The True History of Chocolate – Sophie D. & Michael D. Coe

5 Jun

A picture of my copy from the Eden Prairie library. The cover says "detail of an early 18th-century painted tile panel". I like to see men cooking, don't you?

This is going to be a two poster, I can feel it.  First off, this book was a labor of love for the writers.  The original researcher and author of the first two chapters lost her battle with cancer.  That’s something that’s close to home for many of us.  Her husband was left with thousands of pages of her notes and an unfinished manuscript.  To honor her work he completed the book as a tribute.  Even if this book had been a train wreck, which it most definitely was not, I would have read it anyhow.  The romance of its origin was too much for me. 

My second reason for going long on my report on this book is that I live with someone who loves chocolate.  The Mister is not a chocoholic.  It’s not a compulsion that draws him to the stuff but a deep reverance.  He helped me to love dark chocolate and to find that there is always room for dessert, whether your pants think so or not.  As one of my travel partner’s beloved topics I don’t feel I can just rush right through this.  I hope you feel the same way, because here we go…

Most of the book is centered on the origin of chocolate.  This makes sense as both Coes spent a great deal of their careers studying the Mayans.  Along with inventing soccer, we have the Mayans to thank for the discovery of chocolate.  I think that they would be horrified to see what indelicacies the Keebler elves turn out as the Mayans used chocolate as a connection to their gods.  An example Coe gives in the book is a Frenchman making coq au vin (rooster in wine, a typical French dish) with communion wine.  The Latin name for chocolate is theobroma cacao.  “Theobroma” translates into food of the gods.  Now the “cacao” part?  That’s a different story.

Cacao is the name for chocolate both the plant and the finished drink in Nahuatl (nah-oo-watt-lay), the language of the Aztecs.  When Mesoamerica was “discovered” by the Spaniards they discovered much about the New World from the Aztec people.  One of these things was cacao.  The Aztecs put a lot of importance on chocolate, so much so that it was used as a form of currency.  The Spaniards eventually picked up on this and started to steal or export crops produced through forced labor.  Not a pretty history for such a tasty thing. 

When introducing chocolate to the Old World a few changes had to be made.  The Aztecs drank ground cacao with water, typically with peppers, vanilla, agave extra or other flavorings.  It was bitter.  If you’ve ever had baking cocoa you might have some clue of the taste.  As colonialization began to occur and a creollization started taking place, sugar was added to these drinks.  (Did I mention that slave labor was used to make this sugar, too?)  That took care of the taste.  Next up, the Spanish had to change the name.  “Cacao” sounds very similar to the word for “turd” in Spanish.  Convincing monarchy that the New World was filled with riches would be a harder sell if the newest taste sensation sounded like, well… shit.  There’s a lot of speculation on how cacao turned to chocolate.  But let’s just say that it happened.

Back in Europe, chocolate slowly began to take on a following among the elite.  At first it was touted as having medicinal properties.  You may remember hearing about this in history class, but they will still following a rule that each human body contained four humors: blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm.  Maintaining health, therefore, required keeping these four in balance.  Now this is in the mid 1600s and this school of medical thought was developed by Galen and Hippocrates, as in very very old.  There hadn’t been any improvements to this system and, as such, people were still getting really sick, getting really weird treatment and dying.  This made the need for medicine, which the Aztecs and Mayan were decades ahead on, that much more vital.

Now I know that today there has been a bunch of buzz on dark chocolate having an antioxidants but I’d be surprised if a doctor told me to drink a cup every day.  That’s what was happening among the high brows in the mid 1600s to mid 1700s.  They drank big cups of chocolate for their health.  The Mister is probably researching time travel now.  They drank coffee and tea, which were both introduced about the same period, in the same manner.  Coffee became the businessman’s drink and coffee houses started popping up everywhere and… that’s a totally different story, isn’t it?

Speaking of stories, I’ll finish this one soon.  In my next post on the the True History of Chocolate look forward to information on famous chocoholics/enthusiasts and learn a little about modern chocolate.  Until then I suggest you find some good dark stuff, you know for your health and for homework.


One Response to “The True History of Chocolate – Sophie D. & Michael D. Coe”


  1. The True History of Chocolate – part two « Trip Ahoy! - 2011/06/07

    […] my last post on this book we talked about how the Mayans discovered chocolate, how Spain discovered the Mayans […]

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