa butter content, leaving a cake that could be pulverized into a fine powder. This powder he treated with alkaline salts so that it would mix well with water.

Van Houten’s defatting and alkalizing process made possible large-scale manufacture of cheap chocolate in powdered or solid form. From then on, it was no longer necessary to stir and beat the heavy liquid to make a palatable drink, and the chocolate pot fell out of use. In Bristol, Joseph Fry & Sons developed a method for casting chocolate into a mold and in 1849 exhibited the first hard eating chocolate. Fry later became the sole supplier to the Royal Navy. The Cadburys of Birmingham, using Van Houten’s method, introduced cocoa powder and the first “chocolate box.” The Rowntrees of York developed similar lines of merchandise. The Frys, Cadburys, and Rowntrees were all Quakers with a social conscience. Cadbury and Rowntree developed model towns for their workers, whom they expected to be God-fearing and sober. The Frys refused to accept cacao from Portuguese plantations on the island of São Tomé, off the West African coast, whose working conditions they regarded as unacceptable.

In Switzerland, Henri Nestlé invented a process for making powdered milk by evaporation, and Daniel Peter used Nestlé’s powder to make milk chocolate by drying out the moisture in the mix and replacing it with cacao butter. Another Swiss, Rudolph Lindt, devised a machine to make chocolate smoother, a process which became universal. And in Pennsylvania, a pious Mennonite, Milton Snavely Hershey, the “Henry Ford of Chocolate Makers,” brought mass production to the chocolate business, constructing around his factory his own chocolate kingdom and an oversized imitation of George Washington’s Mount Vernon to house himself. With Hershey, everything was mechanized. By the 1980s, 25 million “Hershey’s Kisses,” little bite-sized, flat-bottomed drops of milk chocolate, dropped off Hershey’s conveyor belts daily into their waiting boxes. Even the streetlights of Hershey’s “Chocolate Town” are in the shape of “Kisses.”

Hard chocolate was an eminently respectable product—it was sold in corner shops, not drinking houses, and advertised in campaigns that invented the idea of “family values” by using wholesome little girls and neatly dressed Victorian schoolboys to promote it. But there was a darker side. Chocolate’s profitability brought adulteration and, to counter it, the first consumer protection legislation.

Chocolate’s popularity among the expanding middle classes in Europe and North America also made for expanded opportunities for colonial enterprise overseas. In 1824 the Portuguese had transplanted forastero cuttings from Brazil to São Tomé. By 1850, cacao cuttings were taken to Equatorial Guinea. By 1900 Theobroma cacao reached Ghana, Nigeria, and the Ivory Coast, and then went on to Sri Lanka, Java, Sumatra, and Oceania. By 1991, Africa was the source of 55 percent of the world’s cacao; Mexico, where chocolate was born and cacao originated, accounted for only 1.5 percent.

Yet mass production and mass marketing has brought its own historical antidote. While the criollo beans are now the source of a mere 2 percent of the world cacao crop, the premier chocolatiers have returned to the variety of those beans once enjoyed by Maya nobles, Aztec warriors, and European aristocrats. With this remarkable full circle the Coes bring their book to conclusion. The Kekchi Maya of Belize, who first brought their precious beans to Europe as a gift to Prince Philip four hundred and fifty years ago, are today, through the good offices of the Fairtrade Foundation, an organization established by Oxfam, once again producing cacao beans in traditional three-acre forest plots where the Theobroma cacao is pollinated by midges safe from pesticides. From these cacao beans, “Maya Gold”—a new, expensive, ecologically friendly chocolate bar—is produced by the Green and Black’s Company.

I was visiting Devonshire while writing this review and was pleased to find that my brother-in-law stocked Maya Gold in his natural-foods store in Tiverton. The town has a street called Gold and many old schoolhouses, almshouses, and chanteries built and endowed in the sixteenth century by local merchants, some of whom engaged in overseas trade and, on occasion, piracy (at least the Spanish considered it such). The parish church of St. Peter bears on its outer walls some of the finest stone carvings of sixteenth-century armed merchant vessels in England, commissioned by one of the town’s richest merchant adventurers. Devon privateers were the most notorious raiders along the Spanish Main. But they did not always know that cacao beans were “happie money” and to the Central Americans as good as gold. In 1579, after seizing a Spanish ship off the Isthmus of Panama, they burned the whole cargo in frustrated anger, thinking the cacao beans were sheep droppings placed there to deceive them. Now the descendants of these sixteenth-century mariners are buying Maya Gold, which seems to me as delicious as the Coes say it is.

Sophie Coe was a pioneer of culinary history, author of America’s First Cuisines.* She was struck down suddenly by incurable cancer while she was working on her True History of Chocolate. Michael Coe, her husband and a distinguished Yale anthropologist, completed her work. The book was conceived out of a fascination with chocolate, and completed out of the love for a partner lost. Sophie Coe has given us, and Michael Coe has delivered to us, a splendid treat.

  1. *

    University of Texas Press, 1994.

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