The Road to Kisses

The True History of Chocolate

by Sophie D. Coe and 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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.